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January 8, 2020

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On extending employment benefits to gig workers

In the run-up to the traditional Spring Festival, some subtle changes are taking place. The city seems to be quieter. Shops and eateries are putting out notices promising lucrative packages to those willing to be in harness during the period.

Nevertheless, the otherwise attractive compensation generally does little in dissuading migrants from embarking on their homeward journey.

They would brave inclement weather, long lines and other hardships for the seasonal reunion with their families.

After celebrating the festival, which in rural areas can last two weeks, the returnees would compare notes with fellow folks, taking stock, and decide where they would head to in the new year.

In the meantime, urbanites would have to live with some deprivations. Many already find it takes longer for takeouts to arrive. Ayis are asking for more. Some businesses are closed for renovation.

If we used to marvel at the efficiency, versatility and seeming omnipotence of the plethora of apps in our phones, the more perceptible would also be in for a rude awakening. We realize that short of a liberal provision of labor ready to be pressed into service, these apps alone can do little in addressing our woes.

However rapidly smart the world seems to be trending, in the absence of the human factor, technology would mean little.

Hopefully, the seasonal inconvenience would help us direct some attention to the workers doing jobs mediated by digital platforms, otherwise known as gig workers.

Platforms are truly revolutionary in redefining employment. In a strange conceptual leap, gig workers tend not to be so fastidious about their eligibility for unemployment insurance, medical insurances, or pension, benefits generally taken for granted in traditional employment.

Are they entitled to minimum wages, overtime pay, or sick leave?

Yes, their plight can be euphemized away by “informal employment.”

Still, these queries do shed light on why platform companies are plying such a good business. This paradigm shift seems to have profound consequences.

Given the tenuous and often virtual link between the gig workers and the platforms they work for, in case of serious wrongdoing, it becomes hard for “employers” to manage errant workers. The most a platform firm could hand out is to put the offenders on a blacklist, so that they could no longer use the app in the future. Given the proliferation of apps, that’s not strong deterrents.

We have heard of outrageous cases of rape and murder, and many have the unpleasant experience of being terrorized by mounted delivery men rushing recklessly, sometimes blatantly ignoring traffic signals.

One solution lies in treating these gig workers decently. At least from an ethical point of view, there is no explaining why we should not extend traditional employment benefits to those working for platforms. The deepened relationship will contextualize gig workers in a new set of obligations and responsibilities.

One recent statistics suggested a growth of 1 percentage point in service sector would translate into 1.2 million jobs. But as we have seen, there are jobs and jobs.

In the recent decade, digital advances have been increasingly perceived as progressive, so much so that insufficient attention had been directed to the management of its disruptive effects.

If we really believe in the centrality of the people, then we cannot afford not to address these interesting questions.


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