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‘Madam, I bought an Indica to drive for Uber but sold it to buy a Swift Dzire to get a higher rate from the company. But now they keep cutting the incentives so Dzire, Etios and Innova drive at the same rate. At least this is my car, imagine those taking the cars on lease’, said Mohan*, a driver who has been working for Uber for over a year.
The majority of drivers in India are making large investments to drive on the Uber or Ola platform. This means that there are a sizable number of people buying cars for the first time spurred by this motivation. They are driving in debt, paying for car insurance, maintenance and fuel as much as to earn an income. This is antithetical to the imagination with which a sharing economy company like Uber first started in the USA.
When that happened back in 2009, it was imagined that any person with a car, who wanted to earn an extra dollar in their own time and at their own convenience, would log on, drive, get paid, log off. Given the extent of car ownership in the USA, Uber allowed people to opt in for a part-time gig. In the difficult recession period in the midst of which it originated, this brought people money and work.
In America and other countries where tech innovation like the sharing economy is mainstream, the conversation around it has changed from one of industry disruption to a more critical look at how technology is affecting people, especially the way they work. New media journalists in America quip that many tech journalists have ended up covering labour issues whether they’ve wanted to or not.
In India, however, reporting on the sharing economy dovetails too quickly into talk of innovative technology and not its effects, the novelty of the sharing economy but not how it is (re)creating the conditions that seems to be largely in consonance with the existing structure of informal work in Indian cities.
Sharing economy companies transact goods and services through rent rather than sale allowing people to circulate underused assets like cars (Uber), homes or property (Airbnb), and skills (Fiverr, TaskRabbit). The digital organization and tracking of work has allowed companies like Uber to atomize work and adopt a piece-rate payment system which is minutely monitored, letting them bypass the direct employment relationship with its associated costs of employment benefits, workers insurance and so on.
As these companies have grown, a significant portion of the labour force is faced with flexible and impermanent conditions of work. In developed economies, some believe that this frees workers from the hierarchies and imprisonment of full-time work, letting people work for themselves and pursue other creative uses of time. In this view of the world, micro-entrepreneurship is the future of work. Others voice their concerns over companies denying workers’ rights and work security that have been fought for since the first industrial revolution. In this view of the world, many forms of vulnerability and precariousness will devastate workers dependent on the sharing economy.
In India, this relationship of employment—one of choice and independence does not play out so easily. Mohan has been driving since 1997 with families and corporate offices and says that while he now has no boss, the terms at which he works are not his making. ‘We never go offline during duty hours; if we sign out of the app then we lose our incentives for the entire day. I just find an empty road where I can park my car and take a break.’
He is unlike many others who have opted to make use of private financing that has been created through strategic partnerships forged between on-demand companies, car manufacturers and financial institutions. Given the investments that drivers are making to ride for companies like Uber and Ola, they are strongly bound to and restricted by the terms and conditions that are placed upon them by companies to earn income and incentives for good service, making it less likely for them to exercise freedom and choice in their hours of work for example.
This is less like a stopgap measure for Indian workers compared to the Americans who have used work in Uber to earn money to buoy a primary, creative career.
However, this is not emerging as a part of the discussion on the sharing economy in India since the debate between freelancer and micro-entrepreneur is misplaced. The Indian context is one of fringe social welfare, little work security where work and life are defined less by a European post-industrial logic of jobs and career and more by the realities of Indian urban vulnerabilities. Most workers in urban India already have multiple jobs without formal standing in labour laws, multiple employers through heavily sub-contracted work. Social and work securities are borne by them personally, crafted through strategies that maintain income and balance the high costs of urban health-care, education and nutritional security.
Part of why this debate has not surfaced is that the generation of workopportunities has always been a policy and development prerogative for India. Indeed, a compelling value of sharing economy companies in India is the creation of work opportunities. Given the quantum of underemployment, low wages and skill barriers that most urban workers face, on-demand taxi companies are offering workers a chance out of this.
There is little conversation and foresight on how these big investments canmake drivers susceptible to risks stemming from the uncertainty of global venture capital, rendering them agency-less against the fast changing and opaque nature of business models (of agile startups) and incentive structures. The international experience indicates that drivers feel often at the mercy of these companies feeling “dehumanized” and “squeezed”1.
The online aggregation economy is expected to spread widely in India given how unorganized many parts of our economy are, with a big potential toabsorb tens of thousands of workers. In the relative competitiveness on innovation, some say that Indian companies tend to contribute and grow only after innovation and disruption are established elsewhere and go mainstream globally.
Now that the Indian government through many programmes and policies is looking to augment innovative startups, and sharing economy companies, the fear exists that this new wave of entrepreneurship in India will keep borrowing from Western logics of work, economy, and disruption but will persist through our forms inequalities.