Invaluable but unprotected: Asian gig workers fight for rights

By providing services like food delivery, app-based businesses have thrived across Asia during the pandemic. Now, the gig workers who keep the industry running are fighting back against exploitative labor laws.

Aly Song/Reuters
A delivery worker for Meituan, a Chinese food delivery app, is seen on a street in Shanghai, China, Jan. 13, 2021. In July, Chinese regulators said online platforms must ensure that delivery riders earn above the minimum wage and have access to insurance coverage.

Emboldened by the victories of delivery riders from New York to the Netherlands, gig workers in Asia are increasing pressure for better conditions from app-based businesses that have thrived during the pandemic.

The platforms, like their counterparts in the United States or Europe, have taken advantage of lax labor protections to demand long hours in exchange for low wages and few benefits like sick pay or health cover, rights advocates say.

“The platforms have been able to fudge it,” said Balaji Parthasarathy, principal investigator at FairWork India, which rates gig economy companies.

“This is where regulation can help – it will define when they can be treated as employees and when as partners, and what benefits they should receive,” he said.

As scrutiny of app-based businesses increases across the region – partly due to workers’ protests – authorities are starting to call for tighter legal protections.

Chinese regulators in July ordered online platforms to ensure delivery riders earn above the minimum wage and have access to insurance coverage, while Singapore’s government is looking into increasing protections for such workers.

In India, where about 5 million people work in the gig economy, a social security law was introduced last year to extend benefits to the segment – but it has not yet been implemented by the states.

Last week, a union representing about 35,000 Indian gig workers filed a petition in the nation’s top court seeking social security benefits from platform companies including Uber, Ola, Zomato, and Swiggy – the first such lawsuit in the country.

“It’s a big milestone; platform companies are quite new in India, and while we’ve seen some localized strikes, workers didn’t have a united front before,” said Pradyumna Taduri, a researcher at FairWork.

“But workers have begun to assert themselves vocally and push back. And the visibility of the sector – especially the food delivery workers, the drivers – makes it hard to ignore them,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Health care and insurance for delivery workers

The gig economy – where people pick up work in a flexible manner from app-based platforms – boomed during COVID-19 lockdowns, as people needed goods and food delivered to their homes, and as millions of newly jobless looked for work.

But many people drawn to gig work for its flexibility have said they are being exploited.

With platforms generally classifying workers as independent contractors, half of online workers earned less than $2 an hour, with workers in developing countries earning 60% less than those in developed countries, according to the United Nations.

Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, said he was “especially concerned” about delivery workers who are “just like employees” yet lack basic job protection and find it harder to afford housing, health care, and retirement.

The city-state is looking into providing gig workers – particularly delivery staff and drivers – better retirement and housing provisions, injury insurance, and negotiating rights, said Danny Quah, vice-chairman of a government advisory committee set up to study the sector.

“Flexibility doesn’t mean unprotected,” said Mr. Quah, an economics professor at the National University of Singapore.

“We want platform workers to have an appropriate level of protection in the immediate present and for their future ... this is important not just for Singapore but for any nation,” he added.

Part of the problem is that workers are not classified as employees, meaning their associations do not have the same clout as trade unions, said Yeo Wan Ling, an advisor to the National Delivery Champions Association and the National Private Hire Vehicles Association.

“We are calling for stronger legislative backing to better represent these workers,” she said.

London-based Deliveroo, which has about 9,000 riders in Singapore, said it welcomed the move to improve conditions for its delivery workers – as long as their freelance status did not change.

“Riders should have flexibility and security and we’re in favor of increasing riders’ protections, as long as this does not compromise their self-employed status,” a spokesperson said.

Balancing interests

There were nearly 800 digital labor platforms – from food delivery to web design – around the world last year, up from about 140 a decade earlier, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The boom is an opportunity for the economy, said Mr. Quah, adding that the goal in Singapore was to “find a way forward that balances the interests of all.”

Part of that involves studying gig worker rulings from around the world, and seeing how they might be adapted to local conditions.

In contrast to North America or Western Europe, in poorer countries such as India the app-based jobs “are not gigs, but livelihoods,” said Mr. Parthasarathy.

Hundreds of thousands of workers in India depend on these companies for their livelihood, said Shaik Salauddin, national general secretary of the Indian Federation of app-Based Transport Workers (IFAT) which filed the court petition.

After strikes and petitions to state governments fell on deaf ears, Mr. Salauddin said they had been inspired by the legal victories of fellow gig workers around the world.

“We’ve seen that in many places like London and Los Angeles, workers like us are being given rights – that is what we also want.” 

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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