Opinion: Safety net: Social security for Indian workers

By Aishwarya Raman and Sreelakshmi R.

India is the first country globally to mandate social protection for all workers, including the new-age gig and platform workers. This landmark and proactive move via The Code on Social Security, 2020 is enhanced by the distinction drawn between gig and platform workers, the absence of which has led to unintended consequences the world over. This radical labour reform, benefitting half a billion workers, has catapulted the social security system to the 21st century.

Just in the last decade, India entered a 37-year long demographic dividend, smashed all smartphone ownership records with over 500 million Indians, approximately 41% of the population, having access to data. The implications of these technological transformations are manifest in the way Indians access work, education, entertainment, public services, healthcare, and finance; and digital platforms have touched each of these sectors. Ola Mobility Institute’s upcoming study notes how this form of platformisation of the everyday is creating digital jobs that are flexible and increase remunerative opportunities via platform-led transformational skilling. By their very nature, platforms have a wide reach and nearly no entry barriers for workers. The multiplier effects in the platform economy are many — affecting two-plus million workers presently engaged in platforms like Ola, Urban Company, Swiggy, Zomato across 200 cities.

The highly visible gig and platform workers were hitherto only protected by platform businesses, which cushioned them from reduced earnings, covered accidents, medical costs for family, and more. Now that protections have been legally mandated, it is worth examining the provisions of the Code itself.

Dividing labour

Definitionally, a gig worker is one who works outside the traditional employer-employee arrangement, while a platform worker is a gig worker who earns an income by associating with a digital platform fulfilling on-demand services for clients. A platform worker — such as a beautician, electrician, driver or any professional servicing over a digital marketplace — is a step up from the unorganised work. For, they enjoy independence, agency, and guaranteed payments by the clients upon completion of service.

Traditionally, everyone outside of the “formal” employer-employee arrangement has been excluded from social protection. Now, the government of India is extending protection to all workers regardless of the nature of their relationship with the job-creator, thus, laying the foundation for decoupling social security from employment and universalising it. This move brings us one step closer to the ideals set out in the Indian constitution (Directive Principles of State Policy), and the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Labour (2019) recommendations.

India is on the right path to balance the flexibility and choice of labour afforded by platforms and the need to protect workers on the whole. As the World Bank notes, countries must facilitate access to digital tools and encourage workers to take advantage of digital platforms. India and other labour-rich economies should design universal social protection while supporting greater productivity, skill development, and human capital. This can be done by leveraging digital platforms that unlock jobs and digital tools that can interface between beneficiaries and the government.

The manner in which India — with one of the world’s largest and youngest working populations — implements the envisaged social security system will be the ultimate litmus test to determine what approaches work for the entire world. India must adopt a few guiding principles while designing social protection that is progressively universal, portable, and most importantly inclusive.

One, social security schemes must be equitable. The nature of platform businesses and platform labour varies across sectors. Workers could engage with multiple platforms simultaneously, and work in the gig or unorganised sectors on the side. Social security schemes must appreciate these nuances and place equitable responsibilities on job-creators, platforms and workers.

Two, schemes must be conceived scientifically, and must adopt innovative financing mechanisms. This will keep the cost of livelihood creation low and promote the growth of the platform economy, which has the potential to unlock millions of livelihood opportunities with low entry barriers, maximising utilisation of idle assets that individuals have, making India jobs-rich.

Three, benefits must be readily accessible to workers. Harnessing the power of technology, awareness, disbursement of funds, and grievance redressal can all be achieved for the digitally-proficient platform workers across India. The government-envisaged registry of workers can be used to create a ‘Unique Identity (UID) for Work’, which when combined with technology can streamline benefit distribution. This shall build on the successful, universal, robust and transformational foundation laid by India’s Jan Dhan — Aadhaar — Mobile (JAM) trinity.

Indeed, the government has rightly taken the first step towards reimagining social protection as portable and universal. With the right set of schemes, India can show the world how to unlock jobs and protect workers in the era of platforms.

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