The People’s Resource Centre (PRC) in collaboration with the Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers (IFAT) and Kamgar Sanrakshan Samman Sangh (KSSS) organised a session cum discussion circle on the workers engaged in providing app-based services including construction work, their status in the informal sector, the status of recognition and security provided by the state and the way forward in unionising the workers operating in increasingly isolated and remote work environments. The event was organised on 29th December 2023 from 3 pm to 5 pm at R 21, Basement in South Extension. The main speakers of the session were Bilal Khan from KSSS and Rajendra Ravi from PRC. Members of Basti Suraksha Manch shared their insights regarding the status of app-based work in Delhi as well.
The session commenced with Mr Bilal Khan’s inputs regarding construction workers at large and his organisation’s work in this sphere in Bombay. Bilal Khan is a trade unionist and activist who works on labour rights and the right to housing. He elaborated upon the conditions of informality as well. 97 per cent of all employment is informal. Conditions of informality include no minimum wages or social security provided by the employer to the employee. Terms of employment are not stipulated in a contract, the tenure of employment and conditions for termination can be arbitrarily determined by the employer without any legal repercussions. Most labour laws in India are applicable in the formal sector which constitutes only 3 percent of the workforce. Most unions are also engaged with formal sector workers as it is relatively easier to access them than the people involved in the informal sector.
Construction workers constitute a large proportion of the informal sector workers. The Building and Other Construction Workers Act (BoCW) recognises 51 types of work as construction work. Mr Bilal elaborating upon the case of Mumbai mentioned that the Maharashtra Board for the management of informal sector workers has Rs. 15,000 crore under it and more than 20 schemes for their education, marriage, welfare, housing etc. Benefits of these schemes can be availed by the workers by proving 90 days of engagement in informal sector work in a year. However, the certificates and proof of employment are often difficult to obtain as the work is verbally assigned and cash is utilised for payments. KSSS and other organisations and unions working in this sphere demand provisions of self-declaration to be considered legitimate proof of employment. Cities like Delhi have adopted this mode for the issuance of labour cards.
Over the past few years, many services which fall under the construction work category have shifted to online platforms. Urban Company, No Broker, and Just Dial are some examples of service-providing platforms. Workers associated with such platforms have strong documentation of their employment tenure. Activists demand that the online proof of such workers should be considered legitimate by the Board for availing benefits of the schemes. Furthermore, people engaged in providing app-based services are considered partners of the affiliated companies rather than their employees. This facilitates the deflection of responsibility and accountability of the company towards the people working under them. Gig workers including those engaged in delivery and transport services work for more than 12 hours a day to earn enough for their subsistence but have no social security, paid leaves or minimum wage assurance.
App-based workers usually work remotely and stay in touch with the associated company through their devices. The remote form of work and unavailability of a common workspace hinder the process of unionisation which is important to assert the worker’s demand and undertake mobilisation. In case of grievances, the app-based worker neither has any strong unions to approach nor any grievance redressal forums of the company. The labour unions and activists engaged with construction workers demand recognition of the workers without them having to go through tedious and time-consuming legal procedures. They also demand welfare-oriented efforts from the state which address the themes of labour rights and their dignity.
Mr. Rajendra Ravi contextualised this discussion by providing a brief historical background of labour struggles. Post-industrialisation in Europe, the assimilated workplace of the workers began to disseminate. Mechanisation and highly stratified division of work led the workers back to their homes or highly segregated spaces of work. This made unionisation difficult as there was no one place to approach the workers and mobilise them. The practice continued as capitalism evolved and has taken the form of app-based work in the current neo-liberal economy and has made the task of unionisation more difficult than ever before.
The session concluded with discussions around finding and formulating new, more efficient ways of organising labour with the aid of data and other technological tools. Macro-level collection of data was considered crucial for unionisation in this workspace dominated by online apps. Regular brainstorming sessions with the workers addressing these issues and including and implementing their suggestions at the structural level was another point that was put forth. The formulation of policy documents which can be presented to the government authorities and the creation of pressure groups to better assert the demands were some ways of carving the way forward as well. Therefore, in a highly dynamic economy where mediums of employment are constantly changing, the mediums of unionising, organising and asserting the worker’s demand also require constant adaptation.
Report prepared by Annapurna Behera (Research Intern)