DISCLAIMER:  The information and views set out in this article are those of the author(s); and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Centre for Policy Studies or the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.

By Areesha Khan

Appraising State and Private Measures for App-based Transport and Delivery Workers: Conversation with Mr Shaik Salahuddin

Platform workers are a part of the unorganized sector which is 83% of the total workforce in India. According to the compiled data of the unorganized sector workers in the e-shram database, there are about 727,921 individuals registered as gig workers. This number is predicted to increase manifold by NITI Ayog. Due to their status as unrecognized workers by their employers, there is a legal vacuum in the framework under which they are covered. The government has now attempted to include them through the Labour codes with some excluded parameters. Mr Shaik Salahuddin is the General Secretary of Indian Federation of App-based transport (IFAT) workers, an alternative trade union platform of gig workers. A Policy Talk with Mr. Shaik Salahuddin held on 17th August 2022 throws light on all of these developments.

Q. Mr. Shaik, Thank you for agreeing to speak to us. Can you give us a history of IFAT, the challenges you have faced, and its achievements?

Shaik:  Thank you for the opportunity. IFAT was registered in 2019 in Maharashtra. We started as 5 unions under the federation now there are 18 unions pan-India working with IFAT. In 2020 the extension of the social security code to the platform workers by the central government was the result of our struggle that now the government for the first time recognized the platform workers as workers.

Q. What is the structure of IFAT?

Shaik: IFAT covers multiple categories of app-based workers like- Ola, Uber drivers, Swiggy, Zomato, Amazon, Flipkart etc. delivery workers, Urban Company workers who are care work and home services providers, workers working with Rapido who completely fall out of the legal framework since they use white-plate board, non-commercial vehicles as taxis; we are trying to bring them under the commercial framework so that they are also covered under the legal ambit of commercial vehicles. Our fight is for the rights of the workers.

We have also succeeded in bringing about Aggregator Guidelines in 2020. It is a challenge posed to the aggregator companies since now they have to register under the Aggregator Guidelines and have to abide by the rules set by the state and the central government.

However, the guidelines as we see are not implemented across states. Companies like Ola and Uber are still moving around free without licence. In the case of Zomato and Swiggy they obtained licences but it is still not clear what is the proper channel on which basis the company received the aggregator licence. There are still many points that are ambiguous since there is no clear draft of the guidelines, only when it is clearly drafted and implemented, we can point out the loopholes until then it becomes difficult to point out the loopholes and to say where the guidelines have been surpassed. There is a certain level of confusion.

Q. IFAT is a relatively new federation that has come up in response to the platformization of the workforce. We would like to know how does IFAT interact with the established Indian trade unions like INTUC, CITU, LDF etc. How is the relationship between IFAT and these trade unions?

Shaik: IFAT is an independent organisation. It is not associated with any national or international organisation or trade union or political party. It is an individual and independent federation and we do not want to seek political support. As per the NITI Ayog report the number of platform workers is constantly on rise. Between 2021-22 77 lakh gig workers are there in the economy; the number is expected to rise to 2.35 crores in 2029-30. App-based workers can rise as a voice on their own. Not that we do not seek support from the trade unions but we seek support by remaining independent and an individual federation. When we will need, we will seek support from the trade unions and whenever they will need, we will extend our support.

Q. So there is no interaction between IFAT and established trade unions? Has it ever happened in the past that IFAT and old trade unions have interacted?

Shaik: So far, the interaction has not taken place. If you might have noticed government had recently called the trade unions for discussion regarding e-shram for which unorganized workers were called. All the unorganized workers trade unions received invitation except us. Still, we had put up our concerns trough print media, letters. We were heard and e-shram included us as gig workers in the database. It is the same data of e-shram from which the government is now quoting number of gig workers.

Q. As you mentioned Mr. Shaik that the gig workers are included in social security codes but they are excluded from other important labour codes- Codes on Wages, Industrial Relations Code and Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code. How do you see this exclusion?

Shaik: It is not only about Social Security Code there are many other issues where platform workers have to be included and their rights have to be secured, we will fight for all of it slowly. We have fought and gained recognition of gig/platform workers as workers. Its draft rule is yet to be made. The parliament has only passed the bills but the drafting of the gazette is still pending. Only once the gazette comes out, we can see what all benefits will the platform workers really gain. It all depends on how much the government is interested in the issue. You must have read that the code mentions that cess will be collected from the gig workers which will help set up a board. It is appreciable. However, it is still not clear that from where will the money come to set up the board and who will control it, will the control remain with the labour department, IT department or transport department. These questions are still hanging in the air. Not only in front of me but also at the level of central government, they are not clear about it. When we go with a small representation to the Principal Secretary’s office, they are also found in dilemma that who will solve this problem. There are many gaps but even for the gaps to be identified and examined the draft rule has to come out. The encompassing inclusion of gig workers under all labour codes is essential and huge task. We will keep raising it and will move towards the cause.

Q. You are saying that there is a confusion pertaining at the government level what do think where does the confusion of states and ministries is coming from?

Shaik: When laws are drafted there comes a clarity along with it that which department is the concerned department. As per the social security code we will go to the labour department, as per the aggregator guidelines we will go to the transport department for IT we have to go to IT department. There has to be a collaboration between these three under an umbrella that includes all these three since all the three subjects are involved in the platform economy. How all these have to come under one umbrella, how will it be formed, what will be the framework, what will be the rules and regulations, what will come out as a draft, who will take the responsibility for all of it. We have to see all of this. It is a challenge for the government as well. If you ask me, my response would be that it has to be taken up by the labour department foremost but what is the intension of the government how does it look at the entire issue what is going on in their head, what are the state governments saying. All the drafts be it social security code, aggregator guidelines draft is incomplete. It is already two years since the guidelines had come it is not implemented in even single state yet except in Maharashtra, that too after the orders of the Bombay high court, Kolkata, partly in Bangalore. No other state is implementing the guidelines, where are the state governments same as with the centre even, they are not implementing. There is a clear gap that can be seen between the states and the central government.

Q. The gap that you have flagged, Mr. Shaik we would like to know about it in the course of this discussion. As were you talking about increasing numbers of the platform workers. Women’s representation too is increasing in the work force through platform economy. How is IFAT helping women to organize?

Shaik: We have a women’s wing in IFAT. We directly listen to the issues faced by them and the wing can separately raise it too. There are women cab drivers, delivery persons. Zomato and Swiggy says every 1 delivery worker out of 10 is a woman even if it was 1 on 100 that is a good number itself. We are training them for leadership and we are also raising their issues like we did in the case of Urban Company in Delhi NCR where beauticians working with Urban Company were at the forefront. We took it to court and brought court notices and we asked them to carry on with their agitation and kept supporting them. We kept making their leadership strong and through our wing in IFAT we are educating them in law and practice. Women are present in IFAT in active leadership roles as well not just in executive committees. We have Rinku Sharma from Mumbai who is the Vice President of IFAT.

Q. Mr. Shaik we students would like to know if across different platforms the working conditions of workers also differ?

Shaik: Yes, it is totally different. Taking example of Uber and Ola. These apps require high investments. If a person has to buy a cab, they are supposed to invest 10 lakhs and the returns on it are less than what the delivery persons earn. Earlier the returns used to be high but now it has considerably reduced. In case of delivery workers, they used to get rate fare of 35 rupees for the delivery in the radius of 5 km. Now the price of petrol and diesel are going over the roof but they are getting 20-25 rupees or even lesser than that. You people saw that they have been protesting in different places. Under social security code though platform workers are being treated as single category which I feel should be done. Although at the level of aggregators they establish these discrepancies. There are no signed agreements in hard copies with the platform workers. The agreements are signed on an app online. There are multiple discrepancies in the agreements. The company calls workers as freelancers working on their own terms and conditions and gives them targets to finish then how can one call them “partners” who are “working on their free will and convenience”. Delivery workers have to complete their targets of the day, they are forced to take delivery orders if they deny to take orders their IDs can get blocked. In the case of ride-hailing drivers if they say that they don’t want to go to a place foreseeing difficulty or threat. They are forced to take the ride requests against their will, if they refuse rides their IDs get blocked. The workers have to have these rights in order to decide their work as per their safety and wellbeing.

Q. Pandemic has just receded and has touched all of our lives. How has it affected lives of platform workers? Please share with us how are they able to cope from its effect?

Shaik: Pandemic has affected the workers worst. Many of them lost their lives. The big names like Ola, Uber, Swiggy, Zomato. These companies have been telling state governments that they will provide employment to people if the state government pave ways for their investment. What are these investments for, nobody knows. The car belongs to the driver, petrol driver purchases then where are their investments going. There are no factories or industries to be set up. Coming back to the pandemic let us take the case of Ola. It had started a scheme of lease; driver will keep the car with them for 3 years for the payment of 1000 rupees per day and the car’s ownership will transfer to the drivers. Some people had covered 3.5 years some had completed 2 years and 8 months of paying 1000 rupees a day. Ola asked them to bring their cars for sanitization during lockdowns and sold them without informing them. There were thousands of such cases. We have filed cases in courts against it. Drivers who had financed cars their cars got seized since they were not able to pay instalments during covid. Almost 50% cars got seized in each state. Their civil score got spoiled now they cannot finance cars for next 3 years.

This is not enough Ola asked its customers to contribute to support its drivers during pandemic. Money was taken from the customers in the name of charity for us. They told “We want to provide Salahuddin with a week’s ration. Please Donate.” out of this donation from customers they made categories of drivers to give 500,700,1200 rupees on their own. Gave them money as a week’s payment and asked them to return it after sometime. From the charity taken from customers we got 2 kg salt, 1 kg rice, 1 kg pulses. Can we survive on that? Here workers were starving and dying and there Bhavesh Agrawal (founder & CEO of Ola) was giving money to PM Care fund. It is our blood and sweat and they are using it. Company is running in loss they are not paying taxes but they have money to give in funds. Drivers are on road. We have filed cases against Ola in Lucknow and in different states and have filed police complaints. It is still under process there is no reaction on it so far. Ola has leased out its network buildings their employees are still working from home. For us pandemic might have ended but for them it is still continuing. Uber had minutely helped drivers. It was minute as small as a dot of granulated sugar. It gave 3000 rupees to the drivers which was non-refundable. They settled lease for vehicles and transferred the ownership of cars to the drivers. But the case of Ola was worse, drivers lost everything their money, source of earning, everything. Delivery persons kept working during pandemic. They contracted covid and many died. Companies did not even mention their names, did not even tell that their delivery persons, drivers got covid. They did not provide workers with protective equipment. We protested after which they distributed in few places still many did not receive it.

Q. Picking up the flag that you had raised about the gap at different levels in the government and policy making. How do you see the state-business relations in the current times? Previously labour laws were made by the Ministry of Labour in consultation with Indian Labour Conference now the same laws are being made by Ministry of Corporate Affairs in consultation with NITI Ayog. How do you see this shift?

Shaik: Government is in favour of privatization this is no hidden truth. These are private companies unless they are regulated under laws no one can stop them from what they are doing. When laws are made, we can say at least we have laws. For past 10 years what Ola and Uber are doing everyone knows till today central and state governments did not talk about it. Uber Files brought this nexus to the broad day light. The theft of data and manipulation by Uber was caught. At least now central government and state government has to take make laws. Instead of depending on third party and hiring consultants to do projects and make policies. Government has to intervene and find out what is going on with the companies what are working conditions of the workers. Government is acting like a doctor to whom when patient goes an tells my hand is fractured. Doctor refers the patient to the junior doctor. Patient asks to do an x-ray of hand. Doctors replies that there is no need of x-ray and the junior doctor gives the patient calcium and some other tablets and send them home. Similarly, gazetted officers are just signing the reports and ministers are doing the same. They have to come on ground and examine how and from where is the hand fractured. If it needs to be fitted with a rod to correct it. How much will be the cost for the treatment. Government has to involve workers and consult us and ask us what are our issues what can be the possible solutions.

Government takes data from the platforms and make reports. Government should know for how many hours gig workers are working. Ministers don’t even know what is gig worker/platform worker. Researchers, academicians working on ground should be consulted, labour unions should be called to sit and discuss. Even if private third parties are asked to make policies still there has to be a consultation and discussion and the government has to keep an eye. Parties when they contest elections, they say that they will work for the labourers but it has always been difficult for the labourer class and it is this class that the government has conveniently side-lined by reducing the roles of the labour unions and committees that used to speak to workers in the parliament. There used to be some inquiry on ground and discussions.

Q. You mentioned Uber Files that highlighted lobbying by Uber. Does the strategies of these companies lobbying governments is same across the states in India?

Shaik: It has been 2 years since the Central Aggregator Guidelines and Social Security code were given out by the central government and gave state governments space to make rules. Delhi government has given draft rule of the Aggregator Guidelines just few days ago. We went and met state governments asked them to implement social security code but absolutely no response. The governments work under the pressure of the companies. These companies threaten governments in the name of employment that they are employing as many people and in case if they will withdraw all these people will become unemployed. Government has to ensure that the quality of employment is also checked under the laws instead of leaving it lose in the hands of the market. The government should also regulate the use of data used by these companies.

The companies like Swiggy and Zomato use data to expand and diversify their business. Nobody is regulating the use of data by these companies. E-shram data of unorganized workers itself was sold out to the private companies. The workers representative has to be part of the data management we should be consulted for the data use.

Q. What are your expectations out of the policy studies students and researchers working on platform economy?

Shaik: The companies keep changing their agreements, workers are tangled between algorithms and these agreements. It is very complicated to calculate the theft of wage that they are indulged in that should be investigated. This has to be researched in order to understand the theft. Everyone should keep track of the payment that they make and how much the drivers and delivery persons are receiving. Students can work with the trade unions in the field and write about the working conditions of the workers so that it will lead to the discussion among public.

Q. Please tell us about the future plans of IFAT?

Shaik: Foremost to get social security code and aggregators guideline laws framed and implemented in order to gain our rights. In future IFAT intends to include all the gig workers working as editors, journalists, with internet media houses, domestic workers all will be included under the scope of IFAT.

Q. We have known till now labour unions as a part of political parties however IFAT is going to change it by becoming an independent political party and is planning to contest elections on its own. How are you going to look at the state in that case?

Shaik: We will make strategy that has to be different if the government will not listen to us then we have to make use of our numbers and make our voices heard. We will strategically plan about it.

Thank you, Mr. Shaik Salahuddin, for your enlightening insights. That brings us to the end of the discussion I would like to Call Prof Rahul Sapkal to give concluding remarks.


Concluding comments from Prof Rahul Sapkal: Thank you Mr. Shaik Salahuddin and Areesha for such an excellent discussion. The talk has highlighted crucial points. The struggles that the independent trade union has to go through to negotiate power not only with the state but also with peer trade unions. Almost 11 big trade unions are operating in India. IFAT is in the process of constant dialogue and is giving policy alternatives to the state. IFAT is also ready to negotiate with the platforms working in favour of the labourers. In the classical political economy, it is discussed that where there is surplus labour the wage theft occurs. The talk demonstrated well that the policy interventions and researchers can look at the wage theft that is accumulated and turns into the wealth of these particular companies through the use of technologies. Mr Shaik also underlined how technology is leading to social exclusion of workers. Labour is in the concurrent list where state and central government both could make laws regarding labour welfare. By bringing Labour codes central government has centralized the power. Now the trade unions find it very difficult to negotiate and bargain. Mr Shaik’s talk has reflected upon how is the negotiation done in such circumstances. We got a practical insight about the condition of the workers working with platforms and how badly it is regulated in India and what can be done through human-centric and labour welfare centric approach.

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