Gig economy: Panacea or a silent killer?

Lack of labour protection mechanisms spells doom for the underprivileged


You probably never heard of Jang Deok-jin. And now you never will, because he’s dead.

27-year-old Jang, a former Taekwondo enthusiast in South Korea, was of the millions bit by the bug of the ‘gig’ economy — the new-age system typified by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs. The biggest employment this has created is in the online marketplace — where millions of bike or vehicle drivers deliver packages of goods bought over the internet.

No doubt Jang thought that this would help him earn big bucks. He did, for a while. In the process, he lost 15kg after doing 18 months of night shifts, according to a BBC report. One night, he came home from a night shift last month at around six in the morning and headed for a shower. His father found him dead an hour later.

Master-slave. Landlord-serf. Bourgeoisie-proletariat. And now — Aggregator-partner.

By whatever name you choose to call it, throughout human history, the relationship between the oppressors and oppressed has always remained the same. The terminology may have changed over time, the levels of oppression may have varied, but the essence of the relationship still continues as they have been through the millennia — a miniscule group of people calling the shots, and the starving millions toiling for their lives to eke out a meagre existence.

We all thought it was a momentous event when the ‘Iron Curtain’ of communism came crashing down three decades ago. The 1990s were heralded as the beginning of a new epoch of liberty, human rights and prosperity, as the stifling conditions of the communist bloc gave way to liberal democratic regimes, championing the free market and industrial progress.

But are we really free?

With the advent of globalisation, free movement of goods followed as a natural course. The companies’ profits also ballooned as a consequence. As a result of globalisation, the factories moved from the industrialised states to countries where labour was cheap and plentiful, and more importantly, less likely to complain about low wages. So, while the workers in the West lost their jobs, the workers in the East gained employment under poor conditions. 

Let us take a peek into the moulded pages of history to gauge how the present situation has come about.

In the 18th century, as the global economy was moving from an agricultural dominance towards industrialisation, it also became necessary to get the labour for the factories. The so-called ‘emancipation of serfs’ was nothing but a ruse to take the farm workers away to the assembly lines. The worker’s wellbeing was the last thing on the mind of those championing their liberties. It is no coincidence that the French Revolution — 1789 — occurred just 25 years after the first cotton mill opened in England.

As the factory owners pounded the labourers with more and more work, the issue of labour rights began to come to the fore — championed foremost of course by German philosopher Karl Marx. This explosion of the communist movement saw rising demand to improve workers’ rights, and increasing popularity of left-leaning movements.

As these movements caught on, it was in 1936 that France became the first European country to grant paid vacations for working class employees beyond national and religious holidays, with the post-war consensus steadily expanding those privileges. Other Western countries followed suit, establishing the social security network that forms the bedrock of social organisation at present in those nations.

However, by the end of the past century, two global events shook the very foundations of society as we knew it. One, the communist block crumbled, effectively removing the opposition to unfettered capitalism. Second, the advent of the internet ushered in a new world of connectedness like never before.

New ideas exploded. And as a natural consequence, new industries too. With the Fourth Industrial Revolution under way, a plethora of new work opportunities resulted. It was thought to be the ultimate panacea — knowledge-based industries.

And so it did — for a while and in some places. But then, the dark clouds gathered.

As it is with globalisation, manufacturing had largely moved from the assembly lines of the Western nations to cheaper locations in the Eastern hemisphere. The same happened here as well — with distances no barrier, companies moved a major part of their operations to similar places. A new term — ‘Bangalored’, referring to the city in India — made its way into the English lexicon, which refers to a person losing his/her job because that position was outsourced somewhere else. The ‘Business Process Outsourcing’ companies flourished in the less developed countries as a result, India being a major gainer.

But did it really mean the people working in these countries go better off, at least economically? For a while, yes. You suddenly saw 20-somethings with no skill to speak of but a rudimentary knowledge of computers and a smattering of accented English break out in the socioeconomic space, buying apartments, fancy cars and bikes. However, as this group reached the next decade of their lives, it was increasingly seen that they remained stuck to those positions. There was hardly any movement up the corporate ladder, and with unearthly working hours thrown in, the situation quickly became desperate.

And then came the ‘gig’ economy. The internet-based businesses were hailed as the solution to the masses being laid off due to the blue-collar jobs vanishing. But as the millions of bikes rode out to deliver parcels, the stark aspects of this new phenomenon —zero holiday pay, and employment only when there’s work available — became increasingly visible.

These are now becoming the default employment terms in what’s now considered the developed world. Governments have struggled to create a safety net of the same strength for this workforce as that being provided to people in traditional employment models, which is becoming increasingly scarce. This insecurity “has likely led gig economy workers to continue working, even when they perhaps should not, as the alternative risks substantial shortfalls in income,” Lazard Asset Management wrote in a recent note.

Thus the entire globe is increasingly moving towards an informal employment model, where there is unlikely to be any form of permanent labour benefits. This is bound to have ripple effects — not just for workers’ health. For example, if a worker does not find stable employment, will he/she think about setting up a family? How is he/she to support such a family without the knowledge of what he might be earning in the near future? Without a social security net, how will the children be educated? Without company-provided insurance, how will the health care of the workers and their families be taken care of?

No concrete answers have yet come up on these questions. Movements have begun in parts of the world for greater rights for these ‘partners’ in the gig economy, but hardly anything has been achieved yet. And the COVID-19 pandemic, of course, has worsened conditions for these workers while beefing up the ‘aggregator’s’ bottomline. So the next time you sit in the cocoons of your home, sitting in front of your laptop and order that next round of food or anything else from the ‘aggregator’s’ website, spare a thought for the ‘partners’ like Jang Deok-jin, who gave his life in the process.


Somshankar Bandyopadhyay is Assistant Editor, Gulf News. 

Source: Gulf News