Fairwork India at the International Labour Conclave

Posted on 06.07.2023
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan addressing the International Labour Conclave 2023
Image courtesy of United News of India

24-25 May 2023, Trivandrum

Fairwork India was invited to present at the International Labour Conclave at Trivandrum, Kerala. The two-day conclave was organised by the Department of Labour and Skills, Government of Kerala, and The Kerala State Planning Board. It discussed various topics relating to workers’ rights and labour practices along six key themes: rights, legislation, and social protection; traditional industries: problems of transition; internal migration and migrant workers’ rights; scheme workers, domestic workers, and care workers; skilling and future forms of work; gig and platform workers’ welfare. Each brought together different stakeholders, including academics, government officials, union representatives, and other legal and policy experts from across the world, to discuss critical issues and challenges facing workers and the world of work. 

Fairwork India, represented by Janaki Srinivasan and Bilahari M, presented a paper on “The Future (and Present) of Gig Work in India” at the session on gig and platform workers’ welfare. The team outlined Fairwork’s Principles, methodology, and global impacts and, through Fairwork India’s scores over the last four years, highlighted key findings on gig work conditions in India’s platform economy. In particular, the team asked two central questions: flexibility from whom? And data for whom? Drawing on the extensive fieldwork from the last five years across multiple cities and location-based platforms, the team sliced flexibility across the five Fairwork principles to draw attention to the inflexible reality of how this promise offered to workers operates along Pay, Conditions, Contracts, Management, and Representation.

Further, the team highlighted the reality of data opacity in gig work: workforce opacity, data opacity, and algorithmic opacity, are challenges faced by worker collectives and regulators in their fight for fair working conditions. The team commented on recent developments in the gig work landscape in India. It recommended more regulation, monitoring, regulatory clarity, transparency, and, most importantly, engaging with and paying attention to the collective voice of gig worker collectives.  

The gig work session also featured several speakers who enriched and widened the scope of the panel. Uma Rani, Senior Economist, International Labour Organization, drew on data collected from multiple sectors and across countries to argue how the terms of service agreements, algorithmic, management practices, and design features, used by digital labour platforms precariatise workers and have the potential to widen inequality.

K Vasuki IAS, Labour Commissioner, Government of Kerala, described regulatory challenges governments face today, particularly those arising from gig work’s positioning outside the traditional employer-employee relationship.

Rahul Suresh Sapkal, Assistant Professor, Ashank Desai Centre for Policy Studies, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, discussed the fate of gig workers amidst the legal conundrum. He provided an overview of the status of gig workers in the platform economy and Indian labour codes. He advocated for using organisational integration tests and the co-regulation model instead of supervision and control tests to determine the legal employment status of gig workers.

Babu P Remesh, Professor, School of Development Studies, Ambedkar University, analysed the insecurities and vulnerabilities of gig work and workers in the current Indian context and showed that by its very design, platform-based gig work is prone to exploitative situations and adverse working conditions for its workforce. He also underlined the need for concerted and coordinated efforts from various stakeholders, including the state and worker/civil society organisations, to promote decent work for gig workers.

Sona Mitra, Principal Economist at Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy in Leveraging Evidence for Access and Development, Krea University, discussed a case study of women workers in the beauty segment on the platform Urban Company. She presented an analysis of the working conditions and the labour practices within the company while contextualising it in the broader world of work.

The session chaired by V Namasivayam, Member, Kerala State Planning Board, also saw addresses from Sonia George, General Secretary, Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) Kerala and the National Vice President SEWA, representing workers, and Savio Mathew, Head, Kerala State Council, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry, speaking on behalf of the employers.

Praveen Jha, Professor of Economics, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Alakh Sharma, Professor, and Director, Institute for Human Development, were the discussants for the session.

To summarise, besides reemphasising the usual concerns surrounding gig work, such as poor wages and long working hours, the session focused on core issues of inflexibility, precarity, and the lack of transparency. In the discussion around regulatory challenges, panelists also recommended looking beyond the traditional employee-employer relationship to reconceptualise how gig work is categorised.

Other sessions at the conclave also presented an opportunity to listen to experts on topics surrounding workers’ plights and rights. Key arguments resonated heavily with issues concerning gig workers and provided insights to better understand labour conditions in the gig economy.

For example, in the technical session on rights, legislation, and social protection, Retd. Justice K Chandru presented a paper on “Collective Bargaining, the Constitution, Contract Labour, and the New Industrial Relations Code”. Through case laws, he discussed the history of codified labour laws – pre and post-colonial labour legislation, challenges faced by workers in terms of collectivisation, and ‘out-sourcing’, and the growth of labour outside labour legislations. He also commented on the four labour codes and their impact on worker rights. Kamala Sankaran, Professor of Law, National Law School of India University, Bengaluru, presented a paper on “Labour Rights are Human Rights: The Road Ahead”,. The paper discussed the overlap between constitutional provisions and international human rights. She examined its resonance in international labour standards and rights and its influence on worker legislation and rights in India.

The conclave in Trivandrum was an excellent opportunity to showcase Fairwork’s research and work to new and broader audiences. The team also distributed the latest 2022 Fairwork India report in multiple regional languages to participants. Interaction with researchers, government officials, workers’ groups, and activists to highlight common issues, concerns, and goals was fruitful. It is expected that outcomes from the session will feed into more extensive discussions around policy and regulation promoting and protecting workers’ rights in the world of work, not just in Kerala but across the country.