On Monday, 20 December, gig workers with Urban Company, a domestic services platform in India, began protesting against new policies instituted by the platform. According to the workers, the new policies will have a far-reaching impact on the flexibility of their work schedules. When workers protested in October against high platform commissions and other work conditions, Urban Company reduced its commission and took steps to improve certain work conditions. But in response to the recent protests, Urban Company has sued the alleged protest leaders in a petition filed in the Gurgaon District Court on Wednesday 22 December.
The recent policy changes introduce a new subscription system for beauticians (called ‘salon partners’ by Urban Company) that will categorize them as ‘Prime’, ‘Classic’ or ‘Flexi’: Under this new system, workers will be required to pay an upfront fee of 2000 (Classic) to 3000 Rupees (Prime) to be guaranteed jobs. Workers will also be required to perform a specific number of jobs per week. Workers who fail to complete the required number of jobs will be categorized as ‘Flexi’, a category that will not permit them to take on any jobs through the platform between Monday and Friday.
In addition to the new subscription system, Urban Company has introduced a new discount system for customers: Customers will be eligible for a discount of up to 10%, which will be deducted from workers’ wages.
Professor Balaji Parthasarathy, Principal Investigator, Fairwork India, argues that the recent workers’ protests and the reaction of the platform point to a couple of issues about gig work:
“First, there is a contradiction with Urban Company’s new subscription system, which compels workers to complete a minimum number of jobs while classifying these workers as ‘independent contractors’. The new subscription system significantly reduces workers’ flexibility, which is typically sold as a central advantage of gig work.
Second, the fact that Urban Company has petitioned against four alleged protest leaders in court is indicative of the company’s reluctance to recognize workers’ collectives and to negotiate with them. In its petition, the company recognizes that the number of protesters is ‘extremely large’, for which reason it was ‘not possible to sue each worker individually’. If anything, the large number of protesters shows that workers are articulating legitimate concerns that go beyond individual grievances. Hence, regardless of workers’ classification, consultation and negotiations with workers are a necessary step towards fair work.
As things stand, it should come as no surprise if the reluctance of financially and technologically powerful platforms to bridge the asymmetries between them and their socially vulnerable workers fuels more protests. Platforms may term their workers as ‘partners’, but it is an unequal partnership.”
Find out more about working conditions in the Indian gig economy in the Fairwork India reports and ratings.
28th December Update:
Urban Company reached out to Fairwork with a response to the blog. The platform pointed out that workers under the ‘Smart’ and ‘Flexi’ plans are free to choose when they want to work and are allowed to work throughout the week. According to the platform, the customer discount is 4% and limited to those customers with a ‘Plus subscription’. They also stated that they had filed an injunction against their partners to vacate the company premises after a dialogue between the management and partners showed no progress.
Fairwork could not independently verify these details with workers. However, we will be tracking all aspects of the new subscription plans with workers and with Urban Company in 2022.