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Futures of Workers

By Shruti Gupta and Sarayu Natarajan

Over the past few decades, technology has disrupted the functioning of the labour industry, helping to reorganize work, promising to increase efficiency and transparency in services and expanding opportunities for both workers and consumers. Technologically- mediated work has been framed by corporations and the media as the “democratization” of technology; enabling workers to become entrepreneurs. At the macro-economic level, the provision of entrepreneurial opportunities provides possibilities of reducing unemployment, improving labour force participation through greater inclusion and improving productivity of the economy as a whole (Irani 2015; McKinsey, 2016). At the individual level, technologically- mediated work aims to transform the lives of workers by instilling an entrepreneurial spirit and as a consequence, improving their incomes and working conditions.

The report studies the platform economy, an integral and flourishing dimension of technologically-mediated work. Ride-sharing platforms such as Uber, Ola Cabs, GoJek and Lyft and on-demand service applications such as TaskRabbit, Amazon Home Services and UrbanClap use functionally designed apps and powerful algorithms to enable a seamless interaction between consumers of services and workers. The distinguishing feature of these platforms is that while technology is utilized for the allocation of work, the services are delivered offline. Therefore, the manner in which work is performed remains unaltered.

The report undertakes a comparative analysis of two leading ride-hailing applications in India with one of India’s most prominent on-demand personal services app to understand the lived experiences of workers in the platform economy. The comparative method enabled us to highlight the varied dimensions of the platform economy and the differentiated risks, opportunities and outcomes faced by workers on the platforms. By including the on-demand personal services app, we aim to expand the current discourse which focuses primarily on the “uberisation” of the platform economy.

Through our work, we also acknowledge that economic activity is deeply intertwined with gender, class and caste. In doing so, we move away from research findings conducted in the global North; research which has come to dominate the narrative on these new forms of work. Thus, the report hopes to highlight the previously invisiblised experiences of workers, particularly women.

During the course of the research and in this report, we endeavour to address the following questions – how has technologically-mediated work changed labour organisation and processes? What are the differentiated risks faced by research participants in the platform economy? How does the identity of workers intersect with cultural practices to impact labour outcomes? What appropriate policy and community actions can enable risk alleviation for workers?

The report brings forth the contestations and particularities underlying these questions by understanding the platform economy through the perspective of workers. In doing so, we aim to study how similarly structured, technologically-mediated work results in differentiated experiences for workers along varied axes. Through this we endeavour to add to the growing public discourse on the platform economy by highlighting understudied areas of embodied positionalities, particularly, gender, caste and class and cultural specificity of technologically- mediated work in India. We hope for our future research to build on the findings of this report by understanding the perspective of platforms. This will provide a more comprehensive analysis of the working of the platform economy in India; a previously under- researched domain.

The research was funded by Microsoft Research India and was undertaken in collaboration with Dr Joyojeet Pal. We are immensely grateful to MSR India for their support during the research and Dr. Pal for his valuable insights throughout the project.

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