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Economics

Fed-Up Gig Workers Emerge as Fledgling Political Force in India

They’re using social media to mobilize and frame demands for companies and the government.

Food delivery workers in Kolkata.

Food delivery workers in Kolkata.

Photographer: Sudipta Das/Pacific Press/Shutterstock

India’s 15 million gig workers are taking up the chant of their peers abroad and pressing for improved pay and benefits. They’re addressing their demands not only to the creators of the apps that funnel them work but also to the federal government. “In one call, we can mobilize thousands of drivers and delivery boys to come out to the streets,” says Shaik Salauddin, president of the Telangana Gig and Platform Workers Union. “If millions of people are ignored the way it is happening, then surely it will reflect in the polls.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is mindful that gig workers could coalesce into a new voting bloc and also influence the public mood if more of them take to the streets to demand better treatment. Yet his administration has been slow to implement a package of labor reforms approved in 2020 that would make app-based workers eligible for social security benefits, including retirement pensions and access to the health-care system. With several state elections scheduled for early next year, Modi wants to avoid sparking a popular backlash to other provisions in the legislation that would make it easier for companies to fire workers. That would risk a repeat of the recent showdown with farmers, tens of thousands of whom camped out around New Delhi for a year, forcing the government to repeal three farm bills approved in 2020.