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The tech bro trope can't save the gig economy

Villainising the start-up culture is easy, not a solution


In Showtime’s Super-Pumped: The Battle for UberJoseph Gordon-Levitt plays Travis Kalanick, the relentless Silicon Valley start-up founder leaving no stone unturned to upend the very nature of the transportation industry. In the pilot of the eight-episode series, where he’s brainstorming with his team to develop a way to bypass local laws around licensing fees, the epiphany of a simple yet brilliant tax-avoidance strategy strikes them. 

“The San Francisco MTA regulates taxicabs. So, yeah, UberCab is up to its ass in fines.” Chief Business Officer Emil Michael pitches in, leaving the interplay of words to hang in the air.

Kalanick has his solution. “Starting now, UberCab – and all of its corresponding regulatory problems and liabilities is shut down, inoperative and defunct.” Drop the suffix – avoid the fines piling up from the transit commission. “Just… Uber.” Hereon, Levitt’s character triumphantly announces, the company would take on the mantle of being a “ride-sharing” service – nothing more. Although quite ordinary in the course of events in the show, this exchange reveals the gig economy’s penchant for misclassification.

 Beyond the stylised marketing strategy that sells the gig economy as a win-win for all stakeholders, let us look at who bears the brunt of these products making it to the market. Quick cabs, instant-deliveries, beauty services at your finger-tips – it is easy to look at the gig economy and gauge the class concerns it inhabits. It is essentially an add-on convenience for those already swimming in a pool of quick solutions and frictionless services. Today, Uber, Ola, Swiggy, Zomato, Amazon, Big Basket, Urban Company are common parlance.

Meanwhile, the more extensive work model it helps co-create in a system that takes tech-driven business solutions to be prima facie social goods, remains unfocused. Furthermore, the gig economy aims to collect profits without shouldering the responsibilities that come with traditional businesses. At home, India’s antitrust watchdog, the Competition Commission of India (CCI), has put food delivery aggregators like Swiggy and Zomato on the radar, imposing price terms on partner restaurants.


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Even more problematically, how companies like Uber, and more locally, Zomato and others have instrumentalised language to offload business risk to its workforce by using terms like “independent contractors” and “contractors” enable them to sweep employee protection and essential benefits under the rug. Here, technology is not a middle-man but an active tool for behaviour change, and even more worryingly, it is being used to increase the precariousness of those working in the gig world by lowering the standards of what it means to be an employee through scrupulous navigation. If Uber fires you, your account is simply “deactivated” – once your rating falls below an arbitrary number; Amazon similarly “releases” its workers – despite the flippant language, these individuals are very tightly controlled by these companies, and their conditions are algorithmically programmed but very much humanly constructed.

Take a look at the newly proposed 10-minute delivery by Zomato – creating an artificial need for impatience and rushed services when the company has been under the heat for endangering drivers' lives by imposing strict time slots for making deliveries.

Zomato says it will rely on deep learning models to provide customers with hotspot deliveries through localised cloud kitchens. This will lead to non-fresh items taken from pre-stocked inventories and reheated for delivery in record time. Will we pause to think about what bearing that has on health and food quality?

On the condition of anonymity, an ex-Zomato employee who worked in a leadership role at the company reiterates these concerns: “Everyone knows there’s no way one can get freshly cooked food in under 10 minutes. This puts pressure on kitchens to pre-cook and keeps food ready-to-go, which often results in huge waste!” He adds, expanding on a business strategy that relies on trying new things at breakneck speeds: “They don’t want to be perceived as having been left behind. Especially after pumping in hundreds of millions of dollars in Blinkit. Their share prices are at an all-time low, and they’re under enormous pressure to justify the cash burn.”

As the race for quick commerce gets more gruelling, the focus on the labour force upon which it is built is needed – public pressure, however, might not ensure safeguards unless enforceable by law. Others, however, are more optimistic: “If riders are not incentivised or pressured to ride fast, there is absolutely no issue. If they can do more deliveries during their working hours, they might get the opportunity to earn a little extra. By monitoring their vehicles and controlling their speed, valuing their life over anything else, this move can prove to be profitable for the gig economy.”, says Karan Tanna, founder CEO of Ghost Kitchens India.

 

Pointing out that the 30-minute delivery timeline is too slow for the average user, Zomato’s CEO, Deepinder Goyal, notes on his Twitter explainer: “If we don’t make it obsolete, someone else will.” As Zomato spells it out, “hyper-localization” in higher-density areas makes more economic sense, and Tanna agrees: “If the delivery radius is reduced to less than 3 km, then surely the deliveries can happen in 10 to 15 minutes. Customers would love quick deliveries. The adaptability of this value proposition will be rapid. This will also lead to better rider utilisation in peak hours.” While this is a view held by many, the algorithmic control that is central to online labour platforms and the gig economy, in general, makes accountability standards opaque and eases out the rough edges around irregular working hours as well as the limbo in which a lack of job security and task variability places them in. In such a skewed scenario, it is difficult to reimagine a landscape where worker autonomy can hold the fort.

It is important to note that this should not be characterised as a “techbro” problem where the influx of wealth and commerce is concentrated through technology mediation – because that gives Zomato’s media-savvy image a free pass. In 2019, Goyal impressively announced 26 weeks of paid parental leave for all its employees, men and women – but the display of progressivism cannot be a cover-up for diminishing the value of labour – these issues intersect and crucially so. Mothers and fathers are also working people. 

Uber’s story reminds us that euphemistic language has ample convincing power, and powerful rhetoric can cover up loopholes in government regulation. In a fervour speech, Tamarack’s hyper-libertarianism shines through as he reflects upon Uber’s ability to make transportation as reliable as “running water.” At the same time, stereotypical understandings of this stale cliché conjure images of Musk-enamoured techsolutionists that fail to look beyond algorithmic decision-making and buzzwords like “scalability” while undermining the standard employment safeguards hard-won over many, many years.

While the glamour of the finger-tip economy seems endless, it is worth questioning the premises upon which this labour is supplied, the source of this seamlessness, and the lack of regulation around precarious employment. Legal developments have been slow and somewhat conflicting in India. Although the country’s 2020 Social Security Code promises to bring non-traditional forms of work under the ambit of workplace security, labour laws more broadly have been diluted severely, making striking for demands extremely risky. In this vacuum of legal infrastructure, Urban Company recently decided to sue women protesting against unfair policy changes within the $2.8 billion valued corporation. Bargaining power is central to levelling some of these business incentives and redirecting them to ensure employees have a say in the matters. Several coastlines away, union power is showing the way. 

But these are essentially fighting against practices that span across businesses and unfettered market power spurred on by technology to further societal inequities. The problem does not lie in individuals, and shows such as Super Pumped make good villain stories that implicate Silicon Valley-inspired business enterprises and venture capitalists that keep their machines well-oiled – but they give us only a half-baked understanding of a structural problem – and end up missing the forest for the trees.


South Asian Today is an independent media company committed to amplifying South Asian writers and artists. If you like our work, please become a member or buy us a coffee here. Your support enables us to keep our journalism open for all and publish South Asian writers. Please support us by becoming a member and helping us remain free of a paywall. It starts at just $5/month.

About the author

Yusra is a writer and researcher  interested in defining the incentives behind political decision-making, and working at the intersection of academia and public policy. Currently a Young India Fellow at Ashoka University, she is passionate about long-form journalism, architectural photography, kulfi-falooda, and naturalistic poetry. Instagram | @99yusra


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