This year’s Economic Survey noted India becoming one of the world’s largest flexi-staffing or “gig-work” economies thanks to the emergence of digital technology. In her recent Budget speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman proposed the creation of a database of gig workers to allow them access social security benefits.
Various estimates peg the number of gig workers, or freelancers who take up short-term assignments and often multiple assignments simultaneously, at close to 3 million in a workforce of around 500 million.
The disruptions caused by Covid-19 resulted in millions of job losses, forcing many to turn into gig workers almost overnight. But almost a year after the upheavals caused by the lockdown, there is limited understanding of the nature of India’s gig economy and its profound impact on the labour market. Data from some of the largest online gig work aggregators and jobtech start-ups in India point to several interesting trends that could potentially shape the future of India’s employment landscape.
During the pandemic, the maximum demand for gig workers was for jobs such as last-mile delivery of essential goods, creation, moderation and cataloguing of digital content, telesales and operations management, and online proctoring or remote online exam invigilation, a wholly new category of gig work in the Covid-19 era.
According to data captured by Workex, a Bengaluru-based jobtech start-up that has more than 8 lakh gig workers enrolled on its platform, the massive reverse migration of blue-collar workers from big cities resulted in a massive drop in the availability of labour. During the lockdown, for each gig assignment posted on its website, there were only eight applicants.
Before the lockdown, the ratio was a whopping 33 for every job. Currently, with the labour force coming back to the big cities, the ratio hovers around 26 applicants per job. By May 2020, the labour demand on its platform had dropped to 30 per cent of what it used to be pre-lockdown.
“Blue-collar work is almost entirely a local demand-supply market. Businesses prefer blue-collar workers who live closest to their pin codes. During the lockdown, two factors contributed to a drop in the availability of labour. Workers went back to their home towns in droves and those living in the same big cities were fearful of travelling long distances to take up an assignment. The matchmaking between demand and supply had become very difficult,” explains Nimish Sharma, CEO and co-founder, Workex.
On its digital platform, Workex lists gig jobs from over 500 cities, but in the pre-pandemic days, nearly 60 per cent of the assignments came from companies in Delhi, Maharashtra and Karnataka and it shrank to 36 per cent at the peak of the lockdown. The job postings from Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Bihar soared to 35 per cent during the lockdown from 16 per cent in “peace time”, indicating the fact that migrant workers took along with them jobs to their home states.
Awign, another Bengaluru-based digital gigs start-up, employs a wholly different model. It’s not a job listing platform. Instead, it contracts large chunks of projects from companies big and small and executes by parcelling out small fractions of a large task to thousands of gig workers. When the lockdown came into effect, the company lost 95 per cent of its revenues because it relied heavily on the hospitality, travel and mobility industries. A swift pivot to other industry sectors helped the company stay afloat.
“A few months into the lockdown, we forayed into digital gigs — online content creation, invigilation and last-mile delivery,” says Annanya Sarthak, the 28-year-old CEO and co-founder of Awign. With nearly 8 lakh gig workers on its platform, Awign claims to have utilised the services of more than 90,000 workers.
About a third of those enrolled on its platform are college students, a similar number of workers who have lost regular employment, and the rest housewives, retired workers and housewives looking to augment their receding household incomes. In the nine months since the pandemic, more than 2.5 lakh gig workers have executed nearly 2 million digital tasks for Awign. In January 2021 alone, nearly 2,500 gig workers helped in creating 1,25,000 pieces of digital content every day, including videos and audio clips.
“With the need for digital transformation becoming a necessity for businesses during the pandemic, everyone recognises the importance of content in every chain of operation, be it sales, marketing or training. That’s why we are witnessing an explosion in the demand for digital content gigs,” adds Sarthak. Both Awign and Workex claim that during the pandemic, the average salary of a gig worker on digital platforms increased from ₹10,000-15,000 to ₹15,000-20,000.
The ability to break down complex digital projects into a series of tiny, repeatable tasks allows Awign to employ a large team of remotely-located gig workers who can execute them after undergoing a training session that lasts about an hour.
A new line of revenue for digitally savvy gig workers and platforms has emerged in the form of exam invigilation. In a country of India’s size, educational institutions, the various arms of government and the private sector together conduct close to a million tests and exams annually. During the pandemic, most of the exams went online and yet needed the kind of invigilation that’s required in a physical setting.
“Anyone who is a graduate with decent communication skills and access to a camera-enabled computer could be an invigilator. It entails monitoring of exam takers to ensure there is no wrongdoing and answering simple questions that candidates may have such as whether a scientific calculator could be used. Exam proctoring can pay as much as ₹500 per test session,” explains Sarthak.