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Surveilled and exploited by intrusive technology, workers across India are rising up together

The fight is spreading across the subcontinent.


Sabah Gurmat


Posted on Mar 9, 2023   Updated on Mar 15, 2023, 12:47 pm CDT

Shaik Salauddin is a busy man. The gig workers’ union leader, based in India’s tech-savvy southern metropolis of Hyderabad, is giving interviews to multiple media sites, rubbing shoulders with politicians, and organizing a pan-India collective of gig and platform workers. 

All this, while he continues to take the wheel as a driver for Uber.

Last year, when one of India’s opposition party leaders, Rahul Gandhi, led a nationwide march calling for unity against the ruling Hindu nationalist government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Salauddin joined and managed to present a list of demands to Gandhi and his fellow party members of the Indian National Congress. Today, Salauddin observes the fruits of this political engagement, as the northern state of Rajasthan just introduced one of the country’s first social security funds and special legislation for gig workers.

“I met Rahul Gandhi during his Bharat Jodo Yatra, as a representative from IFAT. He heard our concerns and later discussed this with Ashok Gehlot [Chief Minister of Rajasthan]. Today their state’s government just set aside the first fund for our welfare. This is a big step and it’s just the beginning, we need such policies implemented on a national level,” the plucky union organizer told the Daily Dot. 

IFAT is the Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers, which was instituted in 2020. Today, the union is one of the country’s first gig workers’ collectives, organizing around 45,000 members (and counting) across India. The IFAT’s union leadership has helped facilitate a separate women’s gig workers arm as well. There is an estimated 7.7 million people in the country’s gig economy, which is only expected to grow, with some suggesting there will be 23.5 million gig workers in the country by 2030.

Salauddin’s efforts at organizing thousands of other cab drivers, food delivery workers, and other app-based service professionals come after years of exploitation, particularly by gig companies. Once seen as a promising new arena offering jobs to vast swathes of the country’s job-seeking, lower-income people, the gig economy today is unraveling. 

Companies continue to treat workers as independent contractors instead of employees. That is coupled with a lack of social security and minimum wage, work based on arbitrary systems of ratings and algorithms, and rampant discrimination on the job with no recourse.

This propelled workers like Salauddin to collectivize and score a big win.

In a first for the country, there’s now a law in one state to ensure social security and welfare for nearly 500,000 app-based workers in its region. Coupled with the creation of a fund of nearly 2 billion Indian rupees, this marks a significant breakthrough for labor organizers.

“We had three main demands. First, we wanted a law to be passed in favor of all the gig and platform workers. Secondly, we asked that a levy be collected from the companies which employ us, which will be used to create a social welfare fund for us. Third, we demanded the creation of a welfare board, with representation of workers’ unions, the government, and companies. All three demands were incorporated by the Rajasthan government,” a jubilant Salauddin said. 

Unionizing in India’s booming gig economy is no easy feat. The pushback that platform workers face is everywhere, according to Kaveri Medappa, a researcher and academic at the University of Oxford.  

Workers face tremendous obstacles just even coming together. 

“It’s a very different kind of workforce, you are on your own for the whole day, you are made to compete with your co-worker through rankings and algorithms. Delivery work might be an exception but other forms of app-based work like cab driving, beauty services, repair work, workers go for days or even forever without meeting or seeing one another. So there’s a spatial division,” Medappa told the Daily Dot.

Despite this, unions are trying to bridge this gap by creating WhatsApp groups, forming associations, pushing membership drives, and holding local meetings in order to foster more face-to-face interaction and solidarity building.

Another obstacle that these workers face is the risk of being banned or having their accounts removed from the apps. Medappa went on to add that, “Either your manager knows, or somebody snitches you out to the manager that these are the people at the forefront of the protests, and those workers’ IDs are blocked. Because these companies are not regulated, a worker can’t even go to court.”

Medappa also pointed to other union-breaking strategies, such as when workers are protesting, “companies then offer great incentives to convince workers to not strike. And that has worked because these are workers who’re very dependent on the incomes from platform work who have homes to run at the end of the day. And that frustrates the other workers who have been striking and reduces solidarity and morale.” 

She also emphasized the use of third-party contractors, who undercut already precarious gig workers.

“Shadowfax for instance, is a middleman who outsources delivery workers to companies like Swiggy [a food delivery platform] and Grofers [a grocery-delivery app]. And so, when Swiggy or Zomato [another food-delivery aggregator] delivery workers try to go on strike, these companies outsource work … This breaks the morale of the protests, it tells workers how easily replaceable they are.”

Despite the hurdles, the recent success of the IFAT union is only one among many such workers’ groups at the forefront of the larger battle against intrusive technology. 

As India’s government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and its rightwing BJP, pushes its digital governance model, a number of technology-oriented initiatives have been imposed upon the country’s citizens.

Since coming to power in 2014, the Modi government pushed an ambitious initiative of a technologically-savvy “Digital India,” including the development of smart cities, with civic bodies introducing GPS trackers for sanitation workers and selfie-based attendance via apps. Along with the nationwide mandate for a biometric identity system known as Aadhaar, app-based attendance policies for various government workers, as well as newly introduced facial recognition technology now being imposed in airports and classrooms, these reforms sparked serious privacy concerns as the data of several million risks being exposed.

Among these state-led initiatives is mandatory app-based digital attendance for workers employed under the country’s largest rural employment scheme: the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). 

The NREGA is a significant public policy aimed at providing at least a 100 days of paid employment (at a minimum wage) a year to ensure job security for adults across rural India. 

In 2020, nearly 82.9 million adults were reported as beneficiaries of this employment guarantee. 

But as of January 2023, Indian authorities made it compulsory for the attendance of these workers to be registered through a smartphone-based app. Speaking to the Daily Dot, Laxmi Devi, a NREGA worker from the northern state of Rajasthan, expressed anguish that the medium of the app is in English and that their work supervisor often suffered a lack of internet data due to network problems.

“I have lost out on my attendance because of this app. Sometimes the internet doesn’t work, or the app stops working, and it is people like us who get affected … If I am shown as absent, my wages get cut!” a woeful Devi said.

The app not only demands access to a smartphone with good mobile internet connectivity but also mandates time-stamped and geo-tagged photographs from the workers twice a day.

India also just introduced Aadhaar-linked payments for these workers, adding to their difficulties in receiving payment, and increasing the risks of surveillance. 

Economist and activist Jean Dreze cautioned against this system, highlighting how it requires that “not only must the worker’s job card and bank account be seeded with Aadhaar, their account must also be connected to the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) mapper.

In doing so, the latest requirements have complicated the process of receiving payment, even as the workers struggle with the security of their biometric data. 

The Modi government has repeatedly pushed for linking the Aadhaar biometric identity cards with bank accounts, mobile numbers, and ration cards and imposing it in several other government efforts. 

It’s often seen as the world’s largest biometric identity system. And in the absence of a data-protection law, privacy rights activists, lawyers, and security experts have repeatedly flagged the risks of data breaches. 

Meanwhile, thousands of NREGA workers in groups of a hundred each have traveled to Delhi to join an ongoing protest against these intrusive technological impositions. 

Ranjan Kumar, a NREGA workers organizer from one of the country’s most economically deprived states of Bihar, pointed out the protest was under the banner of the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha (NREGA Resistance Rally), an umbrella coalition of unions, workers collectives, activists, and other individuals pushing reforms within NREGA. Noting how millions of workers are affected, he said that many don’t have smartphones, particularly women workers given India’s digital gender gap. 

Cautioning against the mandatory requirement of photographs twice a day, the organizer added: “Often, if a photo is uploaded in the morning, it doesn’t get uploaded in the afternoon or vice-versa, and this upsets the attendance for the whole day. Most importantly, the entire premise that this photograph-based attendance would ensure transparency and reduce corruption doesn’t work on ground. The same woman could be wearing a veil and pretending to be multiple persons, nobody is checking these photos.”

Kumar believes that the requirement of photos hasn’t reduced the chance of fraud and added to the workers’ woes, “especially for women since many are under the face veil and not everyone is comfortable clicking their photographs to mark attendance daily.” 

Even as such digital “reforms” raise questions of accessibility, they have also engendered concerns about the privacy and comfort of workers, particularly women. A similar app-based initiative—called the “Poshan Tracker”—was also introduced for the country’s 2.6 million strong women childcare workers.

Designed to track nutrition and the delivery of food and nutrient packages, infant and maternal health, as well as the performance of women childcare workers across local daycare centers known as Anganwadis, it has sparked a similar set of ethical and accessibility concerns

These include the same concerns as with other apps: the app being in English, a lack of efficient smartphones and mobile internet, and the mandate to link each beneficiary’s details to mobile numbers and their biometric identities under the controversial Aadhaar.

Earlier in January 2023, thousands of women childcare workers protested the same, as part of the All India Federation of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers (AIFAWH). 

Medappa, the research scholar, told the Daily Dot that it was “very encouraging” to see NREGA workers, Anganwadi workers, sanitation workers, and others vocally resisting data-intrusive technologies in their work. But, she also noted how it’s “not just the state and surveillance, it’s also about how corporations use data as well to make money.”

While both state actors and private companies push for increasing control over the data of workers, many continue to put up a fight. Shaik Salauddin—who has now set his sights on the pan-Indian membership drive for their union and engaging with the government to pass a nationwide social security bill with special provisions for platform workers—summed it up best.

“Our fight has only just begun. They have to engage with us. Whoever talks about the plight of the 500 million workers of this country, will rule the future of this country”

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*First Published: Mar 9, 2023, 8:46 am CST