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  • Relevant UPSC Sociology syllabus topic are mentioned
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  • Think of all possible topics from UPSC Sociology syllabus where the article can be applied
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Working on the app-based model

[On Informal sector, Work, Employment, Trade Union]

We need regulation of technology and work for workers without security nets

The line between work and jobs is often manipulated. The Delhi High Court is hearing the issue on August 10 in response to a Delhi-based union’s petition which refutes the claims of Uber and Ola — as not being employers of drivers but only providers of work.

In an Indian orbit

This is the first Indian public articulation of a question on the so-called gig economy that has been raised in courts worldwide. The union (trade union) says drivers are put under control and supervision amounting to employment, but neither do they enjoy flexible work nor receive benefits. As informal sector workers (syllabus topic: informal sector) who know how to maintain continuity in income, falling incentives have upset their calculations of spending, saving, and repaying debt. The same algorithms that give drivers a written history of work and earnings also allow companies to be faceless (syllabus topic: Bourgeoisie) but still in control.

Uber and Ola drivers are some of the first informal sector workers to be immersed in new-age tech. Their work is organised around data, timestamps and geo-references, making it traceable and trackable. Algorithms that run platforms also systematise parts of work unlike in previous non-tech work. Work has readable history, incomes verified in bank statements, with regularity — paid mostly without delays, without asking. Processes and protocols were never a part of their previous work as lorry drivers, chauffeurs or drivers based at traditional stands. In contrast, most of us in “jobs” are accustomed to having legibility in our work lives.

Unlike those of us in “jobs” with protected salaries, these drivers manage earnings to spend, save and resolve debt. Legal contracts that safeguard future income (preventing untimely dismissal) and future savings (provident funds) have not been available to them. Unlike in America where the platform model originates and is called the ‘death of the job’, this new form of work has more continuities with older forms of the informal sector than discontinuities.

Platform drivers have experienced what organised work (syllabus topic: Work and Economic life) feels like — not formal jobs, but work that is accounted for, seamless, and organised. Rides come continuously. Payments come in regular intervals, partly in hand through cash, partly in banks, expanding savings from the near to the mid-term. Primary research by this writer finds drivers made more stable financial decisions because of this organisation of platforms.

Left vulnerable

Yet, platforms have thrown this off balance by severely changing the rules of the game for drivers. Agility, which is key to this business model, allows companies to experiment but makes drivers vulnerable. Shrinking, negligible incentives have reduced their incomes. Some cannot repay car loans. Companies restrict drivers’ access to their work data. They also say that their earnings don’t always add up. Companies are unabashedly constraining the very offerings that got drivers to join their platforms in the first place.

As informal sector workers (syllabus topic: Labour and society), drivers have learnt how to maintain continuous work and income despite flexible work. The rules of the informal labour market come from trusted networks that are tacit to those outside it. Drivers may not be uncomfortable with weekly, daily fluctuations in income on platforms because they were within a known range. But the game has no rules now.

How do we weigh the benefits of legal formality when they come without a living wage? Who gets to decide this trade-off: the state or the worker? A countrywide skilling and job crisis leaves these informal, semi-skilled workers with limited work options — driving, with low barriers of entry, is vital here. Regulation should be responsive to drivers’ interests. Drivers can decide the quantity and duration of their work on platforms and this is valuable for them. Their terms of earning need regulations for transparency.

It will be crucial to see whether the Delhi court judgment can create precedence for the regulation of technology and work for workers without security nets. It will take a city court, immersed in the realities of its economy, its labour patterns, its experiences of vulnerability and security, to determine these questions. For a city such as Delhi where so much work and employment is in the non-manufacturing sector, how should we think of security for workers? Do we not need to think through regulations that contain the algorithms that are set to determine the smartening of our cities and digitising India?



Privacy in the digital age

[On digital privacy and state]

Original article on The Hindu

It is troubling that for many, the right to privacy is against the state and not so much the digital corporations

The current focus on the right to privacy is based on some new realities of the digital age. Personal spaces and safeties that were previously granted simply by physical separation are no longer protected. The digital network enters the most proximate spaces and challenges the normally accepted notions of the private (can be used in Essay). It brings into focus new means of exercising social, economic, and political power (syllabus topic: Power), and reducing of autonomies.

Like in the physical space, the private and the public must be separated in the digital realm as well. We need a constitutional definition and guarantee of the right to individuality, personal autonomy and privacy in the digital age. It must be provided in the clearest terms by the Supreme Court, which is currently considering this issue.

A positive right

Some arguments advanced by those seeking the right to privacy, however, are troubling. It seems that for many, the right is basically against the state, and not so much the digital corporations  (syllabus topic: Class struggle). One hears propositions such as: unlike corporations the state (syllabus topic: State) is a monopoly, corporations rely on private contracts for data access, providing data to them is voluntary, and so on.

A right is a substantive right (syllabus topic: Citizenship) only if it works in all situations, and for everyone. A right to free expression for an individual about her exploitation, for instance, is meaningless without actual availability of security that guarantees that private force cannot be used to thwart this right. The role of the state therefore is not just to abstain from preventing rightful free expression but also to actively ensure that private parties are not able to block it.

In the same manner, the role of the state in terms of the right to privacy in the digital age is not just to abstain from its violation. It is equally to ensure that private parties are not able to violate such a right. The court must specifically direct the state to ensure this imperative.

The elephant in the room in current privacy discussions is the status of data as the central social and economic resource in the digital age. Excluding the state from any substantial role with regard to society’s data resources without similarly constraining private corporations will lead to a future where corporations become the key organising actors for society, relegating the state to an extremely truncated role. Such a situation is especially threatening to the interests of weaker sections of society (syllabus topic: Poverty, deprivation, inequality) that depend on the state for justice and redistribution.

The state must retain an important part in the organisation of new social and economic structures, which requires it to play a significant role in the data ecosystem. The public sector will, for instance, need to manage some infrastructural (syllabus topic: Marx-infrastructure-superstructure) social and economic databases above which the private sector can run a competitive economy. Some of these will be in the form of “data commons”, which will require a properly institutionalised stewardship of the state. Citizens will also require the assistance of a public interest agency to enable management of their personal data in a manner that they can obtain the best benefit of a data economy/society and its personalised services.

The role of the state

All such roles of the state must be constitutionally (syllabus topic: Constitution and social change) circumscribed, with strict laws. While establishing a right to privacy, the Supreme Court must also direct the state to develop appropriate institutions for shaping the state’s role in a digital society/economy. This may require, at some stage, an independent branch of the state exclusively dealing with data issues and management.

Framing of a right to privacy must not curtail the state’s due role in our collective digital futures. This will only ensure that global digital corporations become all-powerful economic, social and political actors. They already provide most of the digital services that appear to be of a public good nature, and in turn control and shape entire sectors.

The state must be directed by the Supreme Court to ensure that people’s right to privacy is actually available against these corporations (syllabus topic: Bourgeoisie) as well. In most contexts, there is nothing voluntary in checking an online box giving away one’s privacy. A citizen must have options to undertake basic digital functions like emailing, information search, social networking, etc. without sacrificing her privacy rights. This too is the state’s responsibility.



It’s not help, it’s work [On domestic workers]

Original article on The Hindu

Employing a help in house? Only after verification,” says the ad’s headline. Below, in capital letters, appears a warning: “An unverified domestic help can pose a serious security risk.” And then a call to action: “Contact your beat constable or local police station for domestic help verification.”

The copy is set against a visual of a cop taking a picture of a young girl, presumably the domestic help, while an elderly woman, her employer, looks on. The girl picked to represent the ‘domestic help’ has the features of an adivasi (syllabus topic: Tribal communities in India), is slightly built, and dark-complexioned. She is shown standing, in one corner of the frame, while the cop and her employer (syllabus topic: Bourgeoisie class) are seated.

Readers of English newspapers would be familiar with this ad campaign, urging them to get their domestic helps verified by the police. Of late, these ads (syllabus topic: Karl Marx – Super structure) have become a matter of great concern for unions (syllabus topic: Working class) , domestic workers, and social activists, who say the campaign reeks of class prejudice (syllabus topic: Karl Marx- Class struggle).

But what they find most objectionable is the criminalisation of people on the basis of their occupation. Copies of so-called police verification forms are doing the rounds of housing societies across Delhi. Domestic workers are being made to fill up the form and submit them to the nearest police station.

The data sought by the form includes, among other things, the domestic help’s “petwords of speech”, “physical built”, “complexion” and “handwriting specimen”, besides descriptions of eyes, hair, tattoo marks, and prints of all the fingers of both hands. No such information is sought about the employer, despite there being ample evidence to suggest that the security threat works the other way too.

Indeed, hardly a week goes by without some news report about a domestic help being abused by her employer. Cases of torture, beatings, sexual assault (syllabus topic: Violence against women), and incarceration are common. If anything, one could argue that in this sector, it is the employer who poses a bigger security threat — to the employee.

Must read for UPSC Sociology

Lack of recognition

For the record, no other category of workers is required to register themselves with the police. In a country where 93% of the workforce is in the unorganised sector (syllabus topic: formal and informal organisation of work) and therefore beyond the purview of most labour laws (syllabus topic: Law and social change), domestic workers represent a new low in terms of disempowerment: they are not even recognised as workers. Their work — cooking, cleaning, dish-washing, baby-sitting — is not recognised as work by the state. Criminalisation (syllabus topic: Deviance) is thus the last straw.

India has only two laws that, in a roundabout way, construe domestic helps as workers. The Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008, (UWSSA) and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. While the former is a social welfare scheme, the latter is aims to protect working women in general. Neither of these recognises domestic helps as rights-bearing workers.

Yet this recognition is a necessary pre-condition for state regulation. Strangely enough, it exists — in the form of a draft National Policy for Domestic Workers (syllabus topic: Law and social change). This policy not only calls for promoting awareness of domestic work as a “legitimate labour market activity”, but also recommends amending existing labour laws to ensure that domestic workers enjoy all the labour rights that other workers do. But the government seems to be in no hurry to adopt it.

Domestic work as an economic activity is too vast and employs too many to remain unregulated. Though the 2011 NSSO data put the number of domestic workers at 3.9 million, trade unions estimate the number to be around 10 million. Most of these are from vulnerable communities – Adivasis, Dalits or landless OBCs (All topics in syllabus). Nearly all of them are migrant workers (syllabus topic: Migration). And an overwhelming number are women.

The apparently endless supply of domestic workers has a lot to do with the decline of employment opportunities in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors (syllabus topic: Agrarian social structure, Industrialisation), which took a hit post-2008. At the same time, demand kept rising, as the entry of middle class (syllabus topic: Middle classes in India) and upper middle class women into the male-dominated (syllabus topic: Patriarchy) world of work was not matched in scale by a corresponding entry of men into the (feminised) (Feminisation)realm of unpaid housework.

Poorer women from the hinterlands stepped in to fill the labour gap, for some remuneration. Today, the economic value of housework is no longer disputed. But the nexus of the state and the market (syllabus topic: Karl Marx) has managed to keep domestic work outside the realm of economic regulation. Neither the Maternity Benefits Act nor the Minimum Wages Act or any of the scores of other labour laws apply to domestic work. Domestic workers can be hired and fired at will. The employer has no legally binding obligations.

 A regulatory framework

Some have attempted to justify the government’s reluctance to regulate domestic work on the grounds that the workplace is a private household which should not be encroached upon by the state. But this argument does not hold since the anti-sexual harassment law recognises the private household as a workplace. Besides, we already have a draft legislation that presents a model for regulating domestic work without inviting the state into the living room, as it were.

The National Platform for Domestic Workers submitted a draft bill, the Domestic Workers Regulation of Work and Social Security Bill, 2016, to the government in January. Going beyond state-centric welfare measures (syllabus topic: Poverty alleviation schemes), it calls for the compulsory registration of the employer and the employee with the District Board for regulation of domestic workers. Unlike the UWSSA, which puts the onus on the state, it mandates the collection of cess from the employer for the maintenance of a social security fund for domestic workers, whose access would be mediated through an identity card.

This framework achieves both the objectives of police verification — security, and documentation of identification data. But in a refreshing contrast, it does so not by criminalising domestic helps but by empowering them as rights-bearing workers.

Thus, to view domestic workers as a security threat is but another way of denying them the status of workers. The policy mindset regarding domestic workers must shift from a law-and-order paradigm to one about workers’ rights (This statement can be used in Essay, GS and Optional). A good place to start would be to consider enacting a Domestic Workers Regulation of Work and Social Security Act.

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