By Sai Amulya Komarraju
In late March 2020, India declared a nation-wide lockdown, restricting the movement of people and services considered as non-essential in an effort to restrict the spread of Covid-19. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s clarion call of “Jaan hai tho jahan hai” (loosely translated as health is wealth) was an effort to justify the sudden announcement of a complete lockdown, leaving millions of migrant workers to fend for themselves. Both the central and the state governments have announced several relief packages to those involved in the informal and unorganized sectors, and to BPL (below the poverty line) families. They have also requested employers everywhere to consider giving their employees paid leave. This effort overlooks those involved in the gig economy who are not employees but partners, and whose incomes are not fixed but directly proportional to the number of customers they are able to garner, even under ordinary conditions.
The effect of this lockdown on gig workers is not lost on companies such as Urban Company (UC, formerly Urban Clap), India’s largest at-home beauty service provider, based in Gurgaon, Haryana. A phased response was adopted by UC beginning with awareness programs aimed at “training service partners on how to maintain hygiene, the right technique of washing their hands”, providing personal protective equipment, leading up to the launch of a relief fund for its 30000+ (of the 50000+) partners. It offers income protection, health insurance, and even extend business advances in the form of soft loans to service providers to help them through this difficult time. As the lockdown measures were eased to allow the functioning of essential services, UC started taking bookings for some services (plumbing, cleaning, pest services were allowed but not grooming).
While all earning from gig work depends on the number of services offered, the beauty gig workers are particularly affected and the reasons are two-fold. Firstly, the target group UC has tried to bring into gig work almost entirely comprises of women (referred to as beauty and parlour didis—older sisters in Hindi) in low paying jobs (earning Rs. 15,000 or less than USD 200 per month) at beauty salons. UC states in their press release that salon chains and independent salons are exploitative enterprises that trap “beauticians in low paying jobs and prevents them from becoming micro-entrepreneurs because they can’t afford to buy their own kit” while “salon owners own fancy cars and live in expensive homes.” UC, on the other hand, trains beauticians, and also provides portable beauty kits costing Rs. 35,000 -40,000 on an instalment basis. Although there is no break up of workforce in terms of gender or geography (in the case of migrants), it is worth asking how these women (arguably from lower socio-economic strata) who perhaps do not have ration cards that entitle them to government subsidies, and who have undertaken the risk of engaging in gig work will cope financially. How will didis who may have availed loans extended by UC to equip themselves with the tools and materials manage, now that they find themselves out of work saddled with products that may have a short shelf life?
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the level of precarity women gig workers experience is also affected by how/what the government and the platform define as ‘essential’. For the government, essential services include those directly involved in disease prevention, mitigation or care measures. When lockdown regulations were eased, UC defined ‘essential’ to mean plumbing, electric, and pest control services. After further easing of lockdown regulations (announced on May 4 2020), UC has finally started accepting bookings for grooming services in zones that are designated by the government as “safe”, provided it is not in violation of the restrictions imposed by residents’ welfare associations and housing societies. However, it remains to be seen how many beauty gig workers can actually go back to work, and if their stories of unemployment will ever make it to mainstream media or social media.
It is also noteworthy that despite so many stories about migrant workers, there is a notable absence of the woman migrant worker, including and not limited to those employed in traditional parlours or work as domestic help. It is also problematic that the common pictures of migrant women are those of pregnant women and those with children, essentialising women as mothers, and effectively making invisible single women who come to the city for their livelihood. If these stories do not make headlines, then what chance do urban women workers in gig work have of their voices being heard?
Arundhathi Roy writes, “historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next”. Perhaps, this pandemic is an entry point for us to start thinking about the very many groups of people who are differently disadvantaged. We now recognize that the lockdown has affected the informal sector in unprecedented ways. But what needs to be acknowledged is the many layers of that sector, and the nuances of the different kinds of labour that make up the whole.