The Gig Factor: New tools and platforms spring up to aid laid-off workers and nervous companies

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In March, Peter Wilson’s world came crashing down, practically overnight. With two decades of experience, the 42-year-old Gurgaon resident worked as a senior hairstylist and trainer at VLCC, earning a decent salary. Post-lockdown, like everyone else, his work came to a standstill. It was never easy for Wilson, who lives with his old parents, wife and 11-year-old daughter. Now, he was plunged into a full-blown crisis. “With no salary, we had just enough money for food,” he says. Medicines for his father, who suffers from heart ailments, alone cost over Rs 5,000 a month.In June, with few options before him, he joined the gig platform Urban Company, previously known as Urban Clap, to find work. The seasoned hand, who used to be a trainer, underwent a training before being onboarded. “Training was good and relevant. It taught me how to maintain hygiene at home,” he says. Now he lands four-five gigs daily. Earnings on weekends could go up to Rs 4,000 a day. “Initially, it felt a bit odd. But reality hits you when you see your family and their needs. I am grateful that I can find work in these times,” he says. Wilson now sees virtues in adversity. For instance, he doesn’t have to work under anyone. He has enormous flexibility even though he has to travel to clients’ homes. Despite not being a staffer at the gig platform, he has an insurance policy — health as well as accident. “Bindaas kaam kar raha hoon. I give 101% and get a five-star rating. My clientele is growing, thanks to Urban Company,” he says. 78081265Silver LiningThe Covid-19 pandemic has created havoc for workers globally — across countries, incomes and skill categories. From layoffs to furloughs, hiring freeze to pay cuts, companies have undertaken sweeping measures to cut costs and deal with business uncertainty. Layoffs abound. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), 21 million salaried workers lost jobs until August 2020. Job market is squeezed dry. A Manpower Group Employment Outlook Survey forecasts the hiring season ahead will be the bleakest in 15 years. The churn in the job market has accelerated the shift towards freelance work and platforms. 78081272Workers who have lost jobs are looking for gig work, and companies, seeking flexibility on labour costs, are also hiring on a short-term basis, as green shoots of recovery make themselves felt. While the gigification of the economy has been underway for a while, it was a phenomenon mostly on the fringes of the labour market, either focused on low-end jobs that were repetitive, standardised and measurable or peripheral positions non-core to organisations.Think of drivers (Uber and Ola), delivery boys (Zomato and Swiggy) or carpenters and beauticians (Urban Company). The pandemic is now spreading the wave to the knowledge economy. “Covid-19 has amplified existing trends. There used to be a large core of permanent employees, with others (like temp, freelancers and consultants) mostly on the periphery. That large core is shrinking to a small dot now,” says Rituparna Chakraborty, cofounder, TeamLease Services. For many facing unexpected swings in fortunes, the surge in freelance opportunities has come as a saviour. 78081277Ask Bengaluru-based Malini Gowrishankar, 37, a single parent who first quit her job as a techie in 2011 to become a full-time voice-over artist (VOA). In 2013, she started a travel startup, turning entrepreneur by day and freelancer by night, doing VOA gigs like dubbing and in-store ads. Post-March, as travel stopped and her startup struggled, she switched to freelance full-time, registering on platforms such as UpWork and Fiverr. In preparation, she has upgraded her home studio to enable high-end recording and launched a YouTube channel. Raju Kumar, 31, an Amazon delivery boy, earned enough to manage his family of five, including his parents. Amid the lockdown, his work dried up. He registered on the gig platform Awign for additional work. Now, besides being an Amazon delivery boy, he works as a home verification agent. “My total income has gone up to Rs 20,000, almost what I earned in pre-lockdown days,” he says. 78081280Startup to FreelanceMalini Gowrishankar, 37Voice-Over Artist, BengaluruA techie, she became a full-time voice-over artist (VOA) in 2011. In 2013, she became a travel startup founder by day and a VOA by night. Covid-19 dried up her travel business and now she is trying to earn a living as a VOA on different platforms.Gurgaon-based Jatinder Pal Singh, 35, worked as a business manager with a distributor of Tata Steel. Post-March, the business got wiped out and his salary shrunk. A couple of months later, he registered as an electrician on Urban Company. “I know an electrician’s work. No job is good or bad. One must change with the times,” says Singh. Initially, his earnings from fixing ACs during summer months outpaced his erstwhile salary. “Now there is a slump. But I earn enough to take care of my family,” he says. 78081298Gig With a SpinHenna Achpal, 30Freelancer on TapChief, MumbaiA content specialist, she freelances for TapChief. Alongside, she writes and blogs, building her portfolio. Last month, she signed up for TapChief Assured, a programme that guarantees a minimum monthly income.Both supply and demand have surged on freelance platforms as workers have rushed to seek work, earn a livelihood and tide over the rough times. Mumbai-based Henna Achpal is a 30-year-old writer who has been finding work on the gig platform TapChief for more than a year. She says, “Post-lockdown, rates have dipped as freelancers have flooded the market.” A range of digital platforms corroborates this. Freelancer.com, which has 47 million workers on its platform, with the largest proportion (20%) coming from India, adds about 30,000 new workers daily. Between April and August, Urban Company added 5,484 new service providers to its base of 22,000. “We are expecting a surge in the next few months from both the demand and supply side,” says Abhiraj Bhal, cofounder, Urban Company. Bhal expects the number of gig workers in India to jump from 2-3 million now to 8-10 million in the next five-seven years. 78081310In-House GigJaved Ali, 33Team Leader, People Strong, GurgaonThe techie signed up for a four-month, in-house project at his company. It’s a win-win for him and the firm. Ali now works weekends to earn 60% extra. His employer too is happy to get the project executed in a time-and cost-efficient manner.Gig platform Awign, too, has seen a sharp spike in the number of registered workers, especially recent graduates. Pesto, a startup that upskills and finds global work for freelance techies, has seen an 8-10 times jump in candidates interviewing for work in the last threefour months. Shashank Murali, cofounder of the gig platform TapChief, has seen the number of tasks on the platform quadruple even as monthly job seekers surge by more than 30%.Taking CentrestageA confluence of factors is creating a strong tailwind for freelance work. Amid immense uncertainty, organisations seek the comfort of flexibility while hiring. “They have antibiotic reactions to anything that is fixed in nature. This trend is here to stay,” says TeamLease’s Chakraborty. Companies big and small are replacing erstwhile full-time positions, even critical roles, with freelance workers. “For example, UI-UX experts in India are expensive and scarce, with giants like Amazon offering fat salaries. With remote working, it does not matter if these workers are based in costlier Bengaluru or cheaper Philippines,” says Prasanna Krishnamoorthy, partner, Upekkha Catalyst. Knowledge work is complex, often non-repetitive and hard to measure with an accent on collaborative team work. Also, there were issues around data security and integrity. All good reasons why the freelancing wave merely worked on the fringes of the knowledge economy. 78081325Multiple GigsRaju Kumar, 31Delivery Boy with Amazon, MumbaiThe gig worker with Amazon saw his income shrink amid lockdown. In July, he joined another gig platform, Awign, to supplement his income and now doubles as a home-verification agent.That is changing now. Ongoing digitisation is helping unpack knowledge-based work into small parcels of multiple tasks that can be digitally farmed out to a geographically dispersed workforce. Employers have had to become meticulous with documentation, job specs and deliverables. They have had to rethink workflow in a modular fashion. “Once that is accomplished and most employees work remotely, who executes is just a matter of contractual detail,” says Prasanna. Also, social distancing, widespread practice of work from home (WFH) and massive layoffs have led to a growing social and organisational acceptance of remote working, says Pankaj Bansal, cofounder, People Strong. As new technologies lower transaction costs, companies embrace on-cloud data and WFH, and anxieties around data safety, too, have significantly lowered.Ecosystem Takes ShapeSpotting opportunities, the startup world is buzzing with new products and services to cater to gig workers. Older global freelance platforms such as Freelancer.com, Fiverr, Upwork, Designhill and Toptal are doing brisk business. Freelancer.com CEO Matt Barrie says it has 47 million users and is adding 30,000-plus daily. “India is our biggest market with very organised freelancers,” he says. Traffic is up. New, rookie companies have registered even as the average project size has dipped from $205 to $161. The big trend he spots is enterprise MNCs like Deloitte looking at freelancers seriously to meet their talent needs. startups are mushrooming, too. 78081347Take Ayush Jayswal, whose startup Pesto Technologies is focused on upskilling Indian freelance techies and pairing them with the world’s top tech companies, guaranteeing better earnings while taking a share of their income. Its intake has trebled since “The last two months have been phenomenal,” he says. The number of monthly interviews has grown 8-10 times since May.Karan Nayan, who has been a gig worker on UpWork ever since he graduated from college, is building a startup called getBenefits. It works with remote freelance techies, managing their complicated tax compliances, billing and payments from multiple clients. Awign cofounder Annanya Sarthak says its outcome-focused gig platform has 500,000 workers and “has seen a massive growth since April”. The jobs being offered are wide-ranging, from auditing to last-mile delivery. Ex-Zoho executive Ankit Pansari has launched OSlash.com. It helps freelancers — working with different projects, clients and even technologies — search across its documents and files with ease. “We help remote teams find what they need and when they need them,” he says. Serial entrepreneur Murali’s TapChief is a digital gig platform for writers, designers, etc. The number of tasks on its platform has surged five times since April even as the number of job seekers is rising by more than 30% month-on-month. It recently launched TapChief Assured programme, which is like a retainership where a minimum monthly payout is assured. Many like TapChief and Urban Company are also finding ways to offer benefits like health insurance and access to formal credit.Challenges AheadHowever, this boom has a dark underbelly. The pandemic has exacerbated the vulnerabilities of gig workers. Gig economy is premised on a flexible workforce that can be hired and fired easily, says UK-based Mark Graham, director, Fairwork. This is a world where demand and supply play a constant tug-of-war, impacting rates and assignments on offer. Covid-19 has worsened their woes as self-employed drivers and cleaners have put themselves in harms way with no access to sick leave or pay when they are unwell. Volatile income is a constant worry, ask Ola and Uber drivers. Veteran voice-over artist Gowrishankar says since she is starting afresh on freelance platforms, it is tough to get noticed. She is offering low rates in the hope that satisfied clients will let her charge more in the future. Further, trends in the freelance world shift rapidly and workers must constantly upskill and finetune their offerings. For example, due to shrinking marketing budgets, Gowrishankar’s regular clients have disappeared even as OTTs and edtech companies like Byju’s have emerged as important players. 78081357Abhijit Bhaduri, HR veteran and author of the upcoming book Dreamers & Unicorns, who turned freelancer a few years back, says getting paid work and realising payments are a challenge. Companies think freelancers come for free, he says. They want us to do pro bono work. Chasing payment is a nightmare. My advice is, don’t do pro bono work if you can afford to say no, he says. Governments, too, are waking up. The Indian government too is laying out a policy roadmap. So far, gig workers have been bereft of any social security as they are not covered under any labour laws. The government has just approved a social security code according to which gig platforms will contribute towards social security funds set up for platform workers. The code will also throw open India’s social security scheme – Employees Provident Fund – to self-employed workers, helping them build their own retirement kitty. This will help expand social security coverage to 90% of India’s workforce in the informal sector.However, in a tech-led world, where digitisation is reshaping every aspect of life, the need is to use a new lens to understand the world of work and completely reimagine the labour laws. Specifically, in India, with over 80% of the workforce in the informal sector, the challenge is more complex. We need to move our workers from low-end low wages to better wages with improved work conditions and basic protection like health insurance, says Chakraborty.

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