Kolkata: According to the Niti Ayog, there are close to 8 million gig workers in India, and this freelance economy is expected to rise above 30 million by 2030. While deeply exciting in many ways, it is voluntarily contradictory to all the hard work achieved by the international labour movement, which this day commemorates.
To briefly recap, May Day has its sincere origins in human rights, especially the stipulated adherence to the eight-hour workday for workers. It has its roots in both Europe and the USA, whether the Haymarket Affair in Chicago or the renowned Paris Declaration, both in the 1880s. On the premise of classist exploitation and the necessity to address this injustice.
This was not an easy movement to execute as the balance of power lay clearly with the bourgeoisie, unfairly dictating the reins of social conduct. In India, the Tatas were early adopters and this set up a predictable pattern - only when the employers were blessed with good sense did the equilibrium emerge. Else, the tales of rampant abuse continued globally, with liberated Western entities taking full advantage of draconian sweatshops.
This is exactly where the new age gig economy becomes an enigmatic curiosity - a set of multiple influences that have led to a dramatic role reversal. Where workers themselves seek to burn the midnight and every other possible oil to add rupees to their savings accounts - thus self-curating a culture of working more. In fact, this mindset change has led to a unification of every possible collar, not just blue and white.
Quite obviously, there have been fundamental changes in the construct of productive societies over the last few decades. Over time and with the adoption of both punitive measures and self-assessment, the attitude towards exploiting workers has evolved. Simply put, it is not sustainable in most global economies, with the ironic exception of North Korea, as it will not be acceptable by the integrated ecosystem at large.
Further, the factory economy realities driven by China have led to global policy protocols being rigorously implemented by even neighbourly operators. This is not a victory of morality but instead a triumph of sustainability in a Darwinian way.
Gig Economy though can be arguably considered to be a win for capitalism, in a rather opportunistic manner. Now that fundamental rights are secured due to the hard efforts of their predecessors, the perpetrators want to seemingly eat the cake and have it too. Which is to emulate the once deplored habits of business owners, wherein superhuman ambitions lead to exceptional gains.
The Uber driver does not sleep because he wants to send his child to college, the Urban Company mechanic can buy an AC due to excess labour and the Zomato delivery man desires the extra buck to buy his daughter chow mein for dinner. A quaint convergence of deeply materialistic goals driving the sotto voice disdain for what was once labour rights, fixed hours etc.
This is also the pattern for the bosses as well, the new age business leader committed to doing the hard hours and not relaxing at the Transvaal estate. As this ceases to be the heavy industry age wherein the possession of machines ensured the complicity of man. Everybody wants to work hard and there is a persuasive meritocracy, for workers it may mean an extra thousand rupees and for the owner, it may translate to a thousand million.
Consider it irony or believe it to be destiny, on May Day 2023, it can be said that workers and their bosses are finally unified, through a common affection for development. As a direct outcome of the failure of the Soviet Union and the Chinese accession to a free economy, the fundamentals of the struggle have changed. Also responsible, not in a small way, are the dictatorial exploits of the Communist leaders in Europe and Asia, astoundingly contradictory to the values they apparently espoused.
The paltry levels of development visible in Eastern Europe during the Soviet occupation bear testimony to this debacle and I speak clearly from first-hand curious experience. Perhaps the Pink Tide in Latin America will offer a genuine roadmap but that has to be seen to be believed. Till then, the efforts of the pioneering visionaries will be considered accountable as just a basic foundation, no mean feat by itself.
The other triumph of the movement, understated, is that the worker has indeed become the boss. Blinkit must be enduring a strike as they have cut employee wages while Swiggy and Zomato are constantly at the mercy of the delivery force. The entire tech services set-up, unlike say steel making, resides on the dependence on people and not knowing and this is heartening from an implementation viewpoint. As workers of yore now become strategic assets, not just the Charlie Chaplin clones of early industrialisation.
So what will happen to May Day in the coming years and decades? Will it become a defunct celebration of agendas long achieved or will it acquire a fresh meaning that includes the management as well? After all, we know by now that the folks seemingly in power are more vulnerable than ever before, with mental health crises and frequent dips in professional integrity.
Perhaps this is the ultimate victory of the historical progression, a karmic role reversal where they holding power are afflicted with the same malaise as the folks they once ruled over. A reckless lack of calm garnished with an insufficiency of being, and that is a deadly twain.
The digital revolution is actually largely responsible for this societal evolution and everybody with empathy must thank this unlikely hero. Originally the next big thing for brick and mortar industry, it became an equalizer and springboard quite effortlessly. The revolution is alive and well, just that it has become an evolution.