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Service Professionals Protest Against Gig Firm Over Low Income, Poor Working Conditions

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Even as the economy shows signs of emerging out from the adverse impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is no respite in sight for the platform-based workers across the country.

This is what those engaged with the nation’s largest home services company had to say – their ordeal is not so dissimilar to what the app-based cab drivers and delivery executives, among others, have shared earlier in the past few months.

Hundreds of service professionals working as ‘expert beauticians’ with the Urban Company staged a protest on Friday at the Gurugram office of the firm. They highlighted that the persistent high commissions charged from them and the consequent dwindling incomes are making it difficult for many to make ends meet.

All being women, the protesters said that they would go on a city-wide strike in the days to come, in case their grievances are not addressed immediately. This would also include professionals working in other categories with the Urban Company abstaining from work. Clad in a black uniform with the company’s logo on the back, women gathered outside the Gurugram office of the firm and sloganeered throughout Friday afternoon, videos shared by Entrackr, which first reported on the demonstration, showed.

Launched in 2014 as UrbanClap, the home services platform, now Urban Company, claims to be Asia’s largest in its segment. With a fleet of thousands of trained professionals in countries including India, Australia, Singapore, the UAE and The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the platform offers home services related to salon, makeup, massages, grooming, cleaning, pest control, etc.

However, the professionals engaged with the service firm, as independent professionals, allege that the working conditions are extremely exploitative. The company charges commission as high as 30-35%, a woman, who partook in the demonstration on Friday, told Newsclick over the phone.

“This was not the case when we had joined the company. We would easily earn Rs. 45,000 to 60,000 then in a month. But now, even after accepting the service duties daily, the monthly incomes are as low as Rs. 20,000,” this beautician, who had joined Urban Company back in 2017, said.

The woman requested not to be named, fearing action by the firm against her. Urban Company has threatened to “block IDs” and “decrease the ratings” of other professionals in the past, she added.

Moreover, the woes of low monthly earnings are compounded by the fact that the professionals with Urban Company are not socially secured, while they are also not offered adequate safety to work by the firm, according to the protesting service professionals.

Another aggrieved woman who spoke to Newsclick on Saturday said, “The company did offer us health and accident insurance, but in most of the cases, the cost is incurred by the working professionals, and no reimbursements are paid.” This woman alleged that the Urban Company is “very insensitive” and “does not respond properly” towards the well-being of its service professionals.

Both women had also alleged that the service professionals engaged with the Urban Company are also not happy with the different kinds of penalties that the latter impose, often based on “flimsy reasons”.

“We know many women who had to seek medical assistance because they got depressed,” the first woman quoted above said. “The situation only got worse after the pandemic – all the products are now costly– which is another reason why we demand the company to slash its commission rates.” Incidentally, the Urban Company has mandated the expert beauticians associated with it to purchase beauty products from the service firm itself – often priced higher than the market – Entrackr reported on Friday, based on the allegations levelled by protesting women.

To be sure, high commissions and the resultant low income, along with poor working conditions, have been on the lips of app-based cab drivers and delivery executives for many months now – all collectively part of what is known as the ‘gig economy’. Newsclick had earlier reported on the protest actions staged by ‘partners’ of food-delivery app Swiggy and those engaged with ride-hailing companies like Ola and Uber.

Notably, the service professionals engaged with the Urban Company, after coming together about five months back this year in a group of 40-50, have been trying to raise their grievances to the company officials in meetings, but, to no avail, Newsclick has learnt. The Urban Company was approached for comment over mail. Their response will be added as and when received.

Meanwhile, solidarity poured in for the protesting women from different corners after their protest videos surfaced on social media platforms. “We are in full support and solidarity with Urban Company women workers,” said Telangana-based Indian Federation of App-Based Transport Workers (IFAT) in a tweet.



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More opportunities under 12th Malaysia Plan, gig economy to benefit

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KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia, like many other countries, has not been spared from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is evidenced by the rising unemployment rate, which shot up to 4.5 per cent in 2020 from 3.3 per cent in 2019.

In its Graduates Statistics 2020 report, the Department of Statistics Malaysia also showed that the number of unemployed graduates jumped to 202,400 in 2020 against 165,200 in 2019.

Fortunately, the gig economy has emerged with a new opportunity, particularly for fresh graduates, to compete for jobs available not only locally but also through international platforms.

Under the recently unveiled 12th Malaysia Plan 2021-2025 (12MP), the government has assured that it will create an ecosystem that supports the development of the gig economy to encourage the people to take full advantage of this opportunity.

To improve the situation, Malaysia University of Science and Technology (MUST) professor Geoffrey Williams opined that several initiatives could be done in the 12MP, including to promote new forms of employment, new innovative companies, start-ups for graduates and a whole fresh new feel to employment post-COVID-19 crisis.

“This means liberalising markets; promoting entrepreneurs; freeing up opportunities; making life simpler for micro, small and medium enterprises; and promoting decent, well-paid jobs with good work-life balance and long-term flexibility and security in a whole new future of work,” he told Bernama when contacted recently.

Apart from that, he said, social pensions and social insurance with help from the government and companies should be added to safeguard the welfare of gig workers.

Asked what should the government focus on while creating the ecosystem as mentioned in the 12MP, Williams noted that it is important to not allow unemployment and underemployment to become the norm.

Taking Europe and the United States in the 1980s for example, he said unemployment had become a structural problem for decades.

“We must avoid this, as we can see it is not so much that graduates lack skills or a determination to work, it is more that there are too few good jobs in existing firms,” he said.

While the importance of the gig economy has been emphasised in the 12MP, one of the major concerns is that the gig economy in Malaysia is often linked to “lowly jobs” such as delivery riders and e-hailing drivers who constantly work in an environment with lack of proper welfare protection.

To prevent gig workers, especially fresh graduates, from falling into such a “low-value-added-job trap”, Williams is of the view that the government should provide a good, transparent and supportive environment with less interference.

He said laws should also be reviewed to ensure gig workers are protected and have rights, particularly to be paid and paid properly.

“Gig economy jobs can be viable, empowering and flexible income options, so the right legal framework and due process options must be there,” he said.

According to Williams, there could also be an ombudsman scheme to help make enforcement easier, even with online claims.

“We need to stop unscrupulous firms using gig-economy workers to avoid paying minimum wages and benefits, and we must also stop exclusive zero-hour contracts which act as a constraint on trade for gig economy workers.

“People should be free to work for multiple companies so they can get gigs from whoever has them available,” he said, adding that laws should also be made easier for gig workers to register as enterprises and create enforceable contracts, rather than just template agreements with mega-firms.

Encouraging high-value gig jobs

While acknowledging that gig economy jobs are often linked to low-skilled, low-income work such as delivery riders and e-hailing drivers, Williams said the people should not limit their ideas to these.

He said nowadays, freelance professionals often set up micro-enterprises using online platforms to provide services in areas such as graphic design and branding, digital marketing and e-commerce, freelance writing and content creation, virtual assistant and professional support, online training and coaching, as well as web development and coding.

“Even professionals like lawyers and accountants are offering services using online platforms now, and it is becoming quite respectable and well-paid,” he said.

To encourage high-value gig jobs in the country, the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) piloted the eRezeki High Income Apprentice programme in 2016 to explore the opportunities in the digital freelancing segment.

The six-month pilot programme, which ended in December 2016, trained and mentored 658 participants who successfully generated a cumulative income of RM2.9 million.

Among the jobs and work performed by digital freelancers are programming, graphic design, data analytic, content writing, proofreading, translation, and transcription. These jobs are normally high-value in nature and therefore requires relevant qualifications.

The pilot project was later scaled up as the Global Online Workforce (GLOW) programme in 2018, with the aim to empower local talents, especially the unemployed and underemployed graduates, to become digital freelancers by leveraging their knowledge, skills, and abilities to secure and perform jobs from the global market.

This effort will be continued in the 12MP to train the local talents on how to become digital freelancers by providing relevant opportunities that could improve the capabilities and the quality of Malaysian digital freelancers in the global market.

Meanwhile, upskilling and reskilling training programmes will be made available to improve the career path of the gig workers in the location-based platforms. – Bernama



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Prop. 22 governing gig workers found unconstitutional, but in effect

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By Christopher B. Dolan and Matt Gramly

This week’s question comes from Josh D. from Marin County. With our current 24-hour news cycle, it’s hard to keep up with all the important issues in our daily lives. It seems like Proposition 22 was an initiative constantly discussed five years ago that went away. Did Proposition 22 ever take effect?

Dear Josh: Thanks for reaching out. Many people may have forgotten about Prop. 22. On Aug. 20, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch ruled Prop. 22 to be unconstitutional.

Recall that Prop. 22, a ballot initiative passed by California voters in 2019, permitted many gig economy companies such as Uber, Lyft and DoorDash to classify their drivers as independent contractors instead of employees. These companies and others poured over $200 million into the campaign to pass Prop. 22.

The benefit to the companies in classifying drivers as contractors rather than employees is that it allows them to evade almost every regulation in place governing how companies treat their employees, as well as most costs associated with having employees. These include health insurance benefits, minimum wage laws, safety regulations, workers compensation insurance, etc.

Relating specifically to drivers, the companies would be excused from paying employees mileage and reimbursing them for the cost of gasoline and vehicle maintenance. The cost savings to these companies would have been in the billions of dollars annually. The downside, of course, is that drivers would have to pay for their own health insurance coverage and would have almost none of the benefits that most full-time employees receive. The cost savings to the companies gets shifted to the drivers, as expenses to them.

Prop. 22 was far reaching and expansive in its language and in the sheer number of components it included. For instance, it also contained language that would prohibit drivers from forming a union. For that reason, as well, the judge wrote, Prop. 22 violated the constitutional requirement that ballot initiatives be limited to a single subject.

Relative to the point prohibiting unionization, Roesch wrote that it “appears to only protect the economic interests of the network companies in having a divided, un-unionized workforce, which is not a stated legal goal of the legislation.”

Roesch is saying that the drafters of Prop. 22 overreached both on process and in substance.

Prop. 22 was created as a ballot initiative by gig-worker companies as a direct response to Assembly Bill 5, a law passed by the California Legislature and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. AB 5 would have required these companies to classify drivers as employees, thus granting them benefits including minimum wage protections, workers compensation insurance, overtime pay, etc.

Much of the basis for Roesch’s ruling in finding Prop. 22 unconstitutional rests largely on the idea that in California, in accordance its Constitution, only the Legislature can, for example, regulate compensation for workers’ injuries. The goal cannot be accomplished through a ballot initiative process because the Constitution grants that right exclusively to the Legislature.

In essence, Roesch said that Prop. 22 took that power away from the Legislature, thereby violating the Constitution. In his ruling, Roesch also said California voters have the power to make such a change to the Constitution, but, “If the people wish to use their (ballot) initiative power to restrict or qualify a plenary and unlimited power granted to the Legislature, they must do so by (a ballot) initiative constitutional amendment, not by (a ballot) initiative statute.”

Voters would have to amend the Constitution first, amending it to permit, in effect, the passage of legislation through ballot initiatives. Neither the voters nor the Legislature have thus far amended the Constitution in such a manner. The state Legislature followed the Constitution in properly passing AB 5 through the legislative process as dictated by the Constitution. Prop. 22’s authors and backers did not, thereby violating the Constitution.

Ride-hail giant Uber has filed an appeal and requested a stay on Roesch’s ruling until the appeal is complete. While it pending, Roesch’s order does not yet take effect. For now, at least, these companies do not have to classify drivers as employees and can continue to use them as independent contractors, saving billions of dollars in costs, to the detriment of their drivers.

Christopher B. Dolan is the owner of Dolan Law Firm, PC. Matt Gramly is a senior litigation attorney in our San Francisco office. We serve clients throughout the Bay Area and California from offices in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles. Email questions for future articles to: help@dolanlawfirm.com. Each situation is different, and this column does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with an experienced trial attorney to fully understand your rights.

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