In this study we consider three kinds of informal workers in India—gig workers, domestic workers and surrogates involved in child birth, and how they constitute a precariat workforce, characterised by informal working conditions, wage squeeze and heightened insecurity and risk. The aim is to reflect on how solidarity and care are interwoven with the conceptual categories of risk and responsibility. Such an exploration invites new scrutiny of how some services came to be marked, during lockdown, as ‘essential’, rendering several others ‘non-essential’ and hence disposable. In the process we suggest that the pandemic could lead to productive negotiations regarding cultural values surrounding work.
Policy and academic conceptualisations of work (formal, informal) often revolve around the basic relation of risk-responsibility. Jobs with the most tightly defined labour regulations and laws on minimising risk, which ascribe responsibility for worker safety, are arguably the most decent forms of work. However, with the pandemic, norms of physical distancing, quarantines, and lockdowns raise new questions of risk and responsibility, especially as they relate to informal workers. Risks currently include contact with large numbers of people, economic insecurity and social isolation.
It is in this context that risk is an important part of the current pandemic vocabulary—one that is unfortunately not explicitly a part of the understanding of what constitutes ‘essential’. This erasure enables a reinforcement of traditional hierarchies of caste and class, where ‘lower’ caste, and economically disadvantaged workers are over-represented in the informal and precarious work force that is low-waged and risky. and where their work remains culturally devalued.
Marking Essentials and Exceptions: Thinking through Risk
Recognising that the concept is not absolute, the International Labour Organisation defines essential services as “services whose interruption would endanger the life, personal safety or health of the whole or part of the population”. However, the Covid-19 crisis identifies ‘essentialness’ through the operation of ‘exceptions’. The Indian government as part of its lockdown policies listed a collection of services and establishments that must remain ‘open’ or operate. Besides hospitals and law and order establishments, e-commerce portals for the delivery of goods and services, were identified as critical to the operation and sustenance of the lockdown. Services and people remain ambiguously marked through a rhetoric of ‘essentialness’. It may be helpful to shift the focus away from thinking of services in terms of dichotomous categories of essential and non-essential and to conceive of essentiality and non-essentiality as two ends of a continuum—that includes a necessary negotiation with risk and responsibility. Within this continuum, birthing surrogates, domestic workers and gig workers are positioned differently. While the gig workers’ securing short term work on online aggregating platforms such as Swiggy, Deliveroo etc are clearly identified as essential for service delivery, pregnant surrogates, especially those who have just delivered, may be suddenly rendered non-essential. Domestic workers occupy an in-between position on this continuum as families can manage without them (making them non-essential) but are vital in their role as care-providers for the elderly, children and those with physical disability (thus essential). The pandemic has highlighted that for all these categories, whether marked as essential, non-essential or in-between, the risks remain high while employer responsibility for them is avoided. Precarious work, as Beck indicated early on is a “risk-fraught system of flexible, pluralised, decentralised underemployment…” (1992:143).
Gig workers divided between ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ work find themselves at imminent risk from either hunger and abject poverty due to work ending or from risk of contracting Covid-19 while working. In food-delivery, gig workers operate with minimal safety gear but have to install the Indian government’s contact-tracing app which has caused alarm for its violation of privacy rights. Meanwhile, transport gig workers without work find it difficult to access benefits. Even as Uber has collected funds for supporting workers, drivers and the Indian Federation of app-based transport find that the bulk of drivers have not received any benefit.
The Politics of Support and Care: Reframing Responsibility
To think through labour positioning, in times of crisis and otherwise, is to think of workers not as goods or ‘essential’ (to others) but as having access to basic human rights. The pandemic has shown how risk tends to be created through the interplay of movement, and locationality. This is evident in case of returning rural migrants left to the mercy of the elements (literally), those unable to move and seek employment due to restrictions similar to domestic workers and commercial surrogates; and gig economy workers who are forced to move and deliver essential goods and services without adequate support.
In all these cases one sees that the risk associated with informal labour is further exacerbated under the pandemic, heightening precarity. In the midst of the pandemic, gig corporations have been able to raise capital, but have declined any formal benefit because drivers/delivery persons are not legally recognised as employees. Instead, responsibility has been outsourced to consumers. Similarly, employers of domestic workers are refraining from their responsibility as employers by denying monthly wages, forcing workers to report to work during lockdown and stigmatising them as potential carriers and super spreaders. The figure of the surrogate gets obliterated in discussions focussing on intended parents separated from their new-borns due to travel restrictions under COVID-19—as evident in figures 2 a and b. All these workers are experiencing depleting levels of savings and earnings, while bearing significant risks to themselves and their families.
Forging Solidarity by Taking Responsibility
While the current dominant public narrative around coronavirus is that ‘we are all in it together’, what also becomes glaringly evident is that even though we are all affected, we are not affected equally. The collateral damages of the pandemic are fast becoming evident as informal workers fear joblessness, crises of food and shelter with loss of income and discrimination. What is also evident is the heightened sense of the distinction between ‘us’ (beneficiaries/receivers of labour) and ‘them’ (labour providers/doers). This distinction becomes exacerbated and enmeshed within existing prejudices of cleanliness and sanitation—that are the bulwark of avoiding infection—and are also part of larger caste rhetoric on purity and impurity. In Figure 3, the domestic worker is essential and yet must be kept at arms’ length, as many households do. In paying advance salaries, households bind domestic workers to compulsory work both in the present and the future, despite the danger of the virus spreading. Even though households claim to be fulfilling their ‘responsibility’ towards poor domestic workers, there is no sense of solidarity here.
These times present a unique opportunity to think about the value of labour and address deep-seated structural inequalities that inform the condition of those who care. This is also a moment for cultivating a shared sense of responsibility and a new language of solidarity—individual and collective—towards those care-givers whose labour often remains unrecognized and underpaid. Yet the responsibility of support and solidarity cannot be left to individual initiatives. At a time when the Indian state’s response has been to decimate labour laws, this moment invites us to consider the radical potential of solidarity and care grounded in politics, a return to labour movements where welfare and support were seen as rights and not privileges.
Beck, Ulrich. 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage.
Raja, Aditi. 2020. “Gujarat: Babies Stuck in Surrogacy Hub, Parents Wait for Travel Nod”. The Indian Express, May 5.
Jha, Durgesh Nandan. 2020. “Delhi: Baby Born after Seven Failed IVFs can’t Meet her Parents”. The Times of India, May 1.
 Several states in India have announced the suspension of labour laws for periods extending up to 3 years. Introduced with an eye on boosting economic growth affected by the pandemic, many of these laws pertain to basic work conditions and worker safety such as rights to strike, to water, canteens and crèches.
Gayatri Nair, Paro Mishra and Anindita Majumdar
New Delhi, India
GAYATRI NAIR is assistant professor, Department of Social Sciences and Humanities, Indraprashtha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi. She works on informal labour and livelihoods in urban spaces. Her doctoral thesis on the capitalist transformations affecting the fisher community in Mumbai and emerging urban contestations is due to be published later this year by Oxford University Press. She has also published on working caste lives and the politics of food consumption. She is currently researching questions of precarity, autonomy and social hierarchies in gig work in India.
PARO MISHRA is assistant professor, Department of Social Sciences and Humanities, Indraprashtha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi. Over the past decade, she has been doing research on migration, gender and social reproduction of families and communities in north India. She has published on intimate migrations, consequences of sex ratio imbalance, masculinity, aging and inter-generational relations. Her ongoing research project on cross-cultural intimacies has been funded by the Indian Council of Social Science Research (2018). She is currently researching questions of precarity and the impact of Covid-19 on migrant domestic workers in India.
ANINDITA MAJUMDAR is assistant professor, Department of Liberal Arts, Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad. She has been working on infertility and commercial surrogacy for the past decade, and has authored: Transnational Commercial Surrogacy and the (Un)Making of Kin in India (2017); and Oxford India Short Introductions Series: Surrogacy (2019). Anindita is currently writing on research findings exploring the linkages between ageing and assisted reproductive technologies in India, which was supported by a generous grant from Wellcome UK. Her first book, based on her doctoral thesis, was shortlisted for the Bloomsbury LSE Social Anthropology Monograph Award 2016.