Ground Reports

Breathing on Two Wheels: India’s Gig Workers Grapple with Toxic Air and Lack of Social Security Benefits

A recent study revealed that gig workers, particularly while on their two-wheelers, inhale air filled with high concentrations of particulate matter (PM) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, a known carcinogen.

By Aman Singh, 7 Nov 2023

As November brought a thick layer of toxic haze to India’s capital city, New Delhi, the Air Quality Index (AQI) surged into the “severe” category. Despite these hazardous conditions, Prem Raj, a 35-year-old Zomato food delivery worker, embarked on his daily delivery routine. Raj’s story sheds light on the struggles faced by India’s gig workers, especially those in the two-wheeler delivery sector.

From Vegetable Shop to Food Delivery

Raj, who resides in a rented place in Delhi’s Massigarh area, transitioned to delivering food items two years ago to sustain his livelihood after his vegetable shop closed due to the economic challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, Delhi’s toxic air is among the various factors causing trouble in his incentive-led and unregulated field of gig work.

Suffering from an itchy throat and subsequent coughing, Raj shared with Mojo Story, “I used to spend 7-8 hours every day on the road. The air is so polluted that it feels difficult to breathe while traveling. It is giving me frequent headaches and dizziness. Now I cannot drive for more than 4 hours in a day.”

Gig Economy’s Health Concerns

India boasts 7.7 million gig workers, a number expected to soar to 23.5 million by 2029-30. Among them, two-wheeler riders and food delivery workers constitute a substantial portion. A recent study published in Atmospheric Pollution Research revealed that these gig workers, particularly while on their two-wheelers, inhale air filled with high concentrations of particulate matter (PM) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, a known carcinogen.

Representative Image

Surveyed in Delhi-NCR, it was found that delivery workers were exposed to 516, 180, and 113 micrograms per cubic meter of air of particulate matter PM10, PM 2.5, and PM1, respectively, including exposure to carcinogens while riding their vehicles.

Unawareness and Unrecognized Struggle

Speaking to Mojo Story, Abinaya Sekar, a senior research associate at the Centre for Policy Research and the author of the study, said, “We assessed the exposure to particulate matter and volatile organic compounds while the workers were delivering the food. Our study also found that only 67% of the surveyed workers were aware of the harmful impacts of the toxic pollutants they were inhaling.”

Sekar emphasized that platform companies should sensitize workers about exposure to higher levels of air pollution. “Whether it’s providing them with masks, organizing training sessions, or bearing the costs of health check-ups, the companies should take responsibility for ensuring the workplace health safety of the workers,” she said.

In India, platform companies refer to gig workers as “consultants” or “partners,” and these workers do not have the conventional employee-employer relationship. This implies that platform companies in India typically do not offer health insurance, paid leave, job security, or legally binding contracts to gig workers.

Amit, a 28-year-old delivery worker in Delhi and the sole earner of the family, experienced severe chest pain that put him on bedrest for a year. “As a gig worker, I did not have the option for sick leave. My family had to depend entirely on savings to sustain ourselves,” he said.

Speaking to Mojo Story, Mohammed Sajjad Hussain, a researcher at Delhi School of Economics (DSE), said, “Delivery workers are on the road for most of the time, except for the delivery location and pick-up location. A normal commuter will be on the road to go or come back to a particular location. Their exposure is way more than any other commuter. For delivery workers, roads are their workspaces, which have been unsafe for them with toxic air pollution.”

Hussain added that the primary motive for platform companies is to make a profit, and they are not concerned with the issue of delivery workers inhaling hazardous measures.

“Even if they have health insurance, the consequences of air pollution might not be immediate. They may come after 4-5 months. If the workers are no longer associated with the platforms or their IDs are blocked for some reason, they will not be able to avail any benefit. The challenges are in the very nature of gig work,” Hussain told Mojo Story.

Pleas for Legislation and Social Security

Several gig workers have been urging the central government to enact legislation and policies that clearly define gig work, establish rules for compliance and compensation by companies, and outline the legal rights to which gig workers are entitled.

On July 24, 2023, the Rajasthan government passed the Rajasthan Platform-Based Gig Workers (Registration and Welfare) Act, 2023 (“Act”), becoming the first state in India to pass legislation that regulates the engagement of gig workers and ensures social security benefits for platform-based gig workers.

The Role of Central Legislation

The Code on Social Security, 2022 (SS Code) at the central level acknowledges gig and platform workers as a distinct category of labor and aims to provide them with various benefits, but these benefits are not mandatory in nature.

“The solution is not just about giving health insurance or providing the workers with things like masks. It is around finding a systematic solution to this issue. The fact that these health issues are caused directly by external forces, the basic thing the companies can do is give allowances or provide paid leaves. But there is no concept of sick and paid leaves,” said Rikta Krishnaswamy, Delhi-NCR coordinator of the All India Gig Workers Union.

Looking Ahead

As gig workers continue to navigate the challenges posed by toxic air and an unregulated gig economy, the call for effective legislation and social security resonates across the industry workers. The story of India’s gig workers unfolds as a complex narrative, intertwining health hazards, economic uncertainties, and the quest for recognition and protection in an evolving gig economy.

About the author: Aman Singh is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.