In May, a bike-taxi driver was arrested in Bengaluru for allegedly harassing a woman passenger. This was one in a string of similar incidents in recent years, drawing attention to the gaps in the implementation of India’s workplace sexual harassment law by online platforms that offer services such as food delivery and ride hailing.

The challenge does not just relate to customers facing harassment from workers. It has perhaps been even more difficult to seek protection under the law for gig workers – workers who take on short-term jobs allotted to them by online platforms that connect customers with service-providers.

The fact that much gig work does not take place in an office but is mobile and scattered poses a major challenge in implementing the law. Moreover, platforms argue that they are not employers but aggregators of customer requests. They claim that they have no binding legal obligations towards workers, who are “partners”, not employees.

Cases involving the assault of or by gig workers have either been hushed up or categorised as “non-labour issues” that are beyond the purview of aggregators. This, even though the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013, or PoSH Act, also applies to platforms.

A sector on the rise with few legal protections

Since 2011-’12, India has seen a rapid rise in platform-based work. Some jobs in this sector can be done off-site, such as audio transcription or content moderation. Location-based gig work, on the other hand, involves being physically present to provide services such as ride-hailing, food delivery, home repair and salon services.

The platform sector now employs around 0.99 crore workers, according to a 2022 Niti Aayog report.

Interviews with platform workers in the metropolitan cities of Bengaluru, Hyderabad, the National Capital Region and Kolkata found that sexual harassment, abuse and hostile working conditions are common – though there is little official data available. The interviews were conducted by this author as part of research on women in the gig work sector and to evaluate the implementation of the workplace harassment law in its 10th year.

An analysis of the Terms of Service of major gig work platforms found that none of them mention workplace sexual harassment policies, including standard procedures such as forming internal complaints committee and establishing the first points of contact. The terms of service is the basis of the contracts between workers, platforms as well as customers.

However, the section on “extended workplace” in Chapter 1 of the PoSH act squarely addresses the mobile and scattered nature of gig and platform work in customer households, vehicles and other locations. In addition, it defines an “aggrieved woman” as “…a woman…whether employed or not, who alleges to have been subjected to any act of sexual harassment by the respondent…” in a workplace.

Representative image. Credit: Rowan Freeman via Unsplash.

The 2015 Handbook On Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace by the Ministry of Women and Child Development states that an “aggrieved woman” may even be “visiting a workplace” in addition to being a “contract worker/probationer/trainee/apprentice/called by any other such name”.

The phrase “called by any other such name” means that despite platforms using the term “partner”, gig-work sector employees fall under the purview of the act. These provisions mean that a platform is liable to protect a woman customer as well women workers or “partners”.

Despite this, the gig workers who were interviewed said that none of the platform companies with which they are affiliated mentioned the workplace sexual harassment law during the process of bringing them aboard. Partners said they were unaware of mandatory aspects of the workplace sexual harassment law or that the company’s sexual harassment policy must be featured on digital platform spaces like apps or websites.

Platforms can function as faceless entities enforcing arbitrary rules that a partner has to abide by, with few options to communicate their concerns. For women gig workers, this results in increased vulnerability given the precarious nature of their jobs and the lack of institutional support or safety.

Unsafe, hostile work conditions

Research body Fairwork notes in the 2022 report that women in the salon sector find that the power balance is skewed against them when they enter an unknown person’s home. Eight out of 11 salon workers interviewed by this author said that they are wracked with unease, anxiety and fear while working.

For instance, Tina, from Kolkata, said, “The customer has all my information, while I only have their location and the list of jobs.” She said that when she goes to the homes of customers alone, family members often look at her to make sure she is “clean and hygienic”. “Sometimes they ask for extra jobs while the platform has told us to not do anything extra without telling them,” she said.

In Greater Noida, salon worker Reema has faced cases of men booking on behalf of women, as well as for men, which the platform prohibits and allows for the booking to be canceled. “Sometimes, when men answer the door, I do not go inside but ask for the woman [who booked the appointment],” said Reema. “If she does not come, I am in great dilemma whether to cancel the booking.”

Cancellations are punished by the platform. Three cancellations in a month attract penalties such as a worker’s ID being blocked, resulting in income loss as restorating it is a time consuming arduous process. Further, platforms force late-hour bookings with promises of assistance towards traveling to and from worksites.

Bindu from Hyderabad, who is a salon worker with a platform, said that during a protest at the office of the company, workers felt unsafe at times.

“When we went to the office, I positively felt that the manager was ogling at me,” she said. “I was very uncomfortable.” Finally, to handle the protesting workers who were mostly women, female bouncers were hired, said Bindu. But Bindu’s experience of being ogled at and facing gender-based intimidation is clearly mentioned in the “hostile work environment” category of the sexual harassment law.

Representative image. Credit: Fikri Rasyid via Unsplash.

Official numbers on the sexual harassment of women gig workers are hard to come by. During interviews, this author found women saying: “I have been lucky!” or “someone my friend knows once spoke about something like this”. Much of the information received about sexual harassment was anecdotal. This is in line with the national trend of zero reporting of workplace sexual harassment.

Nandita Shivakumar, one of the principal mobilisers on behalf of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance for the Dindigul Agreement to Eliminate Gender-Based Harassment and Violence, says that it took workers in the textile sector almost a decade before they could even start speaking about harassment in factories.

According to Shivakumar, questions about the occurrence of harassment must move beyond simple “yes” or “no” to inculcate sensitivity to its “everyday-ness”. It is extremely difficult for women to report offenders fearing judgement and stigma from colleagues and family and the threat of income-loss.

Sujata Mody, national secretary of the New Trade Union Initiative, said working-class women in male-dominated factories both in the formal and informal sectors are wary of complaining about sexual harassment because of their long experience of being laid off for highlighting such assaults. Despite the implementation of the Vishaka guidelines, which were superseded by the PoSH Act, this sentiment has barely altered and women workers have little trust in institutional will to act fairly.

Sexual harassment by gig workers

When it comes to alleged sexual harassment by platform workers, incidents and cases can be more complex than the details reported by the news media. Every time an assault occurs, platforms blame the worker though they fail to do adequate background checks, as was reported in the Bengaluru case.

Moreover, platforms fail to sensitise workers about what constitutes assault. For instance, Shaik Salauddin, the founding state president of the Telangana Gig and Platform Workers Union and the elected National General Secretary of the union and a co-founder of the Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers, said he did not know what to do when a female passenger fell unconscious in his cab. He said he was hesitant about “touching” the customer to wake her up and worried that it could become a case of proving that his intention was not malicious. He added that like him, workers are unsure of what they should and should not do in some situations.

These concerns relate to the vacuum in how platforms deal with and institute policies to address sexual harassment. The lack of clear legal policies on sexual harassment leads to the male gig worker being perceived as a potential offender, while the female customer is defencelessly harassed. The distrust is compounded by the disadvantaged socio-economic status of most gig workers who are first generation entrants to the formal sector, sole earners for the family and/or single mothers.

When complaints of harassment are made against a male worker, companies or platforms respond by blacklisting, blocking them out from the apps and immediately terminating their contracts.

In such cases, sensitisation about workplace sexual harassment, like the sessions conducted at white-collar offices, would have played an important role for platform workers. Such sessions are for men and women employees to promote a shared understanding of what is sexual harassment so that men do not behave in any way that can be interpreted as sexual harassment.

In an ecosystem of ratings and reviews that hide the social biases of customers. Workers end up finding their own ways of coping while being silenced. An important starting point would be for platforms to start taking accountability.

All names have been changed to protect identities.

Geetisha Dasgupta is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Development, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

Opinions are that of the author and are not endorsed by and do not reflect the views of Azim Premji University.