Whether it is the work-from-home revolution or the Great Resignation, the global workforce has seen plenty of twists and turns in the more than two years since a “novel” coronavirus first hit the headlines. Among the most seismic shifts, however, is how the pandemic has fuelled a trend that was already under way: the rise of the gig economy in which workers take on temporary, flexible jobs, often arranged online, rather than full-time employment. And there are few places where that shift has been as evident as India , a country of 1.4 billion people where an already burgeoning informal workforce has been supercharged by a pandemic-fuelled growth in digital services. Some estimates suggest India has 15 million gig workers, though depending on the definition used the true number could be far higher. In some areas – such as e-commerce, logistics, and consultancy – “flexi-staffing” is swiftly becoming the norm rather than an exception. Powering this shift is the emergence of digital platforms like online delivery services, OTT content, edtech, and virtual payment systems that have made it easy for employers to casually hook up with a freelance workforce, coupled with the growing use of mobile phones. India is estimated to have 700 million internet users and 600 million smartphone users. Over the past two years, salaried jobs have dipped by about 10 per cent to 77 million workers, according to the independent Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy think tank. At the same time, the number of daily wage labourers and small traders has been rising – an extra 11.2 million were added during November 2021 alone. From a macroeconomic perspective, it’s a boon. The Boston Consulting Group estimates gig-economy jobs have the potential to employ 90 million people in non-agriculture sectors, add more than US$250 billion to the volume of work, and contribute a 1.25 per cent rise in the country’s gross domestic product. And for the workers themselves? It’s a little more complicated. Being your own boss has its perks, but there are downsides too – not least among them the lack of a regular income and the stress of finding work. Here, four people who embraced the opportunities tell This Week in Asia about their good gigs, and their bad ones. ‘I hated the tyranny of bosses’ The couple: Jia and Diptendu Haldar, 46 It’s a bit unusual since both of us are freelancers. My partner [Diptendu] is a teacher and corporate trainer, and I’m [Jia] a writer, language tutor, and translator. We both enjoy it very much. I always hated the nine-to-five grind and the tyranny of bosses, so it is lovely to be my own boss. However, the challenges are enormous, particularly ‘finding the next gig’. Personally, it has meant fewer parties, less corporate events or glamour, but more peace of mind Jia Haldar Very often there might be months when I have no work, followed by weeks and months when I am drowning with too much to do. Professionally it means not having a fixed schedule, place, and commute to the workplace. Personally, it has meant fewer parties, less corporate events or glamour, but more peace of mind. Incomes have, of course, dropped. Overall, our lifestyle has become simpler and less flashy. The single biggest stress is that there is no fixed salary and we don’t know whether we will have enough work next month to feed ourselves. There is always an unspoken or spoken calculation in our minds about how much the two of us can make this month. ‘Will it be enough to pay the bills, loans, cards, and all other expenses?’ The freedom is great; the absence of many of the work-life hassles does make a difference. But it still requires a conscious decision every month not to go back to a ‘job’ and it needs a backbone and stomach to deal with constant uncertainty. It’s a choice but not an easy one. Maybe one day, especially with Covid, we might have to go back to wage slavery. But I sincerely hope it doesn’t happen. ‘I haven’t looked back’ The homeopathic doctor-turned-writer: Charmaine Kenita My professional life should have been predictable as a homeopathic doctor. But the urge to learn more and experiment pulled me in different professional directions. My only workplace stability was a stint as a doctor in early 2007 and as an apprentice with an art gallery. Since I jumped on the ‘gig wagon’ after my blog on art and music was picked up by a company, there’s been no looking back. I’ve surfed through all kinds of writing work and short assignments. Slowly, word of mouth pulled me into international projects – from gambling content for a European client to marketing material for an Italian wine website. The exposure is immense: the nuances I learned gave me a sharper understanding of how things work across different regions. Gradually, I turned my short gigs into a self-sustaining enterprise called Out ‘O’ Box Content in 2015. We work entirely on word of mouth from past work references, with a fine balance of Indian and international projects. I can choose not to take up something that doesn’t align with my thinking or values, and teem with ideas that need uniqueness and out-of-the-box thinking. When people ask me what I do, I cannot seem to categorise myself. My exposure to clients, especially international ones, has taught me how much value is placed on quality. ‘Like I’m working all the time’ The app developer: Ankit Mohan, 32 I started taking up freelance gigs such as web and mobile application development during lockdown. I had been working on my own start-up since 2017 and it was gaining good traction. But, the product was an office automation solution. With the lockdown and work-from-home models, the product lost stream at once. My deals with large international schools were finalised but never materialised for obvious reasons during the pandemic. So, though it happened by chance, I was well-placed with the requisite skills and knowledge. I used to do freelance work before but more as short-term side projects. Now I’m doing it full-time. Coronavirus is hurting Asia’s gig economy workers and they want government help Being a part of virtual teams that span multiple geographies and time zones is an enriching experience. I don’t know if and when the other person is going to be available, so there’s a high degree of trust needed and open communication is essential. The downside is that it feels like I’m working all the time. Though clients don’t expect you to respond immediately I find it difficult not to respond to a message at 1am. Hence, I make conscious decisions to block off down times when I’m not working and not looking at messages. Personally, the gig work is great. I get to be home. There’s no commute and traffic to deal with. Family is always around. And it’s financially rewarding as well. So, I’m trading in job security for all these perks. ‘I ride 300km a day to make ends meet’ The motorbike delivery worker: Srinivas, 30 I deliver everything from delicious food to important documents through platforms like Dunzo and Swiggy. I work from 9am to 12 midnight. While the minimum guarantee for daily income is about 2,000 rupees (US$26), I don’t get that in hand. If I earn 2,000 rupees, I’ll spend over 25 per cent on fuel. I have to roam around and ride 300km every day in the city. For me, it is a good job since I like roaming. But, I’m not satisfied and the rates are very bad. For every kilometre I travel, I get 7 rupees, which is terrible. Wherever I go, I will have to return empty-handed [which costs fuel] as even if I wait for several hours, I won’t get orders in remote parts of the city. Sometimes, we’ll get pickup orders 8km away and when I’ve got to within 400 metres of the location, the order will get cancelled. We get just 10 rupees if the order is cancelled. And then I cannot wait there. I’m forced to return [to the delivery centre]. I cannot wait and get stuck in traffic or I will never get another order. Somehow, I will have to return with no work order. If we protest and ask for a raise, the companies will immediately cancel our contracts and we will be blacklisted. Hence I have to ride 300km every day to make ends meet.