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Everywhere, but Nowhere: The Invisibility of Gig Workers and Contract Workers

DAY 322 March
11:00-12:15 GMT+5:45

Image by Joshua Lawrence

Gig and contractual workers can be seen across all industries and all sectors. They are rarely hired as regular employees, despite repeatedly working for the same businesses, and therefore, lack access to employment benefits and social security. Additionally, the existing grievance mechanisms barely offer redressal to their complaints and issues.


Gig workers are engaged in short-term, on-demand work arrangements through online platforms or applications. Though the definition of “employee” and “workplace” is still ambiguous for gig workers, they often work for multiple clients or companies simultaneously. Given the type and terms of contracting (or lack of formal contracts), they are often denied a living wage, safe and healthy working conditions, and protection from discrimination and harassment. Additionally, there is a lack of freedom of association and collective bargaining. They are subjected to difficult working conditions, such as long hours, limited breaks, and inadequate safety measures. There is a need to ensure policy arrangements within businesses specific to gig workers.


Similarly, contract workers can be seen across all industries and sectors. Sanitation workers, night workers, and security guards fall into this category. While the session will more broadly discuss the challenges contract workers face, it will focus on sanitation workers as a case study. 


Sanitation workers, especially in South Asia, face additional discrimination based on caste and religion. They often work as casual or contract labourers, paid a meager wage, and are denied social protection benefits and job security. All businesses employ sanitation workers but in small numbers. In effect, they become this invisible workforce that comes before and after the employees in a formal engagement end their workday.


While the business and human rights discourse is actively leading toward creating new mechanisms related to disclosures, due diligence, and grievance redressal, these mechanisms are often incompatible with the lives of these workers. The sectoral understanding of business and human rights also side-stepping the concerns of these workers. By virtue of their low-wage nature, these two typologies of workers are also vulnerable to gender and caste issues.


Session Description 


This session aims to describe unique vulnerabilities associated with gig and contract workers and discuss the reasons for their invisibility in the business and human rights discourse. The session also aims to explore the gaps in the current protection mechanisms available to these workers and discuss the role of states and businesses in ensuring equal rights and access to remedies for gig and contract workers.


The session will start with workers’ testimonies and build upon their experiences. The discussants will reflect on some challenges in integrating these workers in the ongoing business and human rights discourse. The session will also discuss the structural barriers that these workers face due to their other identities, including age, caste, religion, ethnicity, ad other overlapping identities.


Lastly, the session will present some mechanisms for access to remedy and how these can be strengthened.

Session Objectives 

  • To institutionalise the voices of gig and contract workers in business and human rights debates;

  • To assess the role of governments and businesses in protecting and respecting the rights of gig and contract workers;

  • To explore the efficacy of trade unions in addressing the issues faced by gig and sanitation workers;

  • To identify potential areas for collaboration between businesses, civil society, trade unions and government to improve the working conditions and ensure the rights of gig and sanitation workers.



Panellists will reflect on the following questions:

  • Are the UNGPs and related standards appropriate and sufficient to address human rights risks faced by gig and contract workers?

  • How can we increase the visibility of the unique challenges that gig and sanitation workers face,?

  • How can we ensure that legislation and business practices on human rights due diligence and reporting consider the challenges that gig and sanitation workers face?

  • How can states and businesses proactively create spaces for addressing these workers' business-related human rights abuse?



  • Harpreet Kaur, Business and Human Rights Specialist, UNDP Asia Pacific

  • Sadaf Parveen, Home based worker

  • Revathi, Sanitation worker

  • Sandeep Sachdeva, Founder and Director, Safe in India

  • Basudev Barman, International Transport Workers'​ Federation (ITF)

  • Umme Laila Azhar, Executive Director, HomeNet Pakistan

  • Sekender Ali Mena, Safety for Rights


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