Analysing the Development Impact of the Gig Economy using Sen’s Capability Approach: A Case Study of the Physical Gig Economy in India

Hiroto Yanaka & Richard Heeks


The gig economy – a market system using digital platforms that matches workers and customers for short-term work opportunities – has spread rapidly worldwide, including in the global South.  Despite significant research on this phenomenon across multiple disciplines, relatively little work has been undertaken from the perspective of development studies and using core development theories.

This paper analyses the development impact of the gig economy using Sen’s capability approach, operationalised through a framework of five freedoms: economic, political, social, informational and security.  These freedoms were developed into a set of core capabilities deemed important for gig workers.  Using this set as a framework, we gathered data from gig workers working for Uber and Zomato in India, and from secondary sources on gig work in India.

Some workers were able to realise capabilities such as decent income, freedom from ill-health and exclusion, and skill development.  However, others were not, and there were general constraints on achievement of capabilities such as flexible working, freedom of association, information accessibility, social protection, and freedom from harm.  On this basis we recommend ways to improve the development of freedoms through gig work.

The contribution here is not so much in exposing unknown features of gig work in the global South.  Instead, we show how applying this development theory can enable a direct connection from gig work to development discourse; we develop a systematic and customisable framework for application of capability theory to gig work; and we show the new perspectives on gig work that a capability approach offers in terms of the role of context and choice, the differential value attributed to different freedoms, and the way in which those freedoms are interconnected.

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