Landscape of Self-Employment:
Assessing Structures, Status and Work Quality

Persons who operate their own farm or non-farm enterprises or are engaged independently in a profession or trade on their own-account or with one or a few partners are considered to be self-employed. The essential feature of the self-employed is that the operators have autonomy (i.e., how, where and when to produce) and economic independence (i.e., market, scale of operation and money) for carrying out their operation. Self-employment thus stands in contradistinction to wage employment (regular or casual) in which the employers take the decisions on what and how to produce, and the workers perform labour under their control.

The category of the self-employed thus varies in scale, type, and use of technology. It includes small and traditional operators such as farmers, weavers, ropemakers, waste-collectors, carpenters, plumbers, leather-workers, transport operators, but it also includes high level professionals such as doctors, chartered accountants, senior consultants etc. Although the self-employed persons comprise a vast heterogeneous range, the bulk of the enterprises that they operate are at low levels of technology and have low productivity.

There is a category of workers who may be termed as “dependent” self-employed workers who enjoy lesser autonomy and independence than independent self- employed workers. They work at a place of their choice which is outside the establishment that employs them, supplies them with inputs, or buys their product on pre-arranged terms. They are also referred to as ‘home workers’, ‘home based workers’ and ‘out workers’ The ‘home workers’ have some degree of autonomy and economic independence in carrying out the work, and their work is not directly supervised, as is the case for the employees. Like the other self-employed, these workers have to meet certain costs, like actual or imputed rent on the buildings in which they work, costs incurred for heating, lighting and power, storage or transportation, etc., thereby indicating that they have some tangible or intangible means of production. The system of production in which such workers participate is often known as the ‘putting out’ system. This work is performed at the premises of the worker. Examples of such outworkers in India are bidi-rollers or women engaged in embroidery work or making pappads for a particular unit/ contractor/ trader.

Technological change and the development of technology-mediated platforms have given rise to another category of workers who perform “gigs” assigned to them by the platforms. This work may be performed on-line at the premises of the workers, or may involve services which are performed at the behest of the customer or company, and may involve transportation or delivery. Such modern “gig” work is beginning to transform the landscape of erstwhile small independent services. Given that the terms and conditions of gig work is tightly controlled by the platforms, and that the workers (who may or may not own or operate some means of production) have very little autonomy, there is a raging controversy whether such work should be classified as “self-employed” or “wage-employed” but there is an increasing consensus on the need for its regulation.

Historically, self- employment is associated with petty production and is considered a transitional form. However, in several developing countries including India, the self-employed are highly resilient and self-employment has formed a fairly stable category. One of the reasons for this is that the self-employed can self-exploit i.e. work at very low levels of remuneration or long hours, instead of going out of business. The remuneration of the self-employed consists of a non-separable combination consisting of a reward for their labour, imputed cost of the cost of capital that they deploy, and the profit of their enterprise. The combined remuneration is given by the revenue from sale of output produced by self-employed persons minus the cost of purchased inputs in production. However, the self-employed generally do not put a value on their own capital and treat their gross remuneration as a return to self or family labour.

Another feature of self-employment is that most trades in which the self-employed work require small amounts of capital/land and there is relative ease of entry/exit. During periods of crisis, the ranks of the self-employed swell. This happens to have happened in India during 2004-05, and more recently, during 2019-2023.

The self-employed persons are categorised into the following three groups: (i) own-account workers: They are the self-employed who operate their enterprises on their own account or with one or a few partners and who during the reference period by and large, run their enterprise without hiring any labour. They may, however, have unpaid helpers to assist them in the activity of the enterprise. (ii) employers: The self-employed persons who work on their own account or with one or a few partners and by and large run their enterprise by hiring labour are the employers, and (iii) helpers in household enterprise: The helpers are a category of self-employed persons mostly family members who keep themselves engaged in their household enterprises, working full or part time and do not receive any regular salary or wages in return for the work performed. They do not run the household enterprise on their own but assist the related person living in the same household in running the household enterprise.

There is a fairly clear gender and age demarcation among these categories of the self-employed in India. Women and youth tend to predominate as unpaid helpers in household enterprises, whereas older men form a much larger chunk among employers and also among their own account workers. These demarcations appear to have strengthened during the Covid pandemic period.

Since the self-employed persons generally operate small enterprises which are informal in nature, the role of regulation with respect to these enterprises becomes germane. First, there is the scope of informal regulation which operates through informal networks, informal role of state agents, and kinship networks as well as caste/social groups in India. These types of regulations tend to restrict ease of entry which, as mentioned earlier, is a characteristic feature of such enterprises. Second, there is the role of omnibus regulations such as those regulating health and hygiene in the provision of food items, which are primarily made keeping in mind large, organised enterprises, but apply ipso facto, to these enterprises. Third, there are zoning and other restrictions in urban areas which affect the functioning of these enterprises. Thus, as the NCEUS report on Conditions of Work pointed out, there is a gamut of regulations which affects these enterprises.

Historically, as has been mentioned, self-employment has been seen as a transitional category, likely to wither away with the growth of the large corporate and formal sector. The share of the self-employed tends to be higher in low income countries but it declines at higher levels of income and development. The share of the self-employed is only around 6 per cent in Russia, 10 percent in the USA, and an average of 14.5 per cent across 32 countries in the European Union. On the other hand, in most of the developing countries, more so in South Asia and Africa, the percentages such workers are very high (in India being around 56 percent currently). This puts policy at cross-roads. How should government policy view the growth of the self-employed and the enterprises that they operate in relation to large formal enterprises? Should the latter’s advantage in terms of scale economies be used to squeeze the former? Should incentives be provided, through credit, marketing support and other channels to encourage the growth of the self-employed. The National Skill and Entrepreneurship Development Policy of the Government of India and the various policy measures undertaken in the last few years provide a window on the prospective dynamics of the self-employed.

Finally, given that policy initiatives can often be at cross-purposes with the growth aspirations and requirements of the self-employed, how can the gap be bridged? One way forward is to increase the voice of the self-employed in the policy space through collective organisation. In the last few decades, there have been several initiatives in India and globally to organise the self-employed. Through years of mobilisation and effort, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) which works in multiple spheres among the self-employed, has been registered as a Central Trade Union (CTU). Years of dedicated effort at mobilising street vendors led to the passage of the umbrella Street Vendor’s Act 2014 in India.

To conclude: the self-employed form a large category of workers globally and are a huge chunk of all workers in India and South Asia. There is need to conduct a differentiated analysis of this category which is experiencing changes due to shifts in the overall economy and in technology and to analyse its possible future trajectories. There is also a need to situate the dynamics of this sector and policies related to it within the overall dynamics of growth and change. The forthcoming conference will amplify and discuss the research agenda of self-employment.

Some Select Issues/Questions for the Prospective Paper Writers
  •  Why has high shares of self-employment persisted in several countries, including India? What is the likely future trend?
  •  What are the predominant demographics of self-employed individuals in different sectors and countries and what are the key drivers behind individuals choosing self-employment?
  •  What are the (differentiated) conditions of work of the self-employed workers, including homeworkers and gig-workers?
  •  How do self-employed workers manage work-life balance compared to traditionally employed people? How do they respond to crises and exogenous shocks? What are the long-term career trajectories of self-employed workers? Do they shift to other occupations in the course of time?
  •  What role does education play in preparing individuals for self-employment?
  •  How can technology be leveraged to improve work quality and efficiency for self-employed workers?
  •  What role has the organisation of self-employed workers played in influencing the conditions of work and living of self-employed workers?
  •  How does the regulatory environment in different countries influence self-employment? What are the implications of GST and other tax reforms on self-employed businesses and people in India?
  •  What role does self-employment play in the livelihood strategies of rural versus urban populations? Why is self-employment so high in some countries like India?
  •  What is the role of policy vis a vis the self-employed? How has the Indian government’s policy focus on other sectors of the economy (large corporates as well as start-ups and small businesses) impacted self-employment trends?
  •  What are the barriers to scaling up self-employed businesses in India? What is the impact of government subsidies and incentives on self-employment in India?
  •  What financial models are most effective in providing support to self-employed workers? What are the major challenges faced by self-employed workers in accessing formal banking services in India?
  •  What are the gender dimensions of self-employment? What is the role of self-employment with respect to the economic empowerment of women in India?
  •  What impact has the gig economy had on traditional self-employment structures? How have digital platforms affected the scope and scale of self-employment in India?
  •  How do self-employed workers access social security, particularly healthcare and pension benefits? What are the health and safety challenges specific to self-employed workers in India’s informal sector?
  •  How does the social structure influence self-employment opportunities and success rates in India?
  •  How does self-employment affect social mobility in different Indian communities?
  •  What are the specific challenges and opportunities for self-employed youth in India?
The guidelines on the conference themes are suggestive only. The prospective paper writers may contribute on other relevant subthemes as well. Apart from contributions on India, papers relating to other regions and countries are also welcome. Papers can be from different theoretical perspectives, as can be the use of different empirical methodologies (e.g. quantitative, qualitative, case-oriented or mixed). Submission of original work that contributes to the advancement of existing knowledge and debates on the topic are encouraged.