Editor’s Note: Snigdha Poonam is a journalist and author based in Delhi. Her book, “Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing Their World,” was longlisted in 2019 for the PEN America Literary Awards. Her upcoming book, “The Scammers,” follows the new networks of corruption and fraud that link India to the world. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Around this time last year, a stranger sent me a message on WhatsApp saying his life was under threat.
Only two months earlier, 32-year-old Indian national Raju Rai had answered a job ad on Facebook for a sales consultant in Thailand.
Dissatisfied with his low salary at an IT company in the northern Indian city of Varanasi, Rai took the first flight out to Bangkok, so he could earn in US dollars and send money home.
But things didn’t go according to plan. After arrival, Rai was picked up by locals representing his new employer who drove him inland for eight hours to a riverbank and then put him on a boat crossing the border into Myanmar.
Rai finally ended up at a sprawling compound that had dozens of apartment blocks and office buildings where thousands of Indians were living and working.
“I met people from everywhere in India, from my town in [the northern state] Uttar Pradesh to the edge of [the southern state] Kerala,” he told me.
Most of them were men, and they had one job: scamming wealthier people in the West.
Within days, Rai realized he was trapped in the web of cybercrime syndicates operating in ostensibly lawless zones in many parts of Southeast Asia. These syndicates traffic foreign workers from poor countries, to execute a variety of internet scams.
Rai says he and his colleagues opened fake accounts on social media impersonating attractive girls and befriended prospective victims in the US, the UK and Europe by offering love and friendship.
Once the target was reeled in, the scammers asked them if they were ready to build a shared future.
They made naïve foreigners convert their savings to cryptocurrency and persuaded them to invest all of it in fake crypto exchanges hosted on their company servers.
Barred from leaving the heavily guarded compound, those who were unwilling or unable to meet the daily targets were beaten up and tortured, Rai told me.
He was in solitary confinement when he posted a rescue call on Twitter tagging Indian authorities, including the embassy in Myanmar. I saw his tweet and sent him my phone number; we spoke the same day.
Over the following weeks, he and dozens of other Indian hostage workers were evacuated from that compound.
Once Rai was safely back home, I asked if he was in touch with the workers still trapped there. He was, indeed. Most of them didn’t want to return despite forced work and physical violence, because they didn’t see their prospects in India changing anytime soon.
“They are earning tens of thousands of dollars every month,” Rai told me. “They have nothing calling them back.”
The surplus of unemployed and underemployed young Indians has virtually created a huge pool of skilled labor that anyone running a transnational scam can seek to tap.
As India’s population this year overtakes that of China, the unrealized ambitions of its innumerable youth – more than half of its 1.4 billion people are under the age of 30 – can burden the wider world if left unaddressed.
Many Indian millennials are struggling to find a job. Unlike China, which leveraged its demographic dividend through large-scale factory employment, India’s economic growth does not rely on young workers manufacturing goods.
Shut out of the traditional labour market, the alternatives India’s working-age youth are exploring will forecast the future of work globally.
For perhaps the first time in history, we see a peculiar combination: the emergence of a large youth population that is ambitious and tech-savvy, against the backdrop of a shrinking job market and rapidly transforming internet.
Where that is taking India offers important insights for the rest of the world as to what might be coming their way.
Rethinking the gig economy
While India’s market for legitimate jobs in the technology sector expands, recruiters complain of a talent shortage that goes back to the lack of relevant education and skills training outside of elite campuses.
Even if more job seekers were upskilled, the IT industry, which currently employs around 5.1 million people, could only accommodate a fraction of the 4.75 million Indians who enter the labor force every year.
The rest will have to look elsewhere. Catering to a market of 750 million smartphone users, India’s fast-growing gig economy is attracting young workers in great numbers. Millions of them crisscross the major cities at any hour of the day, delivering food, driving commuters, and carrying beauty kits to give at-home facials.
In theory, the platform economy offers a unique combination of regular work and the freedom to opt out. But in practice, there is either too little work or too much of it – and with each task resulting in only a marginal commission, few can afford to turn off their devices.
As incidents of abuse and exploitation pile up, many of India’s gig workers are questioning their career choice.
In March, I interviewed a 19-year-old man who delivers packages for an e-commerce company. When Mithun Kumar, a high school dropout, came to Delhi from provincial Bihar last year, he was glad to find work waiting for him.
He also appreciated the days he could take off according to his will, which allowed him to spend a day lying in his bed or sitting in the park.
But now, with no savings in his bank account and money problems at home, Kumar feels he is stuck waiting for the app to send him work. He is thinking of going back home.
“I will work at my uncle’s shop for motor repair,” he said. He may not be paid right away, but he is ready to accept any opportunity to start off “real work.”
For technology companies trying to redefine work, there is something to pick up from the experiences of people like Kumar, who are turning away from on-demand employment enabled by technology despite the lack of real-world alternatives.
If gig labor is losing its promise in one of the largest markets for low-skill jobs, then the world of work may need a new direction.
Feeding the social media monster
There are other ways in which India’s young people are shaping the future of technology. Indians make up the largest user base for some of the world’s biggest technology platforms, including YouTube, WhatsApp, and Instagram.
Leaving millions of impressions every day with likes, shares, and quote-tweets, their patterns of social media use are influencing what the platforms will look like in the future: more videos (which takes care of the problem of low literacy rate), expansion of social commerce (history of selling and buying within small communities), and the rise of hyperlocal influencers (engendering high levels of trust in product).
The leaders of Big Tech might also want to study the behavior of Indian users to prepare themselves for darker contingencies.
Recently, a 28-year-old cow-protection vigilante who became wildly popular by posting hateful videos against Muslims, was linked to the murder of two Muslim men. Mohit Yadav, alias Monu Manesar, who earlier denied involvement in the case, was named as an accused in the police report filed last month.
Manesar happened to be the recipient of a Silver Play Button, a YouTube Creator Award for amassing over 100,000 followers. (YouTube said it later removed Manesar from its partner program, meaning he can no longer generate revenue from videos.) His blue tick on Instagram was also stripped.
But the move comes too late. Before the killings, human rights groups studying hate speech online said they raised concerns with social media companies that Manesar’s posts posed an urgent threat to human life.
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Neither willing to alienate their key user base nor prepared to take on the Indian government, social media companies have done little to counter the hate circulating on their platforms in multiple languages. (In response to a New York Times investigation, a Facebook spokesman previously said the company had invested significantly in technology to find hate speech in various languages, including Hindi and Bengali, and was committed to updating its policies as hate speech evolves online.)
Given their seeming lack of incentive to crack down, what is happening in India today can easily be replicated in any other place with a faltering democracy, cheap internet, and a large young population forced into idleness.
Unless the world creates purposeful jobs as fast as it’s connecting young people, no one is safe from being scammed or persecuted.