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India’s delivery workers are driving a conversation about long hours and low pay

FILE PHOTO: Delivery workers of Zomato wait to collect orders outside a restaurant in Kolkata
REUTERS/Rupak De Chowduri/File Photo
Going public.
  • Niharika Sharma
By Niharika Sharma

Reporter

Published

Last month, food delivery platform Zomato unveiled new ads with Bollywood stars Katrina Kaif and Hrithik Roshan in a bid to showcase its star treatment of all its customers. What many viewers took to Twitter to point out instead was the accidental portrayal of the plight of overworked delivery workers. In one ad, the worker’s face falls when he is unable to stay and take a selfie, because his phone pings with the next delivery.

But the conversation around the long hours and low pay didn’t begin with those ads. Instead, as the buzz around delivery app valuations heightened in recent months ahead of Zomato’s July IPO, a number of social handles whose users say they are delivery riders have been dishing the dirt on firms such as Zomato and Swiggy. The posts, which often detail pay structures at the biggest delivery companies, are adding insights to the conversation around gig work in India that wouldn’t be possible otherwise, and amplifying complaints from riders and unions.

Mumbai-based @Deliverybhoy, on Twitter since May, recently pointed out that some delivery riders aren’t being paid on schedule, and retweeted posts from other delivery riders about how much they pay for fuel versus how much they earn.

“Most workers don’t have the time, inclination to use Twitter. It’s viewed as a platform for those who speak English and workers don’t feel at home on Twitter. But that’s now changing. Through word of mouth more are logging on to share screenshots,” he told Quartz via email, adding that he began tweeting more vigorously in June, after suffering an accident and hearing about the deaths of two delivery workers.

Another active account, @SwiggyDEHyd, has also been sharing pay screenshots and pointing out how platforms impose penalties that can hit workers hard.

While the number of delivery workers going public with their work experiences on social platforms is still a small fraction of the total pool of workers, it’s likely that this will grow, providing a counterfoil to marketing and investor communications from companies. They’re already online, and many of them have a greater level of education and internet proficiency than other workers in India’s informal sectors.

“Every day more are joining. I don’t know how it’s spreading, word of mouth or otherwise, but it is. And that’s good. Because each city and town has a different story,” said @Deliverybhoy, who says he has worked for both Swiggy and Zomato.

The “gamification” of work in India’s gig economy

In India, the gig economy workforce is estimated at around 8 million people currently. But it has the potential to provide work to as many as 90 million people in the next decade, according to a report published (pdf) by consulting firm Boston Consulting Group and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation in March. That makes it vital to improve these jobs as they become an income source for more and more young Indians.

According to a 2019 study by the Fairwork Project, an initiative led by two Oxford University researchers, app-based services such as ride-hailing firms Ola and Uber, and delivery firm Zomato have some of the worst working conditions among Indian start-ups.

With the outbreak of the pandemic, things only became tougher. From being hassled over lockdown restrictions despite being considered essential workers, to risking their lives to deliver in red zones with severe Covid-19 outbreaks, delivery workers faced it all.

“Even as the local Covid curfew was imposed, we were allowed to deliver but that was something I still needed to explain to the confused cops who questioned and yelled at me for fulfilling a time-bound order, and while he did let me go eventually, the damage was done. I was penalised for not delivering on time,” said a 30-year-old delivery worker with Swiggy in Noida. (The workers Quartz spoke to asked not to be identified for fear of being booted from platforms.)

And when the lockdown began easing last August, Swiggy changed payout structure in a way that reduced pay per order, according to workers.

After Zomato’s ranking fell to the bottom in last year’s index, its CEO Deepinder Goyal promised to do better.

Some of the  biggest platforms have rolled out efforts this year to help workers. Swiggy in June said it would offer income support to workers who contract Covid, improve health and life insurance coverage for delivery workers, and offer some paid time off. Zomato also began offering accident and health coverage to its 300,000 delivery workers, and adjusted pay for higher fuel prices. Both firms also helped delivery workers get vaccinated. Companies like the UrbanCompany, where service professionals offer haircuts and air-conditioner maintenance, e-commerce firm Flipkart, and Uber have also announced plans to support contract workers.

But overall, workers say little has changed, and that delivery algorithms seem to be set up in such a way as to almost cap their earnings. For this reason many resist the term “delivery partners,” which platforms prefer.

“The whole system is gamified, so delivery agents are baited in the beginning with lots of orders to get them hooked.”

“The whole system is gamified, so delivery agents are baited in the beginning with lots of orders to get them hooked, then one slowly begins to notice a decline,” said @Delhiveryboy. “There are random unexplainable events where your ratings are reduced or fines are imposed and we suspect this is so that delivery agents are never made to feel they are doing too well. It pushes them to perform better, work faster and longer and always be on their toes.”

Zomato and Swiggy didn’t respond to questions from Quartz for this story.

So how much do Zomato, Swiggy delivery workers earn?

In theory, according to executives at some job portals, deliveries offer the potential to earn pay competitive with entry-level jobs in the formal sector.

“In India, as per the data available with Indeed, a gig economy worker such as runner, delivery person, driver, or a beautician, commands salaries in the range of Rs12,000–16,000 ($163-$217) per month,” Sashi Kumar, head of sales at job portal Indeed India, told Quartz.

Meanwhile, Zomato’s Goyal suggested in a tweet that a delivery worker can earn around 20,000 rupees a month and up.

But gig workers say these are figures are far from reality. In fact, since day-to-day earnings can vary widely, particularly in areas with a glut of riders, some say that the idea that it’s possible to estimate typical earnings shows a lack of understanding of the precariousness of gig work. The demand for food delivery during the pandemic led more workers to join the apps, also driving down individual earnings.

One Hyderabad-based worker, who joined Twitter this month and said he has been delivering for two years, told Quartz he made just 7,000 rupees in August. “There is no guarantee in earnings because even if we on duty whole day some times there maybe no orders,” he said.

In addition, the way incentives are structured, such as for traveling long distances or for reaching a particular number of orders, often don’t favor workers.

“The entire component system with regard to payouts is flawed. It allows the companies to tinker with our payments and no matter how much we work, we earn more or less the same. They fool us into working longer and tweak algorithms,” said Deliverybhoy, noting that he rarely was able to earn more than 12,000 rupees a month, after fuel costs, even when available for orders for up to 14 hours. Most of that went to rent, leaving just 4,000 rupees (around $50) for everything else. “I also noticed that if you have made a certain amount of money, your number of orders begins to drop. You suddenly find yourself waiting while others around you get orders.”

Meanwhile, a bad customer review or other mishap can lead to account suspensions that wipe out earnings for days or even weeks.

“My account was suspended for a month last year, only because I got stuck in rain and failed to deliver an order worth Rs20 to a customer on time,” said another worker, who has been working as a rider for Zomato for over a year in Noida.

Most delivery workers also don’t get extra compensation for working longer hours, or paid sick leave, according to a survey (pdf) of 660 workers across 10 platforms by an Amsterdam-based data analytics firm Wageindicator in the first half of 2021.

While that’s also the case for most other workers in India, the situation of delivery workers appears to be hitting home more deeply for some consumers of these services. For one, many people relied heavily on delivery workers for food, medicines and other necessities during the pandemic, making their work issues less abstract than those of other workers. For another, with Zomato recently going public, swelling the wealth of its 38-year old founder, Goyal, to nearly $1 billion, there’s an uncomfortable contrast with the plight of workers who say they can’t make ends meet.

A global problem needs a global solution

The problems gig workers in India face have their parallels in the US, Europe, and China. And each country has taken a different tack in addressing them.

In California, lawmakers passed legislation requiring ride-hailing giants to recategorize drivers as employees and not contractors (which Uber and Lyft fought with a ballot initiative that was overturned last month). @Deliverybhoy points to the victory of ride-hailing drivers in the UK, after courts there ruled drivers for the ride-hailing giant Uber should be treated as employees, as the way forward. Meanwhile in one-party governed China, the government recently issued a slew of “guidelines” to delivery giants on how to treat part-time and contract workers.

Yet the challenge workers in India trying to improve the situation face is that there are always millions more who may be willing to accept conditions as they are, says Kaushik Banerjee, business head for job search portals Teamlease and Freshersworld. An estimated 5 to 7 million people join India’s workforce annually.

“The gig economy is an unorganised sector in India so wages aren’t fixed. Besides, the quantity of workforce is much higher than the demand leading to the availability of cheap labour who are willing to do the job at a lesser cost,” said Banerjee.

Improving gig work is a shared responsibility belonging to companies, governments, and consumers says Sowmiya Ashok, who carried out research on the situation of delivery workers in India and China as an Ashoka University fellow. Ashok argues everyone needs to wake up from the way apps gamify the working experiences of delivery workers.

“For consumers, it is as if we are all collectively involved in playing a video game as we watch tiny delivery riders dressed in bright t-shirts sitting on their motorbikes moving across our mobile phone screens,” she tweeted recently. “We snap out of this digital game when our doorbell rings and a ‘real person’ hands over the packet of food. Behind that ‘real person’ are real concerns and trust issues that both the govt, platforms and customers have to care for.”

Tripti Lahiri contributed reporting.

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