Indian Food Delivery Apps Exploiting Workers?
When food delivery platforms entered the Indian market, they advertised themselves as democratic mediators who interfaced between unemployed workers looking for jobs and hungry customers looking for convenience.
They attracted delivery workers by treating them as ‘partners’, and offering attractive incentives.
Today, these platforms employ over 500,000 workers across the country. But, while their numbers continue to grow, opportunities for delivery workers don’t.
“Seven years ago, in 2015, I used to deliver food for 8-9 hours a day and make about 25,000 to 30,000 rupees a month. Now the number of deliveries has gone up and I put in 2-3 additional hours a day, and yet make the same amount i.e., 25,000 to 30,000 rupees a month. The workload has gone up for us significantly. Back then we used to have weekly days off and we could take leave too” – a delivery worker said.
One of the leading food delivery apps in India employs a ranking system that classifies delivery workers into blue, bronze, silver and diamond categories based on their performance. These rankings play a huge role in determining the income a worker can make. For example, diamond category partners get preference for higher order volumes with shorter waiting times.
On paper, these rankings are based on fair performance metrics, like customer ratings, number of orders delivered, and delivery speed. But these metrics fail to account for the on-ground realities of delivering food in a busy metropolis.
“During the rainy season, there was heavy flooding, and water would seep into the silencer and traffic would increase causing major delays in deliveries, so we would contact the customer and request them to cancel the order if they wished. But we would face rude behaviour and negative feedback in return.
If we cancel the order, we get fined between 300-500 rupees, plus they change our badge level. There are also chances of our ID getting blocked for one week or month.” – a part-time delivery worker said.
Another said, “Our ratings on the app change every week. There is no way to know if a customer has given a rating or not”.
The algorithms of these delivery apps are constantly evolving to provide their users with a seamless ordering experience, by allowing them to track their orders or making suggestions for new restaurants. Most platforms prompt the users to rate their experience right after delivery. However, most customers remain unaware of how severely these few clicks can impact incomes for delivery workers.
“Just like the customer has the right to judge us, then we should also have the right to judge them. Companies should take ratings from us too, and inform us what action they take based on our ratings” – one delivery worker said.
“There are about 5 to 6 options – customer was rude, customer was nice etc. If any customer is rude to us, we give them a rating and call our team leader. But we don’t know how they clear it. We can’t know.” – a woman delivery worker said.
Shaik Salauddin, the Union Leader said, “Where is freedom? What freedom have we got, tell me? You say we have the freedom to decide when and how much we work, right? Can I truly make those decisions? I won’t get incentives. Let me give an example. They have an incentive structure. If I deliver 19 order, I don’t get that incentive. Students can do something like this part-time job for pocket money. But no one can run their house on this kind of part-time job. Ask those delivery workers working full-time for companies like Swiggy, Zomato etc., are they really able to feed their families well enough with the money they make? Instead of working for 8 hours, I’m working for 16 hours – this is not ‘flexible work’. Just give us minimum wages.”
Researchers have described this kind of system as ‘management by algorithm’ or ‘algorithmic management’, where an app ends up determining a worker’s experience with little to no human interaction on the management side.
This can have an excruciating impact on workers’ mental and emotional health, forcing them to view their work days and tasks in terms of minutely gamified metrics, and only increasing their anguish whenever they face a problem. On the other hand, because they minimise human interaction between workers and customers, these apps end up worsening an existing power imbalance that encourages customers to dehumanise workers.
“Our team leader goes offline after 7 pm. When we call Zomato care, they talk to us for around two to three minutes, and ask us to explain our problem. Once we do this, they refer the chat to someone else to process. The same process starts again with the second customer care person, who then refers us to someone else. In this way, we keep talking to multiple people, if we get a decent customer care person, the problem gets solved. But if this doesn’t happen, we need to go offline” – a helpless food delivery worker said.
“The only connection between the delivery executive and the company is the G-form. With that, also, there is no guarantee we will get a response. 30% chance that they will respond, 70% they won’t” – he further said.
While strong labour laws in the global north are allowing platform to gig workers there to start agitating for better protection, in India, these companies are able to position themselves as beneficent because they provide jobs to ‘semiskilled’ workers. The Indian Code on Social Security, introduced in 2020, was meant to protect gig workers’ rights by giving them social security. However, it is yet to be implemented.
“Till date, if workers from Swiggy, Zomato, Ola, Uber get exploited – and we go to the labour ministry. They say, you’re ‘partners’, aren’t you? How do we solve your problem? You do not come under our jurisdiction. If we go to the transport ministry, they say they have nothing to do with us. If we go to the IT ministry, they say this doesn’t concern us. So which ministry, which department, caters to us?” – the Union Leader further said.
Since 2017, thousands of delivery ‘partners’ have been publicly speaking out against unjust working conditions. Many have taken to social media to give the general public a better idea of the problems they face.
And yet, most customers continue to enjoy the tech enabled convenience these apps provide, remaining unaware of the price a worker pays for an on-time, superfast delivery.
[Images from different sources]
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