Do you really want your food and groceries delivered within minutes? Braving harsh working conditions with minimal pay, this is the story of those who make it possible.
Bangalore/Thane: Suraj has been delivering for Swiggy and Dunzo for three years in Bangalore. He worked as a supervisor in Gujarat earlier and some circumstances lead him to Bangalore.
He starts his day at 10 am and works for a minimum of 12 hours – not before he’s done studying computer programming. Sometimes, problems with his bike cause delay for him to start work. As he leaves his home, he heads straight to a Swiggy-designated zone where he has to log on to the app and waits for orders, like hundreds of other delivery boys.
As soon as he gets one and is on the way, therein lies the first challenge.
“When we drive, we have to navigate, drive a bit fast, there are issues with that. Many accidents happen when we look at the road suddenly while speeding,” he says.
Suraj is part of an 8 million gig workforce that has seen an uptick post-pandemic. A report by GigIndia shows the gig economy generates around 56 percent of new employment in the country.
However, this comes at a cost.
“In a day, I roughly do 22-23 orders for which I earn Rs 1000-1200. After deducting the cost of petrol, we are left with Rs 800 in hand,” Suraj said.
He continues: “Pre-pandemic since there were fewer delivery boys, we were paid more for the same work. Post-pandemic since many delivery boys have come in, they (companies) have reduced our rates. We were given Rs 10/km earlier. Now it is Rs 7 or 8,”
Suraj also adds that companies give them ‘impossible’ targets to achieve for incentives. However, he says, he works overtime to achieve them nonetheless.
High fuel prices? Enter electric two-wheelers…
High fuel prices and vehicle maintenance costs leave very little money in hand for these workers. To tackle this problem, many workers in cities like Bangalore have shifted to electric vehicles.
For Anik Ghosh, this makes delivering slightly convenient. He finds the restless nature of the job as part of the profile
“Earlier I used a two-wheeler and around Rs 500 was spent daily on petrol and maintenance. Now with this (electric two-wheeler), I have to just pay Rs 200 for the booking. It’s relatively slower but it’s profitable (to deliver). The advantage is that we don’t need a license for this, the traffic cops don’t catch us. It makes it easy for me to enter small and one-way lanes saving time for delivery. I can’t do the same with bikes,” said Ghosh while pointing to an adjacent busy one-way road in Bangalore.
On a delivery rider’s perennial hurry, Anik says: “One can’t expect rest in this job. A delivery worker will try to deliver as fast as possible so that he can get the next order, earn more, so and so forth”.
Not so ‘fair’ to delivery riders
A 2021 report by Fairwork India shows no online aggregator scored a perfect 10 on principles like fair pay, fair conditions, etc. While Zomato and Swiggy improved their overall score from 1 out of 10 in 2020 to 4 out of 10 in 2021, researchers at Fairwork highlight the problems with time-based delivery platforms.
“The only way to make sure if anything happens to you on the road, there’s some sort of financial backing to your recovery or insurance. There are two problems we have noticed in the insurance aspect. One is that even though platforms provide insurance, workers are often not aware of how to get the insurance or whether there is one at all. The second problem is the minimum threshold for it (insurance),” said Amruta Mahuli, a researcher at Fairwork India.
She also highlighted the importance of having an insurance cover, juxtaposed with the condition of roads in many cities.
As these riders zoom past signals to reach their destination on time, police authorities have attributed overspeeding as the major cause behind fatalities. In other cases, heavy fines are imposed on the riders that they have to bear from their own pockets.
The Chennai police on April 2 fined over 700 Swiggy and Zomato delivery workers, in which the highest challans were for jumping signals.
Company officials clarify there’s no need for workers to stress about the delivery time.
“We don’t have any policy that shows them (riders) the delivery time. We show an estimate to the customer. There’s no incentive for the rider to deliver early or a little late. I am saying little late. The rider, if for whatever reason is running late, he or she has to update the status on the app and we’ll assign a different delivery partner to pick up the order and deliver it,” said a Swiggy official, who didn’t wish to be named.
On the subject of insurance, the official said: “There might have been one or two cases where that fellow (delivery rider) must have gone to a non-accredited hospital (one that is covered under the cashless facility). Then there may be other issues like riders not submitting the proper documents. It’s not us who’s holding the money. It’s the insurance agency. We are only paying the premium for it.”
The clock ticking for faster delivery…
In what has been termed a new phase for the industry, many players have now reduced the delivery time for consumers. Companies like Zepto, and Blinkit, among others, offer quick deliveries of food and groceries. Zomato, recently faced heavy backlash after it announced a similar strategy.
Workers say the problem of risking lives for faster deliveries isn’t specific to one city.
Maharashtra’s Thane houses a bustling Zepto warehouse situated in a corner of the city. It’s from here that riders pick up their orders and deliver them in the assigned radius.
Workers say the 10-minute delivery is an uphill task for them.
“If you go from here to Kasarvadavali (a nearby locality), there are 3-4 signals where 2 minutes are spent. We have to go through multiple security entries in these societies plus the lifts that are stuck on higher floors are where 5-7 minutes are wasted. Sometimes, there are separate lifts for delivery boys that we have to use. All of it is a problem,” said Datta Lande, a delivery worker
Pratik R, another delivery worker adds: “If we reach late, the customer tells us to go back with the order or cancel it.”
They also complain of high pressure with a 10-minute delivery deadline always looming.
Rajendra Surve, another delivery worker explains: “If we have a 7am-5pm duty, and you (they) go away for even 10-15 minutes, we are automatically checked out of the app. Then we have to come back to our location, login again and work extra (to compensate for the lost time),”
The Indian Federation of App-Based Transport Workers (IFAT) filed a petition late last year in the Supreme Court alleging a violation of fundamental rights to social security and accusing companies of exploiting labor. The petitioners have two primary demands: a) recognizing gig workers as workmen so which will make them eligible for various legislations. b) include them as part of the unorganized sector, enabling them to avail social security benefits.
Taking the fight for fair rights to court isn’t new for this industry. In 2020, a California court ordered Uber and other ride-hailing apps to classify their workers as ’employees’ and not as ‘independent contractors’, in line with the state law, so that the workers could avail social security benefits. Soon after, Uber and other companies held a ballot measure wherein people voted for an exemption for these companies to these rules – only to be struck down by the court in 2021.
Meanwhile, unions also strongly oppose the 10-minute delivery model and question the companies for its logic.
“In a country where ambulances aren’t reaching in 10 minutes, how can you deliver private food? Is delivering food so important? Is it worth risking a human life for a 10-minute delivery? That’s my first question. Is there any public demand or did you talk to the riders before bringing such policies in” questioned Shaik Salauddin, Secretary of IFAT.
“You (companies) call us partners. I don’t want to begin with how much harm they have caused to their ‘partners’. Unless there’s legislation giving us social security cover, there’s no way out of this,” lamented Salauddin
Experts caution that legislation may not be the way to solve the problem.
“This (time-based delivery) really started in the pandemic in Europe. India is a very competitive market. You have food-delivery platforms that have become food producers that have become grocery and logistics operators. They do all things. The 10-minute delivery (model) has far more implications than rider safety. A company would say that they would setup their own shop. It’s just not a shop front. Their argument would be the rider wouldn’t have to drive very far,” explained Aditi Surie, a researcher at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements
“The question isn’t just about rider safety” she says, “is the product (this model) necessary and for whom? Who’s driving that consumption? The moral question for me is the consumer preference of 0.25 percent of consumers enough to drive such a large scale product that endangers working conditions?”
She adds: “Because with every model, the working conditions change. Even under the social security bill, if people get PF, ESIC, etc, there’s no way to actually regulate working conditions if your product is time-based.”
Experts also add that going forward, platform companies should focus on providing stability to the riders and shifting from the incentive-driven model to improve working conditions.
But for riders like Suraj, sky is the limit.
“I haven’t told my family members about all this (job). They know I am doing something related to driving a bike. I think I will tell everyone once I quit this job. No one likes to do a delivery worker’s if there’s another option – even I don’t like it. I will leave this job in the next year.” Suraj concluded as he races away on his bike for another order.