Women working with Urban Company (UC), who led a weeks-long protest against the firm last year, now say they are facing ‘targeted’ action by either having their accounts ‘shadow-blocked’ or deactivated — both of which have led to work drying up for them over the last two-three months.
Last December, UC's subscription policy (Flexi scheme) asking service providers to pay a fee for job leads through their app had backfired, leading to over 300 women beauticians and salon service providers launching a sit-in protest at their Gurugram office.
The company offers a platform connecting service professionals (repair technicians, cleaning and other household service providers, etc.) to customers — much like an app-based cab service connects drivers to passengers. And like the ride-hailing apps, UC too refuses to recognise its service professionals as employees, which is among the key issues workers have with the company.
Reacting to the December protests, UC had, in an unprecedented move, sued the workers in a civil court to stop their agitation.
The Gurugram court found the company’s filings “devoid of merits”, following which UC withdrew the suit on March 29 this year. But this has not stopped the company from acting against those who protested last year and anyone who continued their association with the women who led the protests, service partners allege.
"March 12 was when I got my last job from the app. Since then, nothing," Seema*, 35, said, adding that she had raised a complaint about this issue at least nine times on the app since then — the last one on May 17. Each of these complaints was marked "resolved" within a day but she got no new jobs.
When she repeatedly asked the company to tell why her account was blocked, "they would say I had poor performance". Seema's latest rating on the app was at 4.6 out of 5 and she had this year received a Silver Plus certificate of achievement from UC signed by Chief Executive Officer and co-founder Abhiraj Bhal himself.
Seema said that after the jobs stopped, she was called for a meeting at the UC office on March 16. "I met my Category Manager who said I had been blocked for attending the protest last year," she said, adding that several of her friends, who also worked with UC, were questioned about the names of those who had protested.
"I told them I was there only for one night. I pleaded with them but they said you are admitting to protesting, we can't do anything more… They said all of us are part of a group and that I would incite people to protest,” Seema said.
Now, Seema has decided to take the company to court and has served a legal notice to it over her “effective termination”. "I will not sit and accept this lie that my performance is poor," she said, adding that they might launch another protest if needed. In her legal notice, Seema has named two UC officials who told her that she was blocked from getting jobs because of the protest.
Gunjan (35), who was one of the women initially named by UC in its suit, said she too facing a similar "shadow-block" — meaning her account is open on the app but she is not getting any jobs. Seven months pregnant, Gunjan told The Hindu that she is desperately looking for work to be able to raise her soon-to-be-born child. She claimed that at least 50-60 women workers who had protested last year with her had now been "blocked" from getting any job leads through the application. Most of these women are sole bread-earners in their families, she added.
Rikta Krishnaswamy of the All India Gig Workers' Union, which has been working with UC workers, said such "targeted action" was being taken against anyone who had been part of the protests last year.
The company had initially named four of the protesting women along with several “unnamed” women in its suit, seeking an injunction to stop the strike outside the office. The Gurugram court had granted the company’s plea and restrained the women from protesting. However, UC then went on to name 10 more women in an annexure, with an application to sue all protesting workers (including the unnamed ones), through the 14 women it had named, in a representative capacity.
Civil Judge (Junior Division) Harsh Kumar Singh found this plea “devoid of merits”, noting that “it was incumbent upon the plaintiff to submit/annex the list of all the defendants against whom the suit had been preferred in the representative capacity but it is not so in the appearing circumstances”.
After this plea was dismissed, the court was set to hear the matter again on April 1 but two days before this, the company filed an application to withdraw its suit altogether, with CEO Bhal appearing in person before the court.
Urban Company has not yet responded to multiple requests for a comment on these allegations.
*Name changed to protect identity