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Whims of a digital boss: the rise of app-based aggregators

The rise of app-based aggregators has been a boon for consumers but not necessarily for the workers

Recently, a video of a Zomato delivery agent caught eating the food he was supposed to deliver went viral. This led to criticism, especially from middle- and upper-class consumers who questioned the accountability and monitoring mechanisms of food delivery apps and websites, which are important features of the platform or the gig economy. However, the working conditions of app-based employees are hardly discussed. In this case, given the pressure to fulfil never-ending targets to avail of certain incentives, the worker might not have found time to rest between deliveries or to have his own meal.

The rise of app-based aggregators has been a boon for consumers to access at their doorstep and with the touch of a phone a range of services including cabs, food, and retail. It also purportedly creates decently paid employment opportunities for millions of literate people. But what is the nature of employment arrangements, contracts, quality of work, security, grievance redress mechanisms and accountability in such cases?

The first “person” that app-based workers — whom the companies ironically label “partners” — must report to is the app itself, which is effectively their digital boss. This “boss” gives instructions, sets targets and provides incentives such as boosts, bonuses, star ratings and badges for the workers. It also provides disincentives in the form of fines and penalties. This “gamification” system, seen in apps such as Uber, puts insurmountable pressure on the app-driven worker, who tends to overwork even at lower pay to earn higher scores. And even if the driver or delivery “partner” aspires to be a self-employed mini-entrepreneur, it is the app companies that decide what commission rates to deduct from their earnings and what monetary incentives to give. Even the fares, prices and surges, including the locations and frequency of duty requests, are not determined by these workers. Thus, we may meaningfully ask whether this is a model of self-employment or self-exploitation.

Further, cases of technical glitches in the app, or incorrect payment or deductions from their earnings are no less than a crisis for these workers, since getting justice from these apps or from tedious helplines and zonal offices that get hundreds of complaints each day is often not feasible. Most importantly, we must ask why, in cases of accidents, to which these delivery persons and drivers are highly prone given the rush they are in, shouldn’t there be accountability and compensation, as well as job security, provided by these companies. Finally, why shouldn’t these workers be allowed to organise and unionise to exercise their right to collective bargaining? It appears that app-based companies have realised that there is a simple strategy to avoid these outcomes — keep workers busy with their next duty and block their app IDs in case of any aberration.

The writer is a Ph.D. Scholar at the University of Delhi, and Founding Partner, Jan Ki Baat

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 5:02:18 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/whims-of-a-digital-boss/article25790539.ece

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