Poor wages, punishing hours, and lack of labour rights make food delivery a thankless gig

Gig work is commonly described as the ‘future’ of employment, but its exploitation of delivery riders reveals a dark underbelly of low wages and no rights

August 21, 2021 03:43 pm | Updated 03:43 pm IST

A break means lower earnings and a lowering of ratings, which pushes riders to work without pause.

A break means lower earnings and a lowering of ratings, which pushes riders to work without pause.

Receive order. Pick up food. Reach customer location. Deliver. Get ₹35 per batch and ₹20 per order. This was the daily drill for 20-something Varadarajan, a food delivery executive in April 2018, when he started working in Chennai. For each order, the distance was under 4 km, and if he made 20 deliveries, he was promised an additional ₹80. Then he noticed something. He rarely got to do 20 deliveries, which meant he never got that extra ₹80 bonus.

“In restaurants, we are looked down upon as uninvited guests. There are people who won’t even share an elevator with us. In case of an accident, the delivery person is always held at fault,” says Varadarajan. Stung by the discrimination and ill-treatment, he quit, and has since worked with Zomato, Uber Eats, Uber Moto and Shadowfax to see if it gets better elsewhere.

In Hyderabad, Azhar says: “I was an operations manager in a private firm, but when it shut shop during the lockdown, I started doing deliveries.” As job losses mount, Varadarajan and Azhar are among thousands signing up as delivery executives for various food apps. But the switch from regular employment to the rough and tumble of the precarious world of the gig economy has proven to be not just a culture shock but a financial shock too.

Food delivery boys waiting their orders at an outlet at Palakkad

Food delivery boys waiting their orders at an outlet at Palakkad

Izzat ki naukri nahi hai. Ye kapdon mein ghar waley nahi dekhna (This job is not a respectable one. Our family members should not see us in these clothes),” says Vikas, who is wearing a mask and the red T-shirt of a food app company as someone takes his photograph. Another young man dons the red T, takes a selfie, then takes it off and packs it away before going for a smoke. They are taking these selfies because both Swiggy and Zomato have introduced mandatory masked selfies when they log into work. “Both companies have also organised vaccines for their delivery workers, compensating them for the loss of earnings on the day of vaccination,” says Mohammad Sajjad Hussain, a Ph.D scholar at the Delhi School of Economics, who is researching food delivery workers in Hyderabad. He adds, however, that earlier, delivery workers were paid from the moment they reached the restaurant. “Now, in the restaurant wait-time pay component, they are supposed to wait for free for the initial 4-5 minutes. So, in a way, paid work has been made unpaid.”

The uniforms that advertise the logos of the delivery apps are paid for by the delivery workers. In fact, they even have to pay for their logo-emblazoned raincoats.

“We pay something called an ‘on-boarding fee’, which ranges between ₹1,280 and ₹1,800, if the rain jacket is included,” says Pradeep, who is doing a B.Com in parallel and logs in between 7 p.m. and 12 a.m. The companies, therefore, get to advertise their logos for free.

Outside Hyderabad’s Mehfil Restaurant, there is a bustle as dozens of men in red and black converge, intently looking at their mobile phones. Sunday afternoon is when the people in the city’s IT hub order the most takeaways. It is also the day when the payouts for deliveries are a little higher. In Hyderabad, known to many as the biryani capital of the world, the crush of delivery executives jostling to pick up orders at the city’s top biryani restaurants will put a first-day-first-show of a Mahesh Babu movie to shame. As food packets accumulate on the shelf, a restaurant employee shouts out a string of four-digit numbers: 9286, 7787, 5911, 2574, 3343. As each number is called, a delivery executive picks up the parcel and punches in the information on his phone. Then, it’s a race. “Let me make the delivery in five minutes and come back. We can talk then,” says Rasool, who has been working with Zomato for five years now.

From standing in the sun or rain for hours, to racing about on their bikes, the delivery worker’s life is a constant and exhausting rush.

From standing in the sun or rain for hours, to racing about on their bikes, the delivery worker’s life is a constant and exhausting rush.

For Rasool, the big evil is the tyranny of the AI-driven algorithms that are used by app-based food delivery firms. “I cannot log in from home,” he says. “If I do that, I don’t get any orders for a long time. I reach the ‘hot zone’ and then log in. Only then I get more orders.” And when he delivers food at a distance from the hot zone, he has to drive back to his zone again before he gets another order.

From being forced to log in at a hot zone, to standing in the sun or rain for hours, racing about on their bikes, dealing with enraged customers, and even escaping street dogs at night, the delivery worker’s life is a constant and exhausting rush. But worst is the gnawing knowledge that each day’s earnings will be meagre and come to him only in dribs and drabs.

As the delivery men wait for hours outside restaurants for their orders to be readied, they scroll through smartphones to check their earnings. On August 3, when the price of petrol hovered at around ₹106 per litre, Haider had earned ₹396 only, which included as low a payment as ₹11 to ₹58 for a delivery from KFC to ₹75 as an incentive payout. As the hours pass, you can see the anxiety mount among the delivery executives, especially since incentive payouts are linked to the number of deliveries they can make.

Across the board

These working conditions are replicated across metropolises in India. Swiggy says it has 1,70,000 delivery persons in 500 cities. And there is a long wait list to sign up for the job. “Of course, this is because of the ongoing unemployment,” says Hussain. According to a report by Payoneer, an American financial firm, 135 million jobs were lost in the pandemic, leading to a 35% surge in unemployment. “More workers flooded the market with a 37% increase in new freelancers between May and June 2020,” the report said, explaining the rise in number of candidates for food delivery gigs.

Among these thousands is a young man in Mumbai, who found himself appalled by the working conditions of the men. Instead of staying quiet, he took to social media, posting his experiences under the handle DeliveryBhoy, and sharing screenshots of his earnings. At the very least, the posts triggered some soul-searching among the people who order food routinely.

“The only work I thought I could do was deliveries. As I began work, the earnings were good. I wanted to work hard and earn more. But however much I slogged, my earnings stayed constant,” says DeliveryBhoy. He then used his skills to figure out the backend of the apps, and it was then he realised he would never be able cross a set threshold. “The app plays with our minds,” he says. “There are a lot of factors that are tweaked without our knowledge. The same distance can earn a surge fee of ₹35 for me and ₹55 for my colleague. As this information is shared, it messes with our heads. After slogging and riding for 12-14 hours, I would have earned as much as someone who worked for nine hours only,” he says.

A Zomato spokesperson says: “We tier delivery partners in Diamond, Silver, Bronze and Blue categories basis their customer ratings, cancellation percentage, and on-time delivery. There are no special benefits in any category, just that our app allocates orders faster to delivery partners with a higher score.” Swiggy says their payout is classified under three heads: per order pay, surge pay and incentive pay. The results are races, short cuts, shrill voices at restaurants, and accidents. A day’s break means lower earnings and a lowering of ratings, which pushes the riders to work without pause. Fatigue and risky riding behaviour go together and there have been scores of accidents involving workers from food delivery apps.

Casual relationship

On August 9, Devi Lal, a 39-year-old delivery executive in Indore, was killed after a car crashed into him late at night. In December 2020, a 20-year-old food delivery person in Mumbai was killed after a car ran over him at 2:30 a.m. In February, two delivery executives in Bengaluru were mowed down by a car while returning from a delivery at 1:15 a.m. A study on the prevalence of road accidents among food delivery workers in southern Chennai, co-authored by Vijayasankari A, et al ., found that among 173 food delivery workers studied, 56 had met with an accident.

Subsistence salaries, a struggle for survival, and sub-par working conditions are part of the story of all delivery executives, making it clear how much they get short-changed. When asked as basic a question as the number of delivery executives affected by COVID-19, a Zomato spokesperson said: “Our delivery fleet works in circulation, therefore we will not have exact figures.” Swiggy did not divulge the information and spoke instead of consumer safety. The responses underline the casual nature of the relationship between company and employees.

Food delivery partners wait outside a restaurant in Vijayawada

Food delivery partners wait outside a restaurant in Vijayawada

Earlier this week, with social media flooded with criticism, Zomato released a PR video featuring comedian Danish Sait as a delivery agent in an image-management exercise, but the problem is about more than image. As long as delivery riders are titled ‘partners’, they are not eligible to be covered under any labour laws. “We work, we earn, we die, and nobody even knows,” says Shaik Salauddin of the Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers (IFAT). “These companies are using technology to ill-treat helpless workers and are violating all laws. If the riders are partners, do they have shares in the company?” he asks. Salauddin led a nationwide, month-long strike of delivery executives last September, but nothing really changed.

The same month, the Union Ministry of Law and Justice released a ‘Code on Social Security-2020’, aimed at creating a safety net for workers. The Centre was to frame suitable social security schemes relating to insurance, working conditions, disability and other benefits. However, the Code only makes workers eligible for such benefits, it does not guarantee them. And it does not mandate companies to contribute towards such benefits.

Skirting the laws

A National Social Security Board was also to be set up for the welfare of gig workers and platform workers, but a year down the line, nothing has happened. The delivery executives are covered by group insurance only on ‘active days’. “They don’t get insurance cards. It is all in the app and flexible according to the convenience of the companies,” says Salauddin, who recently hosted a ‘Biryani pe Batein’ meeting to raise these issues at the national level.

It was IFAT, which has 35,000 workers on its rolls, that finally brought the workers together. It ran a survey in June 2020 where 2,716 respondents from 19 States favoured peaceful protest to raise their concerns. “At that time, Swiggy said they were aggregators and not employers, and labour laws did not apply to them,” says Salauddin. But he uses the ‘work for wages’ argument to show that delivery executives are indeed employees. In the Noida and Delhi areas, it’s the All India Gig and Platform Workers Union that’s taking up cudgels for the workers.

DeliveryBhoy tweeted last week: “Many have asked me why not strike or form a union. The current gig work model... helps them skirt labour laws. There is, however, a solution.” He went on to ask customers to support them by pledging to delete the delivery apps unless riders are promised base pays.

At 9:45 p.m. on a Monday, Haider in Hyderabad delivers a pizza in Attapur after riding 5 km. He has already ridden 3 km to reach the restaurant. “Petrol is now ₹106 per litre. I earn about ₹500 and spend ₹150 on petrol. I am left with about ₹10,000 per month, but I have no choice but to continue,” he says, showing me his earnings on the phone. Haider’s weekly earnings range between ₹1,301 and ₹1,893. “In 2017, the earning per order was ₹50. Then it became ₹35. Now, it ranges from ₹20 on weekdays to ₹55 and ₹70 on weekends, based on the classification of riders,” says Rasool.

Indeed, from a six-digit OTP to a four-digit pin for pickup to two-digit wages per delivery, for food delivery executives, their gig is a slippery slope on which they are useful but ultimately dispensable pawns.

(Some names have been changed to protect the workers.)

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