OPINION

Services at our doorstep

Similar to health workers, delivery workers are the new front-line force keeping citizens’ lives running

The ‘ferrymen’ of Wuhan, who have been providing groceries, food and medicines to citizens isolated in their homes, have been the backbone of cities that have been most hit by the novel coronavirus. In China, ride-hailing company Didi and others have a dedicated workforce and resources to provide free transport to health workers. Delivery infrastructure or digitally enabled micro-logistics are key to how citizens navigate their ‘social distanced’ lives during the pandemic.

Delivery technologies are providing a key form of infrastructure that can be mobilised at short notice, dynamically and at scale. The mix of multi-side market economics, an on-demand workforce, and algorithmically managed tasks make this mobilisation possible. This is what enabled Didi to launch food delivery in 21 cities in response to the pandemic. Delivery workers, similar to health workers, are the new front-line force keeping citizens’ lives running.

New protocols

In India, how are companies navigating the threat their delivery personnel are under? Major delivery players in India have responded by publicising consumer awareness, restricting dynamic pricing (Amazon and Flipkart) and contact-less delivery protocols. Ola offers Rs. 1,000 a day for lost income for up to 21 days for drivers or their family members who contract the virus. Flipkart is reportedly mapping impacted areas to ensure that delivery agents are aware and least affected as they continue to offer relief to elite and middle-class households who have been the first-wave of likely infected citizens.

However, company follow-through is in question. Reports show that delivery platforms have not yet implemented some of these protocols. Indian mobility platforms have not yet offered to extend or waive loans and rental fees for lease drivers like Didi did for China in the month of February.

Digital delivery infrastructure is novel in form because of its socio-technological nature. Companies like Uber, Didi and Swiggy have pushed out a notion that their responsibility is to maintain the ‘technological’ half — hygiene on their apps, keep their algorithms working and offer ‘decent’ payouts to their flexible, contracted workforce. Like with other kinds of infrastructure it appears mute, working efficiently in the background. However, the bodies of delivery personnel remain unnoticed, invisible. Companies use this rhetoric to make consumers like us believe that they can’t do more than these tasks, obfuscating the fact that they can and we can hold them accountable for more than they claim.

Facing risks

It is only when such infrastructure breaks or is in decay that public concern around it grows. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates the risk faced by delivery agents. They are unable to take a break from work, work from home, or access the superfluous resources that white-collar and professionals in other fields are deriving from their employers. Delivery personnel face severe exposure to the virus without paid sick leave, without work, and daily payouts. Gig Workers Rising says delivery personnel don’t choose to work during the pandemic but rather, they are being forced to, potentially putting the public at risk. Daily-wage workers in construction will possibly receive compensation from the U.P. government for their lost wages. Yet, platform delivery personnel, who are vital to allowing urban life to continue, have no proposed protections or rewards for their work.

Acknowledging the mix of delivery personnel and app-based delivery companies as infrastructure rather than the sole mandate of private companies can deliver better outcomes for personnel. It nullifies corporate marketing and propels the services into public governance. Indeed, government orders noting the lock-down of many districts note delivery as an essential service in most metros. Recognising the key infrastructural role that delivery personnel are playing in the pandemic opens up a set of responsibilities for the government to take on.

A new reality?

If governments around the world are ready to nationalise key infrastructure (like Spain’s private hospitals), can we use the food delivery workforce to deliver tests or essential medicines to those affected? With the Delhi government banning all dining-in and allowing only delivery, is the pandemic a time to think about a new form of regulation that brings private, socio-technological infrastructure into the public fold in times of crises, eventually to be released back into the forces of the market? Can the app service and app worker’s status as public infrastructure bolster a better interpretation of social protection that lasts beyond this crisis?

Aditi Surie is a sociologist at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements

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