New Delhi/ Mumbai: When 50-year-old Yadigiri Rao went to work on 11 May 2021 feeling unwell, he knew that were he infected, he would expose tens of others to Covid-19 with every delivery he made.
But for Rao, a Swiggy delivery partner in Hyderabad, the lockdown was no time to rest.
His son, Dwarak, 24, recalled how his father worked through India’s devastating second wave of Covid-19 for the app-based, food-delivery service, his employer for over three years, earning Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 a month, the sole earner in their four-member family—Rao, his wife, a daughter, 22, and son Dwarak.
Rao wore masks and took what precautions he could. On 12 May, he broke into a fever and tested positive for Covid-19 the next day. He died on 31 May in a private hospital where his family was forced to take him since government hospitals were full.
“My father had no option but to work during the pandemic,” said Dwarak, a mechanical engineer who now has a job, earning about Rs 25,000.
Dwarak spoke not only for his father but for a workforce of thousands engaged by food-delivery apps and taxi aggregators, part of India’s sprawling gig economy, staffed by an almost-informal labour force that has no legal status as employees.
Ola alone claimed to have 2.5 million driver partners in 250 cities in India in 2020 including two-wheelers and three-wheelers. Put together, Zomato and Swiggy are estimated to have over 300,000 delivery partners. This is beyond India’s official estimate of a 1.5-million-strong gig economy of skilled workers.
These workers are caught in a high-pressure work environment controlled by a tech-led system that operates like a game—with ratings and rewards that have lately been highlighted and criticised. A day’s absence can mean a lowering of ratings, which leads to fewer orders.
The workers are trapped in a vicious cycle of ratings, incentives and wait-time pay, said experts. Workers are paid for waiting time at the restaurant after 3 or 5 minutes of their reaching a restaurant for a pick-up.
“They get paid just Re 1 per minute of wait after the 3/5/7-minute threshold. Sometimes they wait for hours; so they get just one or two orders in three to five hours,” said Kaveri Medappa, a PhD researcher who studied the work-life conditions of platform-based workers at the University of Sussex. “They earn nothing for all the hours they’ve logged in and shown their availability at/to work.”
Rao is one of an unknown number of driver/ delivery gig workers infected by Covid-19 who worked throughout lockdowns. Article 14 spoke to a few of the families affected, all struggling to cope.
C Murali Krishna, 47, who drove for both Ola and Uber, fell sick on 1 August 2020. An Ola cabbie for 5 years in Telangana’s Medchal district, he had diabetes and high blood pressure. His Covid test result on 8 August was positive. By 12 August, his oxygen level fell. He died the same day. The family spent Rs 8 lakh on his treatment in hospital, his son Balaram Krishna, 19, told Article 14, selling their house and what little land they had. With his 18-year-old sister and mother, Balaram had to shift to their maternal uncle's house last year.
Gururaj Gowda, 27, excited to welcome his first-born fell sick on 25 May 2021. On 3 June, with a Covid positive report, the Ola and Uber driver was hospitalised but died the same day. His wife, eight-months pregnant at the time, gave birth to a boy. Gowda’s elder brother Manjunath, 31, said the “sudden and shocking” death left him with the additional responsibility of his brother’s young widow and a newborn. “I’m now the only earning member among five adults—my parents, wife, Gururaj’s wife and myself— and three children, two of my own and one my brother’s,” he told Article 14.
T Hari Babu who drove for Uber in Hyderabad had fever on 19 April 2021. He took fever medicines and went to work. He could not afford to skip work—father to a two-year-old. On 26 April he tested positive for Covid-19. On 27 April, his oxygen level dipped. His wife Bhavani told Article 14 how she struggled to find an ambulance. “He died on reaching the hospital.”
Compensation: Handout & Silence?
Whatever hopes the families had of financial help from the companies were quickly dispelled. Uber handed out compensation of “just Rs 75,000”, according to the families of Gowda and Babu. All three families Article 14 spoke to said despite many attempts, Ola paid no compensation.
In spite of three requests over email to Ola and Uber over a month for data of driver partners infected and dead, neither company responded. Swiggy said it had a list of delivery partners who received company benefits but did not share that list.
Zomato told Article 14 that since April 2020 they had 32 reported cases and claims for compensation. “Of these, 19 have been processed, 7 are being evaluated, and 6 rejected (cases where we have not been able to locate/contact the partner’s family to procure relevant documents),” said a spokesperson, who did not share details of families.
The compensation from Uber did not even cover the hospital bills, said Balaram. He and his sister dropped out of their engineering college. “Neither my sister nor I can continue studies anymore,” he said. “We have lost everything. We don't even have our own house.”
Over the past year, Balaram said, he had been trying to contact Ola but to no avail. “I don't know the rules but I request the company or government to help financially,” he said. “My father served even during the lockdown. We deserve better.”
Bhavani, who is currently looking for a job, has three months of rent pending. She broke down as she told Article 14 about the loan repayment instalments (EMIs) on her husband T Hari Babu’s car, pending for four months now.
“The bank has threatened to take away the car. How can Uber think Rs 75,000 will suffice?” she said. “Do these companies have any idea what it is to be left alone with a two-year-old daughter to raise?”
Ola pays Rs 1,000 per day for a maximum of 15 days to drivers hospitalised with Covid-19, said Telangana Gig And Platform Workers Union (TGPWU). Uber said it would give a one-time payout of up to Rs 6,800 in “partial earnings support” for 14 days for Covid-infected driver partners.
Dwarak Rao said he spent “Rs 10 lakh” for his father's treatment. “To pay the hospital bills, we took large loans,” he said.” We spent the savings kept for my sister's marriage.”
A Swiggy spokesperson told Article 14 over email that they offered a “specific programme” to support Covid-infected delivery partners with a 14-day income scheme.
Medappa said Swiggy’s “income support was only in cases of hospitalisation”. It was only after online protests started in April 2021 and picked up in July that it included home-isolated delivery partners.
Swiggy once said that the insured amount for their delivery partners was Rs 600,000; another time it said Rs 700,000, a contradiction pointed out by the TGPWU. Swiggy told Article 14 over email, that the company compensated families of those who died of Covid an insurance sum of Rs 500,000.
Dwarak Rao said Swiggy had initially told his family it compensated only for deaths in accidents. Outraged, Dwarak said, “my father was infected on duty. I believe he must be compensated.” He visited Swiggy's office in Madhapur, Hyderabad where officials assured him their support and asked him to return in two weeks. When he did, he was again asked to return after a week.
Article 14 enquired about the compensation at Swiggy at this point. A week later, Dwarak messaged that he had received the compensation. He switched off his phone after this and the amount could not be ascertained.
On Uber’s one-time payout of Rs 75,000 and Ola’s no-compensation silence, Medappa said: “Even the Code on Social Security Act of 2020 contains no provisions to compensate families of gig workers who died due to Covid-19. That leaves the families at the mercy of these companies.”
Not Self-Employed But On Their Own
Shaik Salauddin, founder president of TGPWU, and national general secretary of the Indian Federation Of App-based Transport Workers (IFAT), said his union knew of at least 25 gig workers who died of Covid across the country, 10 in his state of Telangana alone.
IFAT and International Transport Workers surveyed over 2,128 gig workers in 2019. Almost all, or 95.3%, of app-based drivers, said they had no form of insurance—accident, health or medical.
There are no government figures of such deaths. If the companies have the data of those who died, they did not share these data.
The success of these app-based companies—Swiggy and Zomato or Uber and Ola—largely depend on their delivery and driver networks. The companies categorise this network of workers as being delivery partners or self-employed.
In February 2021, the UK Supreme Court ruled that drivers who worked with Uber would be legally regarded as workers and not self-employed. The relevance of this on the labour market of gig workers is significant, but in India, the impact is not yet evident.
In September 2020, India’s labour legislation Code on Social Security 2020 included gig workers and platform workers in its social security roadmap. It described a gig worker as any “person who performs work or participates in a work arrangement and earns from such activities outside of traditional employer-employee relationship”.
This section of India’s workforce is excluded from three key labour laws: The 2020 Codes on Industrial Relations, Wages and Occupational Safety, slated to come into effect from 1 October 2021, incorporating 44 older labour laws.
“Gig and platform workers are still excluded from labour laws because the Centre has not ensured state-level implementation of the Social Security Act,” said Salauddin. “Had the Centre implemented it, it would have helped gig workers in the second wave of Covid-19."
Constitutional lawyer Gautam Bhatia, a member of the Article 14 editorial board, said the legal status of delivery workers in India remained unclear. The Code on Social Security 2020 does not specify that gig workers are “not workmen”, or, “not employees”.
“We should not start by conceding these delivery workers are not employees,” said Bhatia. “The platforms choose to classify them as independent contractors. There’s a host of rights under labour law only available if one is an employee—minimum wages, payment of bonuses, maternity benefits.”
Gig workers have no such rights, despite the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a 29 March, 2020 Mann Ki Baat radio programme hailed e-commerce and gig workers as part of the country’s essential services workers.
The onus of implementation is on the Centre, said Medappa. Accountability lay “both with the government and with the companies”, she said, but “the government is entirely accountable for not pushing through policy reforms through legislation.”
The Supreme Court observed on 24 May 2021 that governments must speed up registration of unorganised workers, gig workers and platform workers, so they could use social-security programmes.
That never happened.
On 1 July 2021, Salauddin wrote to the Supreme Court bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and M R Shah requesting them to direct the Indian government to create a national database for gig and platform workers in collaboration with the states.
Salauddin’s union also spelt out the gig workers’ demands. It requested the Supreme Court to direct app-based transport and delivery companies to provide a compensation of Rs 15 lakh to families of gig workers who died of Covid; that companies bear all medical expenses of Covid-infected workers; ensure workers were vaccinated at company cost; and provide health insurance of Rs 500,000 and term insurance of Rs 10 lakh for drivers and delivery workers.
Inexpensive Workers, Cheap Policies
Minimum wages do not apply to gig workers. Since July 2021, the payouts from companies came in for severe criticism on social media from anonymous delivery partners.
Twitter handle @SwiggyDEHyd, who said he was a delivery partner, posted a screenshot of his earnings of the day; they were as low as Rs 10 per order, and the most he earned was less than Rs 30 on that day.
Swiggy countered the rash of online criticism.
“Swiggy pays an incentive of Rs 150 for Rs 375 order earnings, and Rs 250 for Rs 750 order earnings,” a Swiggy delivery partner said, requesting anonymity. “But achieving a Rs 250 incentive is very hard due to low demand. As a result, the daily earnings of many DEs (delivery executives) fall in the bracket of Rs 500-600.”
Swiggy did not comment on soaring fuel prices or on the reduced payout but claimed the complainant who had shared his earnings showed “selective payouts”.
Another Twitter user, @DeliveryBhoy, posted a tweet on the lack of minimum wages, absence of compensation amidst a surge in fuel-prices, company-imposed caps on their daily earnings, non-payment of first-mile pay and long-distance return bonuses, and other irregularities.
“Our average delivery partner payout in Hyderabad was Rs 65 per order last month, with the highest performing partners making Rs 100 per order,” said Swiggy. “Apart from this, all tips paid by consumers go directly to the delivery partner in full."
The company’s statements failed to stem the criticism and delivery executives and partner drivers now routinely resort to social media to demand regulation and rights.
“After 13 hours of work, I’m barely able to earn Rs 750 per day, of which I spend Rs 350 on petrol from my pocket. I travel 150 km daily to reach my target. Swiggy does not pay us any petrol incentives despite the surge in fuel prices,” a delivery partner, requesting anonymity, told Article 14. Pre-pandemic, payouts earned him Rs 35 per order or Rs 8 per km but after Covid-19, the rate was reduced to Rs 20 per order.
A Delhi-based delivery executive who travels by electric bike told Article 14 his weekly earnings remain “as low as Rs 2500”. He added: “I still am not able to get any of the incentives.”
On 24 March, Swiggy announced it would cover vaccination costs for its fleet of two lakh delivery partners. It claimed the company had “covered the vaccination cost for at least 50,000 delivery partners” till August.
Swiggy also said that in cities like Bangalore and Delhi, “around 80% of its fleet has received at least one dose”. Zomato’s spokesperson said the company began vaccination camps in several cities, “third week of May”. Zomato said they paid Rs 250 as vaccination incentive, apart from reimbursing vaccination costs for workers who could not attend camps.
For Bhavani in Hyderabad, these schemes were too little too late. “Had the company vaccinated drivers on time, my husband would have been alive today,” she said. “Only after he died, Uber rolled out a vaccination plan for its drivers.”
Medappa said governments should have initiated priority vaccination for these workers whom it considered “essential workers”.
Not Easy To Collectivise
Bhatia, the constitutional lawyer, said India needed to legally define and bring platform workers under labour law as ‘employees’. Various models existed, he said, such as “Law AB5 in California that defines who or what a worker is in a way that captures platform work as well”.
“Various countries have this ‘intermediate’ category of workers where the definition is broader than the narrow definition of employees,” said Bhatia.
Bringing workers under the scope of labour law aside, Bhatia said their right to collective bargaining laws would be the second step, “which would allow them to form unions, to legally bargain with these companies for better work conditions”.
The delivery partners, however, were unsure how this could be done. Since workers were not uniformly treated by the companies, collective action was harder; some workers got arbitrary incentives and others said they were blocked from accounts.
For the Covid affected, Bhatia said, workers or families could initiate civil litigation under tort law, “but that’s a much harder route to go down, as there you’ll have to prove negligence of the companies which can take years”.
It just showed, said Bhatia, “that not falling within labour law protections makes other recourses more difficult to access”.
(Kaushik Raj is a freelance journalist and spoken-word poet based in New Delhi. Sabah Gurmat is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)