New Delhi: Mohammed Sohail, a 21-year-old air-conditioner technician in New Delhi, began to deliver groceries for a mobile app-based service to tide over the capital’s winter months when air-conditioner repairs are not in demand.
“I am in the streets from 8 in the morning till late at night,” Sohail told Article 14. He delivers one order and then returns to the ‘dark store’ to receive another.
The dark store is a post-pandemic element of the app-based services’ retail model, functioning as a fulfilment centre, holding inventory of the app-based platform but not open directly to customers.
Each time he receives an order to be delivered, Sohail reports to the manager at the dark store, gets the packed items, carries these with him on his motorbike and tries to reach the customer’s doorstep on or before time.
The Niti Aayog’s policy brief, ‘India’s Blooming Gig and Platform Economy’, released in June 2022, describes the tens of thousands like Sohail who work for app-based platforms, the gig or platform worker, as a “person who performs work or participates in a work arrangement, and earns from such activities outside of traditional employer-employee relationship”.
India’s estimated 7.7 million gig workers, expected to grow in number to 23.5 million by 2029-30, by definition of their work conditions lack health insurance, paid leave, job security and even a legally drawn-up contract. This is true for Sohail too, though he works longer hours than staff at any major industrial or commercial company. The Niti Aayog document called the emergence of this work a “new economic revolution globally”.
As the relationship of employment is not ‘traditional’, according to the report, the workers are treated as consultants or freelancers. However, while freelancers tend to keep flexible hours and work on their own terms, gig workers are required to abide by a range of stipulations, from time commitments to dress code. The number of days of work may be chosen by the worker, but as payments are heavily incentive-driven, gig-workers are never truly able to keep their own timings.
The companies refuse to take any responsibility for these workers, who they call ‘partners’ or ‘delivery executives’ or ‘associates’, said Mohammed Sajjad Hussain, doctoral student at the department of sociology, Delhi School of Economics (DSE). “They waive off responsibility towards the workers by terming them ‘consultants’ or ‘partners’, and by not having an employer-employee relationship. As a result, the company remains unanswerable for any violations.”
As governments take note of the growing numbers of people engaged in gig-work, several announcements have been rolled out. In February, the Rajasthan state government announced in its budgetary allocations a gig workers’ welfare law, a board and a welfare fund of Rs 200 crore for workers in the sector.
Earlier, at the first employment working group meeting under the sherpa track of the G20, also in February, on the discussion agenda was the rapidly growing gig and platform economy that may have potential for providing employment in large numbers. A government release said under India’s presidency, a framework for extending social protection to workers in this sector could be drawn up.
Gig Workers Outside Worker-Employer Relationships
In 2020, the government of India consolidated 44 labour codes into four. The Social Security Code, 2020 offered guidelines to companies for gig work.
It included gig workers in its very definition of social security. It said, “Social security means the measure of protection afforded to employees, unorganized workers and gig workers.” The code did not, however, mandate establishing that protection.
Mohammed Arif Khan, a delivery executive for Dunzo, works seven days a week, starting his days at 9.30 am and logging out around midnight. The work is all-consuming, leaving him no time for his health, friends or marriage.
“If incentives are counted then I take home Rs 1,000 a day. Once petrol prices are deducted, then it’s Rs 800 per day. I take home around Rs 25,000 in a month, if I work this routine.” It is not an easy routine to maintain—despite the social security promised by the 2020 codification exercise, Khan’s 15-hour workdays do not fetch him a provident fund, paid leave or the prospect of growth.
He is also not insured. “Only if I die while delivering,” he said, “my family will receive up to Rs 5,00,000. But only if they are aware of it.”
The Blinkit app’s Frequently Asked Questions section mentions a ‘joining bonus’, but delivery partners told Article 14 that a ‘joining fee’ is deducted from the joining bonus paid upon induction, ostensibly to pay for their training and the logo-imprinted t-shirts. “The company calls us ‘delivery partners’, but we are asked to pay money to the company to join, and also have to adhere to their dress code,” one of the delivery personnel said.
In other words, in this non-traditional employer-employee work model, the ‘partners’ are still to be recognised as belonging to a particular company when they ride or walk, even though the relationship is akin to that of a freelancer.
Anupam Guha, assistant professor at the Ashank Desai Centre for Policy Studies, IIT-Bombay, said the fact that gig workers are not formal employees means they are not protected under any law, and their unions are not recognised by companies. “The matter can only get amplified and some concrete results can only come out of a law,” Guha told Article 14.” Unless the issue of the gig-workers is taken to court, or to the legislature, and a public discourse is created, there can be found no resolution to this.”
Guha referred to a study by German scholar Moritz Altenried, whose research focuses on platform work or gig work, that said platforms were wrongfully referred to as ‘markets’. Digital technology produces labour relationships very similar to those in traditional factories, the study said, adding that the platforms should thus be seen as factories, means of production, and gig-workers as “workers of a digital factory”.
Guha also draws a comparison to the United Kingdom, where multiple developments over the past few years have accorded some gig-workers the status of employees. For example, in Smith Vs. Pimlico Plumbers, the court ruled in favour of Gary Smith, a plumber with Pimlico Plumbers, where he contested his ‘self-employment’ or ‘consultant’ status.
Work Conditions Gruelling, Exclusionary
Gig work is competitive, and is designed so that delivery personnel work faster, to deliver more orders once they’ve logged in. This is in order to maximise deliveries and take home some incentives—the per-order income is usually inadequate.
Also, that it is mandatory for people aspiring for gig work to pre-own a vehicle (a two wheeler in the case of delivery apps) and a smartphone rule out many from seeking work here.
Multiple reports, including one by the Observer Research Foundation on gender and the gig economy and one by the Institute of Social Studies Trust, show that women often do not own the mobile phones or vehicles they may use, and most often share these resources with others, especially male family members.
The Fairwork India Annual Reports showed that Dunzo’s scores declined for three consecutive years. The only grocery delivery app to feature on the list, Dunzo was marked 5/10 in 2019, 4/10 in 2020 and 1/10 in 2021. Flipkart was consistently ranked the highest, at 7/10 throughout. A project by the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford and the Berlin Social Science Center, Fairwork evaluates the working conditions of digital labour platforms and scores them on pay, working conditions, contracts, etc.
We tried to contact Dunzo’s media team by email in December 2022, but did not receive a response.
“The company pays Rs 2,800 (as a bonus or incentive) if we work for 26 days consecutively,” said Mohammed Asif. Delivery workers are not eligible for a promotion at Zepto, where he works.
Sohail said he has to return to the dark store each time he is ready for fresh orders to deliver. “Until we return and scan the store ID, we do not receive further orders.”
This means that Sohail and thousands of others like him across various platforms get paid for delivering an order, but are not reimbursed the cost of returning to the dark store. There is a minimum number of orders to deliver before an incentive can be achieved, so workers have no choice but to make the return trip several times a day.
Additionally, there are distance requirements to qualify for some payments or incentives. Within a given radius, delivery payments are fixed per order for riders, and rides outside the radius are paid Rs 2.5 per km to Rs 5 per km by different companies.
Mohammed Sajjad Hussain, the DSE scholar, said the apps want their riders to function as users of the app too. He said while the companies require workers to own vehicles, there is no support toward the upkeep of these vehicles.
Hussain also highlighted the many “hidden costs” of delivery work that workers pay for themselves—the cost of the mobile phone that workers use constantly, the cost of data that is consumed, the price of petrol or diesel and the health costs that add up from the long hours on a bike.
“During the field work for my research, many delivery persons told me that a job at the mall would earn them more respect than delivering goods to households, even if it pays less,” said Hussain.
Some Unions Formed, Hope To Make A Dent
Unionising has not been an area of exploration for India’s gig workers, as they are protected under no law, and hence their unions are not accorded State recognition. Though several unions and a federation have emerged, these have no legal sanctity.
“We have had some recent protests against the gig model of Swiggy and Zomato, and although we are not recognised, we hope for some positive changes in the system,” said Shaik Salauddin, national general secretary of the Indian Federation of App-based Workers, an organisation founded in 2019, and with approximately 25,000 members, according to them.
Salauddin said the algorithm of the apps is designed to make workers work longer hours than the stipulated time in order to qualify for incentives, and the algorithms are controlled by the companies and tweaked at will. During protests or meetings of union members, apps simply redirect orders to third-party delivery companies. “In this manner, the company dominates negotiations,” he said.
Salauddin has also launched the Telangana Gig and Platform Workers Union, a state-level union with approximately 10,000 members. “The work that we do aims to formalise the informal sector of transport and delivery workers, and to raise the social, political and economic standards of the workers," Salauddin said.
Improving Gig Workers’ Work Lives
Matthew Taylor’s ‘Good Work: The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices’, a 116 page document submitted to the UK Government, makes seven recommendations to platform work companies towards the improvement of the lives and working conditions of gig workers. Broadly, the recommendations focused on preventing exploitation, ensuring workers are able to exercise their rights, and aligning the payments and incentives system with broader national objectives and industrial strategy.
Gig or platform work in India has seen many bouts of protests by workers. Protests by Blinkit workers in Kolkata spearheaded a movement, demanding a sustainable arrangement in their work and also against pay cuts. Workers’ unions have called for a consensus regarding the working conditions and the overall model of the gig economy.
Guha said, a union could be an “instrument to negotiate, rather than an instrument to agitate”. Unions could also only function in a legal space and recognition of platform workers’ unions was imperative for companies or the government to pay heed to workers’ needs, he said.
On asking gig workers if they would continue in the long run, Mohammed Asif said he aspired to be a manager some day, though the path there seemed unclear.
“I can’t wait for February to come, to start my AC servicing work again,” said Sohail. Asked why, he explained that Blinkit was about to introduce uniforms for its delivery partners, a step he had not anticipated. “I can’t be delivering around my locality any more. I haven’t told my family or friends what I do,” he said.
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(Rahat Touhid is a journalist based in New Delhi. Anwesha Ganguly is a writer based in New Delhi.)