Strike By Zomato ‘Partners’ Wins No Concessions But Brings A Benefit Unfamiliar To India’s Gig Workers

ALISHA DUTTA
 
27 May 2022 13 min read  Share

The employment these companies provide and the services they offer are enabled by cutting-edge technology, but they offer few safety nets: 12 years after the first digital app, resentment and protest are spreading. Unorganised Zomato workers in a city of 1.6 million struck work for 10 days to collectively push for a more equal relationship with their employer. Promised incentives, flexibility and money, they are some of nearly 15 million ‘partners’ employed by India’s app-based companies struggling to get by. The strike failed, but it taught them the power of unity.

Delivery ‘partners’ from Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, protest against a new incentive system—introduced by the smartphone-app based food-delivery company Zomato—that, they allege, reduces their flexibility and shrinks their earnings/ALISHA DUTTA

Kolkata: In the sweltering heat of the first week of April, about 500 young men who work as delivery personnel for restaurant aggregator and food delivery firm Zomato gathered in the G-Town Maidan of Jamshedpur, Jharkhand.


Some delivery ‘partners’, as they are called, worked on 1 April while about 300 others joined the call for a strike. On 2 April, the numbers of those striking work swelled, and more than 500 workers raised slogans and carried placards and banners to protest a newly introduced system of payments and incentives. 


“I’m fasting now, so that I don’t have to starve the whole year,” said Manik Sahu, a 35-year-old Zomato delivery partner who participated in a hunger strike against the new system. 


The protest was the latest effort by some of about 15 million workers—with the potential to employ 70 to 90 million—to make their employment more secure and gainful in a sector driven by the latest digital technology but dogged by allegations of exploitation (here, here and here). 


The advantages that companies who run their business through computer applications platforms, or apps, tout—a flexible earn-as-you- work-when-you-want model—are also criticised for lack of job security, overwork and lack of social-security nets.


Called ‘GIGS’, Zomato introduced the new system in March 2022. According to workers, the new system reduced the flexibility they previously enjoyed in terms of when and how many deliveries they wished to do in a day, while also shrinking their earnings per delivery.   


The protesting workers had four main demands: Resumption of the old system of payments and incentives; reinstatement of 30 delivery partners terminated in April, apparently for mobilising workers for the strike; payment of outstanding dues; and a functional office in Tatanagar town, as Jamshedpur is also known.  


Workers informed their team leaders that with the new system, their earnings had dropped by about 25%, said Ratan Sahu, a 22-year-old who began to work as a delivery partner while still a B Com student at a Jamshedpur college. He said they requested that the old system be reintroduced. “No one paid any heed to our demands,” said Ratan Sahu, who now delivers for Zomato full-time. 

 

The protesting workers faced strikingly similar challenges—they had no union whose support they could seek, they had little to no savings, and almost all had monthly payments to service pre-existing loans. Many had growing child care expenses and outstanding medical bills, a few also had education loans.

 

The city of Jamshedpur, divided into two zones, East and West, has only three permanent Zomato employees. One of them is in charge of dealing with the restaurants, and the two other, zonal heads, are in charge of delivery partners in their respective zones. In pre-Covid times, there used to be a city office in Tatanagar, but it no longer exists.


Responding to a questionnaire from Article 14, a Zomato spokesperson said the protesting workers’ claims were inaccurate, and that delivery partners in Jamshedpur had received increased payments since the launch of the new system. The spokesperson also said the terminations—or the blocking of some partners’ IDs— were not related to their participation in a protest.


The New System: No Incentives, Low Flexibility


Zomato’s new system of payments and incentives requires delivery partners to log into the system and book a specific time slot in advance, during which they would be available to work. 


The slots do not have standard rates. Payments for deliveries during each slot vary daily.  The day is divided into 13 slots that start from 7 am and go on till 1 am, and they get paid on an hourly basis.

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The delivery partners reported that under the new system, they were paid Rs 50 to Rs 70 per hour for slots between 7 am and 10 am; Rs 55 to Rs 70 per hour for slots between 10 am and 7 pm; Rs 65 to Rs 90 for slots between 7 pm and midnight; and  Rs 70 to Rs 105 per hour for any deliveries made from midnight to 1 am. 


“Even during the morning slots, we incur the same fixed costs,” said Ranjit Thakur, a 27-year-old delivery partner. “How are we supposed to cover that with these low rates?”  


In mid-February, during a two-day trial period for the new system, the daily earnings of most Zomato workers in Jharkhand increased or remained unchanged. 


However, once the trial period ended and all partners were mandated to upgrade to the new system, workers observed a steady decline in earnings. For example, earlier, they managed to make at least Rs 1,200 a day, but now found it difficult to make even Rs 900 at the end of a long working day.  


However, the Zomato spokesperson said that since the introduction of the new system, on an average delivery partner pay-outs per hour had increased by 15%. 


The previous system for delivery partners had two components—a rate card that reflected customers’ ratings, and a ‘touchpoint’ that reflected payment per kilometre travelled from the restaurant to the consumer, which allowed workers to estimate their earnings per order. 


The new system also expected partners to book time slots in advance. A complex system of partner categories—diamond, silver, bronze and blue, based on performance— ruled how many slots could be booked, and when. 


‘Diamond category’ partners could book slots four days in advance, those under the silver category could book slots three days in advance, and so on. Those failing to show up during that slot would be penalised Rs 10 for each slot booked.


Underperformance during slots booked could also lead to a low rating, which would in turn affect their category and ability to book slots in the near future.  


Further, the new system suspended incentives for workers who provided services under extreme weather conditions or when there was a delay caused by the restaurant. The problems that Zomato workers faced in Jamshedpur is a reflection of the informal nature of their work and the lack of legal protection.


According to the Zomato spokesperson, they enable only as many delivery partners as needed for a given block of hours, and those who do not show up for deliveries during a slot they had picked are penalised. “You take away the opportunity… from another delivery partner,” the spokesperson said.   


How Workers Are Excluded From Labour Laws


The success of India’s 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, Article 14 reported in September 2021, as thousands of gig workers struggled to survive the pandemic without healthcare, job security or—for families of those who died—compensation from government or companies.


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. 


Constitutional lawyer Gautam Bhatia, a member of the Article 14 editorial board, said in September 2021 that the legal status of delivery workers in India was 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.


‘A Historic Strike’


With the management appearing indifferent to their grievances, Jamshedpur’s Zomato workers organised a 10-day strike in April. 


Satyam, who uses only one name, a member of the Jharkhand Jan Shakti Morcha who has participated in several workers’ struggles, called it a  “historic strike”. He said it was unlike any strike he had witnessed earlier. 


Their struggle was made more challenging because there was no physical office of the employer at which to protest. There were also no senior management personnel posted in Jamshedpur they could pressurise, said Satyam. Two zonal heads who the workers negotiated with could have been on the company’s lowest rung, he said.


As the strike continued, one zonal head and a few others came to negotiate with the workers at the maidan.

 

The delivery partners invited Satyam, as an activist and member of a local trade union, to assist them in their negotiations. “The informal relationship between the management and the workers struck me as quite problematic,” Satyam told Article 14. “... the management had no respect for the workers.”

 

By the second day of the strike, 30 delivery partners were terminated. 


Workers claimed that some seniors threatened to involve the police and, when that did not work, they identified a few strikers and terminated their services. “They should have  terminated everyone by that logic,” said Satyam.


According to him, among those fired were some who mobilised workers for the strike and countered the management during negotiations.


The Zomato spokesperson said  the IDs of some of the Jamshedpur delivery partners were blocked on account of food snatching and violence on fellow delivery partners. “We don’t block IDs for dissent, we block them for violence or food snatching. In case of any violence and crime, the incident is reported to local authorities mostly by fellow delivery partners affected, wherein we offer our assistance to both the affected and authorities” the spokesperson told Article 14


Gig Economy: ‘Modern Systems Of Forced Labour’

Kaveri Medappa, a researcher at the University of Sussex studying the experiences of app-based workers, specifically food delivery workers and drivers in Bengaluru, said platforms such as Zomato claim to be platforms enabling flexible working hours and transparency for customers and workers, but workers’ experiences belied those claims. 


“On one hand, they try to convince their customers that they stand for justice and progressive worker-friendly policies,” said Medappa. “On the other hand, they act as complete despots by exerting too much control and taking unilateral decisions.” As these platforms consider themselves to be ‘intermediaries’ between customers and restaurants, they do not consider themselves accountable to workers, she added.

 

Nandini Chami, a researcher at IT Tor Change, a Bengaluru-based non-profit, said workers on platforms such as Zomato are often not paid minimum wages even after they’ve worked for more than 10 hours a day. 


“The workers also don’t understand the grounds on which deductions and fines are charged,” said Chami. “Most platforms have an opaque system of rates and incentives, which adds to the plight of the workers.” 


The platforms are a double-edged sword, said unionists and experts. Workers are able to work 14-15 hours a day to push their earnings up, but they do so without any security or guarantee of work. The labour is thus precarious and, as in the case of the Jamshedpur Zomato workers, subject to unilateral management decisions that affect workers’ ability to earn a decent wage. 


Medappa said these platforms institutionalised and normalised “unfree” forms of work. “No one in their right frame of mind would voluntarily work 14-15 hours a day,” she said. “They do so because they are compelled to do so..” 


Sheikh Salauddin, general secretary of the Hyderabad-based Indian Federation of App-Based Transport Workers (IFAT), said the platforms’ choice of term for the delivery staff—”partners”— was a ruse. “... then why not make us shareholders?” he said. “If they can’t do that, they may as well call us workers and drivers.”

 

Gayatri Singh, senior counsel and co-founder of Human Rights Law Network, said the use of the term “partners” denied workers their basic rights including minimum wages, proper working conditions, gratuity, insurance and provident fund. “This reluctance to acknowledge their delivery partners as workers is just to bypass the labour laws,” Singh said.  

 

Madhav Kumar, a 28-year-old Zomato worker, said Zomato presenting itself as a gig platform with flexibility was misleading. “This is just another structured job without any benefits,” he told Article 14


Valuable Data But Undervalued Data Creators


Chami said that the discussion of workers’ digital rights must begin alongside the struggles of these and other gig platform workers .


In the EU, under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), gig workers have a right to ask for a record of their data. India lacks these regulations. Laws that protect workers’ data rights and seek accountability from platforms regarding how their algorithm works are urgently needed, she said. 


“Who owns the data that all these workers create for these platforms?” asked Medappa.


Every customer purchase, delivery, rating, information regarding time per delivery or kilometres travelled per delivery contribute to a rich trove of data for analytics and machine learning outcomes that fashion future business decisions.


It is the workers who are creating this data, said Medappa, at “great risk” and without any monetary compensation or rights over the data.


But as the companies enjoy higher valuations and funding, “workers’ actual working conditions are getting worse” according to Chami.


Medappa recalled a conversation with one of her interviewees in which the delivery partner said this was a rare instance of earnings shrinking over time. “Even when I worked as an informal labourer with no provident fund, my earnings increased over time,” the worker told Medappa. “Here, we suddenly stop getting service requests when we meet our daily targets.”


There are numerous instances of workers being deliberately blocked or suspended from these platforms for protesting or for raising questions regarding unilateral management decisions.


Experts said the gig platforms, rather than enhancing transparency as promised, have amplified inequality and deepened workers’ indignities.


Collectivising, Mobilising Public Opinion And Funds

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In the absence of union funds and savings to fall back on, the Zomato workers in Jharkhand started a fundraiser via the Instagram account Jharkhand App-Based Transport Workers Union


Rajiv Deo, a 31-year-old Zomato employee, said the fundraiser was a huge help. “The first Rs 500 that came via the fundraiser was spent on preparing lemonade for everyone.” 


Deo said that one of the Zomato workers fasted for more than a day, even as he worried about how to pay his EMI, his daughter’s outstanding school fees and his father’s medical bills. Being on strike meant that they did not earn anything.

 

Despite the alienation and isolation of platform work, there has been a steady rise in the collectivisation and collective action within the worker community. 


Strikes in Guwahati, Thiruvananthapuram, Jharkhand, Delhi and Bangalore are proof of that. Sheikh Salauddin said the demands of these app-based workers do not vary from state to state. “We have realised that the problems we face are not individual problems but problems that every app-based worker faces.” 


The workers, along with civil society organisations, academics and trade unions, have filed a public interest litigation seeking reforms in labour laws and workers’ rights. The petition identifies platform workers as workers. 


Gayatri Singh said that this would help the workers claim benefits under the following legislations: The Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923; The Industrial Disputes Act, 1947; The Employees State Insurance Act, 1948; Employees Provident Funds and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1952; The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961; The Payment of Gratuity Act, 1972 and ‘Unorganised Workers’ Social Welfare Security Act, 2008’.

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(Alisha Dutta is an independent researcher and journalist based in Kolkata, working on workers and women’s rights and feminist joy.)