An ongoing conversation about the badly paid, stressful lives of India’s delivery workers is taking centre stage these days as gig workers speak up about being overworked and underpaid. And that conversation is being moderated in no small part by one anonymous Twitter handle.

Since May, @DeliveryBhoy – a delivery worker based in Mumbai called Singh – has been shining a spotlight on those complaints, using screenshots from workers at Zomato and Swiggy to explain penalties, incentives, and bot-mediated management to customers who would have no way of knowing the complex economics behind their deliveries otherwise. He now has about 5,000 followers, including a growing number of handles linked to delivery workers, for his stinging critiques of successful Indian food platforms’ practices.

While delivery workers range from high school dropouts to college graduates, Singh acknowledges he may not be fully representative of India’s hundreds of thousands of gig workers. For one, he is very comfortable in English – a key signifier of privilege in India – and occasionally drops American pop culture references that suggest he is older than many other such workers.

He began taking deliveries during the pandemic after he lost his previous job and was unable to get a new one. But he stopped after facing an accident while delivering a cake in July. Though he now works an office job in the sales industry, he said his experiences as a gig worker, and his awareness that he has options many such workers do not is why he now feels compelled to lobby for his former colleagues.

“I feel it is a greater injustice when an educated person turns a blind eye,” he said. “I do have a white-collar job now, but who knows. I am sure my true identity is going to come out one day or the other, so I do not know how life will pan out then, but I have found myself with the unique opportunity to stand up for a community I have grown quite close to.”

In an email interaction with Quartz, Singh talked about his experiences delivering food, his criticisms of platforms, and what can be done to rectify the grim situation. The interview has been lightly edited for length.

Quartz reached out to Swiggy and Zomato to ask about some of the issues described by @DeliveryBhoy and other workers.

Swiggy did not reply to specific queries, but said it pays delivery workers in line with the law and is committed to “protecting their earnings opportunities, while also ensuring accident cover, medical insurance, bereavement leave, mental wellness, and on-call doctor support, legal and financial wellness support for them and their families and loan support (in major cities)”.

Zomato said that it believes that it pays delivery workers fairly for the hours they put in and that it was in its own interest to ensure the platform works for them.

“We are more than willing to make the system work better for our partners and do not think that we would have 3,00,000+ active partners if we were to punish them for sharing their grievances,” it said, adding that, “This gig is not for undergraduates, or for graduates who can find other better-paying jobs. We ideally do not want any of our delivery partners to work with us for more than a year or two – we want this gig to be a pitstop for them before they find something which aligns better with their long term aspirations.”

Other comments are included in the relevant places below.

What does a typical working day look like?
When I was with Swiggy, I worked full-time which is 12 hours a day. We had sporadic breaks of 15 minutes after every 3 hours-4 hours between shifts. The dinner shift went on for almost five hours whereas lunch and tea were significantly shorter. I would wake up around 9 am-10 am, finish my chores and leave for work around 11:20 in the morning.

My locality was 8 km away, I had to reach around 10 minutes early and log in at 12 pm. It would take anywhere between 10 minutes to 45 minutes for the first order to come. Orders in my locality were few. We would get a bunch during lunch hours but that was only for a period of 1.5 hours-2 hours. Then there would be a decline (in orders). Tea time again was mostly dead. Dinner hours were really a time when one could make money but it was not much. I made around Rs 600 per day and spent Rs 200 rupees.

Some made more, some made less. There are no fixed payouts. As for incentives in my case, if I made a minimum of Rs 375 per day and stayed logged in for the full time, I would get Rs 100 as an incentive and if I made Rs 650, I would get Rs 200. It was quite difficult because we would not be sent that many orders and even if we did get them, they were very low paying.

Even though my shift was 12 hours, I would stay on duty for 13 hours-14 hours. A single order post-midnight, if I were lucky to land one, would pay me over Rs 100. I would usually get home anywhere between 1 am to 2 am. I would eat quickly and then simply crash out. You cannot stay awake for even a few minutes after working that long.

Tell us your experience of working with Zomato and Swiggy.
After I was abused by a restaurant owner and Swiggy did nothing about it, I left. I then joined Zomato as many riders whom I knew from Zomato said the company may make you work hard but one does not face these issues. They said Zomato is strict with restaurants since they are more geared to pleasing the customer and will not tolerate any nonsense from restaurants.

With Zomato I decided to work part-time, that is 6 hours from 6 pm-12 am since the dinner shift was any way the time when one would make a large chunk of their earnings. The problem is that Zomato makes you ride incredibly long distances and I ended up spending a lot more on fuel.

They are also very strict and will not hesitate to impose fines on a delivery agent for the smallest of things. They use various rating systems to reward or punish you. On-time order delivery, denials and cancellations and customer rating were all factored in and a decline in any of these directly affected the number of orders you got and as a result how much you got paid.

Swiggy payouts are abysmal for newer riders. Older riders had the old rate cards from a couple of years ago. They got a minimum of Rs 40 an order plus a surge fee if there was any at that time. We got Rs 20. And it is not like a new rider would eventually graduate to a better rate card. As more new joiners enrol, payouts tend to decrease.

With Zomato it is the same. Except that they pay you more per order but also deduct large amounts. Zomato required you to stay logged in for 5 hours of those 6 hours but one did not have set slots like with Swiggy, where at the end of each peak, you would get 15 minutes [paid]. Instead, you could show up an hour later, leave an hour earlier or take an hour in between.

Sounds like a better deal, except that no one ever takes these breaks because time is money. Whether with Swiggy or Zomato, we never actually logged out and tried to fit our meals and bathroom breaks into our schedule while continuing to be online and accepting orders.

I have eaten food while walking down staircases after delivering an order so I would not miss the next order, if and when it came.

At the end of the day neither was better or worse. They were both horrid. On average, after fuel, maintenance and other deductions I earned Rs 12,000 at Swiggy and around the same at Zomato. Out of this 8,000 rupees was my rent, so I was left with Rs 4,000 for everything else including my food, mobile, electricity and water bills.

(Zomato said that in a city such as Bangalore the top 20% of earners who put in more than 40 hours a week take home about Rs 20,000 a month, which is higher than the average per capita income. It also said that while it pays delivery partners mainly based on the distance travelled and the time that they spend on an order, it does have a minimum pay per order of between Rs 15 and Rs 30 “to cover instances where distances and wait times might be very low [for example if a customer orders an ice cream from a restaurant that is 1 km away].”)

When did you decide to use Twitter more actively to raise awareness around delivery workers conditions?
Initially, I used Twitter to complain because no one was responding to the tickets I raised on the app. When I had my accident, I got furious that it was not just me but many others who had been in accidents that were not being responded to.

In fact in June, when I really began tweeting, two delivery workers from other cities had died. The company’s response was less than lukewarm and they lied to those who took issue with their treatment of riders.

They have always lied because in reality they barely respond to riders even in the worst situations. My own accident opened my eyes to the plight of delivery workers. Before this, I was told by many how common accidents really were but I did not quite take it seriously. Everyone is complicit. They blame the delivery guys when it’s the platforms that push us to deliver in record time, come what may.

What are some of the challenges delivery partners are facing? What do you think companies can do to help with those?
New joiners are basically on their own. You just have an hour’s worth of training on your mobile where they show you some videos and ask you questions and once you are done with that and uploading your documents, they activate your ID and you can pretty much begin delivering.

You end up learning on the job or asking other delivery agents. It can be a very discomforting experience for many because you make mistakes that actually cost you money. Sometimes they could cost you a whole day’s worth of payout and work gone down the drain with just one penalty.

The whole system is gamified, so delivery agents are baited at the beginning with lots of orders to get them hooked, then one slowly begins to notice a decline. There are random unexplainable events where your ratings are reduced or fines are imposed and we suspect this is so that delivery agents are never made to feel they are doing too well. It pushes them to perform better, works faster and longer and always be on their toes. The company finds some way or the other to punish you.

You are pitted against riders in your locality in weekly rankings. Someone on my Twitter timeline referred to it as the Hunger Games. Companies cannot and will not do anything to change it. At least nothing significant.

It allows them to tinker with our payments and no matter how much we work, we earn more or less the same.

One is how our joining bonus of Rs 3,000 is credited to us. It is not like they give us the entire amount in one go. They do it in parts in such a way that it becomes part of our weekly payout. After a certain number of orders, they will transfer you Rs 500 in the first week. Then they will transfer you Rs 1,000 and finally, when you are done with at least 100 orders they will transfer you Rs 1,500 along with your weekly payout.

But somehow you do not notice much of a difference in your entire weekly payout because they make sure you do not go above a certain amount by tweaking your order values. I noticed this when I compared my surges with another rider in my locality.

We worked the same hours, delivered virtually the same number of orders per day, and both joined at around the same time and yet the additional surge fee for the dinner peak we both were getting was different. This was done to “level” it out.

I also noticed that if you have made a certain amount of money, your number of orders begins to drop. You suddenly find yourself waiting while others around you get orders. I was once parked outside a restaurant for at least 30 minutes without an order and another rider came in from more than 2 km away and picked up an order, though I was sitting right there.

The whole time I was wondering why they would call him from so far away when they already had riders around the place. I then realised it was because I had been capped by an algorithm for earning more than I should.

Long story short, if you see, these companies are being pumped with money from venture capitals and institutional investors, they give massive discounts to customers and have not ever generated a profit.

It is not like there is a thing or two they can do to make our lives better. No, the whole model has to be changed. But then, any change they make in the rider’s favour would impact even the pittance they are making in profits. The very DNA in this model is flawed.

(Zomato acknowledged the bonus is paid in instalments, which “is communicated at the time of onboarding. As a standard retention practise, this is disbursed gradually against order based milestones”. It disputed that its algorithms are set up in such a way to cap earnings, saying “we do not make any changes to payouts based on how much a driver partner has already earned”.)

Has the pandemic made things worse?
Of course. The CEOs of these companies have only profited from it, but workers have suffered. More demand means the need for more riders and that means lower wages per rider…if any of the hundreds of screenshots that platform workers, not just in India, but everywhere, have been sharing are anything to go by, then it is infinitely worse.

Plus, we were in the middle of the lockdown delivering up to 20-25 orders each day. We went to many different homes and restaurants on a daily basis, so we were at severe risk of contracting the virus. Vaccines, though promised over and over again, were severely delayed and while the customer app showed whether or not we were vaccinated, we had no idea if the customer was. And many of us weren not vaccinated at different points during the time. We risked everything.

Today the earnings are at an all-time low, riders are paying more for fuel and many are in debt after having taken huge loans to purchase bikes to do this job. So there is the answer to the question – why do you not just quit. It is difficult, even impossible, for many to quit now. A huge percentage are migrant workers who have come to the city based on promises made to them that they can be their own bosses and earn as much as they want by working harder. They are basically stuck.

What do you think can be done to rectify the situation?
Courts must take cognizance. These companies are very rich and their CEOs are some of the richest people in the world today despite the companies themselves making massive losses. The ones at the top will pay themselves millions and eventually exit with billions.

This is the first time the whole world is facing an identical problem. You will see how identical the experiences are no matter which country you look at. They will hire armies of top lawyers but we must also fight. Gig workers in India are extremely poor and most cannot take an hour off work, forget days. There is a slim chance anyone will take them to court. This is why these companies are confident that they will get away with it.

(Recently, the Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers filed a suit before India’s Supreme Court seeking social security benefits in what could become a test case. –Quartz)

We can only win by changing the system and really forcing them to classify us as employees. That will be the best thing to happen to us. Where we can finally avail employee benefits, sick leave, days off and the right to work eight hours.

We can only win by changing the system and really forcing them to classify us as employees. That will be the best thing to happen to us. Where we can finally avail employee benefits, sick leave, days off and the right to work eight hours.

This article first appeared on Quartz.