When Krishna*, 48, watched the video that went viral earlier this week of a delivery man in a red Zomato shirt eating a portion of a dish he was meant to drop off to a customer, he had doubts about its veracity. “How could a delivery executive park his bike in a public space, fully aware that people can watch him, and eat food from the container?” Krishna wondered.

Krishna is in a good position to judge. Currently an employee of online food delivery service Swiggy, he has spent a year ferrying food from restaurants to patrons, developing a nuanced understanding of how the business works – and the pressures faced by delivery people. But even if the video was fake, he was still worried. The clip, said Krishna, “has tarnished the image of the delivery executives and has damaged our reputation”.

The day after the appearance of the video, which showed a delivery man from Madurai district in south Tamil Nadu dipping into a dish and then resealing it, Zomato said on Tuesday that it had “taken him off the platform”. Social media users were divided about this decision. Some were outraged at the delivery man’s actions, which they believed was dishonest and could also have endangered customers’ health. Others were more sympathetic. Several people on social media expressed their sympathy for the delivery executives. “It is what happens when you make people who can’t afford a square meal, keep handling mountains of food,” said one person.

The discussion around the clip brought to focus the long working hours and gruelling work conditions for the delivery executives – who have suddenly become an ubiquitous sight across urban India. Many wear uniforms with the logos of the sector’s biggest players: Swiggy, Zomato, Uber Eats and Foodpanda. Over the past year, these firms have expanded their operations from just 20 to 30 cities to at least 70 to 80 cities, according to Bengaluru’s Redseer Management Consulting. With India’s online food ordering sector growing at 15% per quarter, the company said, the “delivery executives count has increased from approximately 40,000 in 2017 to 300,00 in 2018”.

At the heart of their problems, delivery executives say, is that their payment model is incentive-based – the more deliveries they make during the peak times when customers want lunch and dinner, the more money executives earn. But with increased competition in the sector, delivery executives claim, food companies are constantly revising the pay structure, making it more ambiguous for them to understand. Many executives said it took a 16-hour day, with no weekend breaks, to earn a minimum of Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000 per month.

Besides, the delivery executives are not formal employees of these companies. They are considered independent contractors or partners.

Grumbled delivery executive Krishna, it is a “cheating business”.

A food delivery executive working for Swiggy on his bike in Chennai.

A day in the life

Earlier this week, Krishna took a breather to describe his challenges at work. As an executive with Swiggy, he could choose to work one of three kinds of shifts: part-time (8 pm-3 am), full-time (11 am-11 pm) or ultra full-time (7 am-11 pm). For Swiggy executives, working on Saturday and Sunday is compulsory.

Work timings are different at other companies. For instance, associates of Uber Eats can log in and out at any time of the day: their pay depends on the number of deliveries they make and how many hours they work. Choosing the full-time option at Uber Eats means working from 12 pm to 11 pm. At Zomato, full-time delivery executives work from noon to midnight; part-timers work from 7 pm to 12 am.

That morning at 7.30 am, Krishna logged in to the company app on his phone to signal that he was available for work. Within minutes, he received information about an order that had been placed by a customer and from which restaurant he had to pick up the food. He picked up his first order at 8.45 am.

He had started an hour late because work had stretched past midnight the previous day, even though he had started out at 6.30 am. This meant that his earnings for the day would be lower than usual. His pay structure depends on the number of hours he works, the number of orders he delivers and the value of each order. Above this, there is a complex set of incentives based on the bill amount of each order, the distance he travels to deliver it and whether he was making his deliveries at peak meal times and on the weekend.

In addition to the incentives, there are penalties, such as if an executive fails to stay logged in on weekends. Besides, there is also rejection penalty of Rs 10 a week if a delivery executive rejects between four to 10 orders a week. Krishna, who travels at least 150 km every day, delivering nearly 15 to 20 orders, said it was impossible to take up all the orders sent his way.

“Sometimes the distance from the restaurant to the place of delivery is too long for which we might not get any incentives,” he said. “In such circumstances, we have to reject the orders. I have already rejected four orders this week.”

This isn’t unique to Swiggy: other companies have similarly complex structures.

Krishna is relatively new to the food delivery business. He began his working life in 2005 in a manufacturing firm, eventually climbing to become the manager in-charge of operations in South India for a chemical factory in Chennai. But he quit his job because he was not given a promotion for six years. He took a loan of Rs 4 lakh from a public sector bank to set up a photocopying shop. But it went belly-up in 2016, after demonetisation was announced. “Everything collapsed,” said Krishna.

A year ago, he said, that he read about the openings at Uber Eats. “I have a daughter who is studying final year B.Com,” he said. “I thought this would help me earn quick money to support her education and meet the daily expenses. I had a bike and that was all that was required for this job. I could choose the time of my work and did not have to report to anyone.”

At Uber Eats, Krishna initially earned around Rs 30,000 per month, he said. But as more recruits were hired, the number of orders each delivery person was allotted fell. As his earnings dropped to 20,000 per month, he decided to move to Swiggy. He had hoped to earn up to Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,200 per day. But this, he realised, would mean making deliveries for 16 hours without a break. He has since tempered his expectations. On most weekdays, he earns Rs 700 to Rs 800, of which he spends Rs 200 on petrol.

A screenshot of the revised pay break-up that was given to delivery executives working for Swiggy on December 3.

Small protests

On December 5, when customers in some parts of Chennai tried to place orders on their Swiggy apps, they received a message saying “temporarily unavailable”. Many delivery executives, including Krishna, had decided to stay away from work to protest a new incentive structure they were given two days before.

Executives had been told that the incentives have been increased, but when they were paid at the end of the week, many found that their earnings had slightly reduced.

“We are still finding it difficult to comprehend how this system works,” said Krishna. “For now, we are only concerned about the money we get at the end of the week and we are worried that the revised payment structure might reduce our earnings.”

He added: “At least in the manufacturing companies, we could read the payslip and balance sheet to find out information about our pay and profit of the companies. We do not even get what is shown on the paper now.”

With delivery disrupted in Mylapore, Vadapalani and Porur, the company began talks with the executives. The company told them that the revised payment structure was better than the previous one and asked them to wait for a month to see the benefits. The delivery executives decided they would take a call at the end of this month.

Swiggy was not the only online food delivery firm dealing with dissatisfaction. In the first week of December, at least 200 Zomato delivery people in Chennai stayed away from work after their list of incentives were revised. Among other things, they said that they were unhappy that the extra money they were paid for deliveries on a rainy day had been scrapped.

But they were back at work after nearly four hours. “The company told us to wait for a month and see how the new structure works,” said one man. “We have resumed work now.”

Scroll.in emailed questions about work hours and pay structure to Swiggy, Zomato and Uber. Only Zomato responded before the article was published. Its spokesperson said that the company has over 1.5 lakh registered delivery partners in 100 cities. “Our food delivery business in majority of the cities in India, operates from 8 am in the morning until 4 am the following day,” this person said. “All our delivery partners are independent contractors and choose to login (when and for as long as they want to) as per their own will for delivering food through our platform. They are free to go offline and come back online after any duration (be it an hour, day or week).”

The spokesperson added: “They are never hard pressed on time; we recommend they do timely deliveries (we don’t commit unreal times slots to our users) which positively impacts their customer rating. There is no direct monetary incentive for their delivery time. We prioritise their safety, and the safety of those on the road first.”

Update December 15, 5.30 pm: In an email sent after the article was published, a Swiggy spokesperson said: “The revised payout scheme is in alignment with the efforts of our partners on-ground, and takes various parameters including peak hours and distance into consideration. We remain committed to ensuring that our delivery partners have access to additional earning opportunities, incentives and benefits.”

The spokesperson added: “Swiggy provides its delivery partners with accidental cover, medical and life insurance. Additionally, earlier this year, Swiggy launched its Safety First programme with the aim to make roads safer for both the delivery partners and citizens.” In addition, the company offers “on-call doctors for them and their family, educational scholarship programs for them and/or their children and tie-ups with banks to enable personal loans at a better rate,” the spokesperson said.

If Uber Eats responds, this article will be updated.

Delivery executives working for Swiggy gather at a tea shop in Chennai for a break before they begin work at the "lunch peak" hour.

New legislation needed

This incentive-based system for delivery executives has drawn criticism from labour-rights activists, who say it is exploitative. “This system encourages them to work for long hours in order to get incentives, which forms the major chunk of their salary,” said T Venkat, a contributor to a blog about labour issues called Thozhilalar Koodam.

He noted that it isn’t only food delivery firms that follow this model. Taxi aggregator apps Ola and Uber employ similar structures and have faced protests from drivers in several parts of the country because of this.

Shakti, who works for New Trade Union Initiative in Delhi and uses only one name, said that by describing the drivers and food delivery executives as their partners, the companies are shirking the responsibilities of being an employer. “The independent contractors are not independent at all, they don’t get to choose the work location, the minimum working hours on the app and/or the delivery charges,” he said. I”n a traditional set-up these are the discretionary powers employers enjoy over their employees. But, by claiming that these workers are independent contractors the app companies save themselves from making statutory contributions towards Provident Fund or Employee’s State Insurance.”

These New Economy workers, Shakti said, do not fall under any legislative framework. “The present system is based on the employer-employee model, the app-based companies have been trying to veil this relationship through sham and bogus contracts with ‘independent contractors’,” he claimed. But several countries like the UK and USA have recognised the food delivery executives and drivers as workers and not independent contractors, he said.

That could help delivery people like Krishna feel more secure. For now, he feels trapped by his ultra full-time job. “I do not have any other option for now,” he said. “At this age, which company will recruit me?”

* Name has been changed on request.