For urban Indians, the Covid-19 lockdown has made the presence of app-based delivery workers more conspicuous than ever. As they zip through near-empty streets, their coloured uniforms stand out even brighter with affluent Indian city dwellers depending on them to stay well-supplied with restaurant food, groceries and medicines.
If their employers are to be believed, they aren’t merely workers: they are, as corporate social media posts claim, “saviours” and “heroes” for continuing to work through the pandemic. The firms aren’t content with just showering their workers with praise. Delivery firm Dunzo, restaurant food delivery services Zomato and, Swiggy, and taxi services Uber and Ola have also started charity campaigns to provide welfare services to its workers to weather the current crisis – and have appealed to customers and the public to help them raise money.
Swiggy and Zomato aim to raise Rs 10 crores each for each of their 2.5 lakh workers; Ola plans to raise Rs 40 crores for its 15 lakh drivers, while Uber hopes to raise Rs 50 crores for approximately 15 lakh drivers. Dunzo says on its appeal page that it aims to raise Rs 3 crores for its 18,000-odd delivery workers.
Ever since the lockdown took effect, the majority of app-based workers, especially drivers, have lost their source of livelihood. Lakhs of migrant workers from the sector have left cities for their home towns. Most taxi drivers are off the road. Although food delivery and grocery delivery platforms have been deemed an essential service, workers are faced with reduced orders, resulting in lower incomes and longer wait times between deliveries.
In addition, a large proportion of delivery workers have stopped working due to the fear of contracting the virus and passing it on to their family members. Those who continue to work during the lockdown are workers who have no other option but to risk exposing themselves to the virus in order to earn a living.
The welfare campaigns run by the companies claim they will provide workers income support, emergency assistance and food supplies. Swiggy and Dunzo, for instance, say they will use the funds to even meet the medical expenses of workers and their families for Covid-19 tests and treatment. Some funds have been contributed by the platforms through salary cuts by employees, from founders and investors . The rest is being crowd-sourced.
This, of course, begs the obvious question: why are India’s app-based firms, which have multi-million dollar valuations, appealing to the public to help them offer security to their own workers? As labour rights activists have long pointed out, this is another example of how app-based companies operate in a regulatory greyzone, identifying themselves as “technology platforms” and not as providers of labour services. These firms categorise their workers not as employees but as “partners”. This allows them to avoid any real responsibility for the conditions or welfare of their workers.
On its website, Zomato says it is making the appeal because… “we are keen on safeguarding every family associated with us, but there is only so much we can do to help in this situation. It’s beyond our financial viability to support our delivery partners.”
A Dunzo spokesperson said in an email message to Scroll.in, “As we are a small team, we have stakeholders like our users, investors, and personal circles who have reached out to us to help in whatever way possible as they too believe in the essential and brave service these Dunzo delivery partners are providing. That is also one of the reasons we opened this out to the greater public once our team internally had made the initial contributions.”
Ola, and Uber, Swiggy and Zomato did not respond to email queries about why they have sought funds from the public to provide worker benefits. This article will be updated if they reply.
Raising fresh funds
It is significant to note that in the middle of the lockdown, both Zomato and Swiggy raised fresh funding from investors: Zomato raised $5 million and Swiggy raised an additional $43 million. Dunzo is valued a little under $200 million, Ola at $5.7 billion, while Uber’s market capitalisation stood at $46 billion-$48 billion in mid-April.
It appears as though crowdfunded welfare for platform workers is specific to India. Take for instance the example of Ola, a homegrown start-up also operating in the UK and Australia which is set to turn 10 this year. Unlike its response to its Indian drivers, its Australian driver partners are covered under a “driver relief fund program” which draws from company funds itself.
In recent years, the lack of responsibility app-based delivery firms have shown for their workers has sparked labour agitations that have have been growing louder. Drivers attached to both Uber and Ola drivers have been mobilising to create a nation-wide network of drivers. They have carried out coordinated strikes demanding better fares, state regulation and that the company give them a higher share of the fares.
Food delivery workers have also participated in several sporadic city-level protests in recent years . These protests were a response to steadily declining rates workers are paid per order, reduced incentives and their stringent conditions of work. Recently, app-based food-delivery workers union in Karnataka demanded that food delivery workers be considered employees of the firms for which they work and protected by labour laws.
By asking the public to make donations for their workers’ welfare during the pandemic, these companies are insulating themselves from making any lasting changes to the way workers are treated. The language used in the appeals fixes the moral responsibility of “helping” vulnerable workers on customers. In some cases, the platform conflates themselves with the public, using phrases such as “they need us”.
The charity campaigns and the discourse around the heroism of the workers shows how platforms are effectively using altruism as a smokescreen to evade their own obligations towards those who labour for them. On the one hand, workers are projected as agents of sacrifice and selflessness who put customers before themselves. On the other, customers are presented with the opportunity to be charitable to their “hunger saviours”, as Swiggy calls its workers, by way of tipping or by donating to the crowdfunding campaigns.
This obscures the systemic exploitation against which workers have been voicing their discontent. Platform-based workers, cast as “micro-entrepreneurs”, are yet another category of workers without the protection of legislatory frameworks.
The steadily declining incentives for app-based workers, their abysmal work conditions, unsatisfactory grievance redressal mechanisms and the ever-present fear of being thrown off the platform if they express dissastifaction are some of the long-standing concerns that need addressing by way of regulations and laws.
Lack of proper regulations
If proper regulations were in place in the sector, drivers and riders would not have to rely on these charity drives, noted Shaik Salaudin, the National General Security of the Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers. “You don’t see the same situation with state bus transport corporation drivers,” he observed. “Why? They have salaries, PF [provident fund] and ESI [employee state insurance].”
While the Central government has floated the idea of recognising “gig workers” and “platform workers” in The Code on Social Security, 2019, it provides little clarity on employment status or entitlements.
Salaudin said that all labour laws should be made applicable to drivers and riders on aggregator platforms. “Platforms say as a provider of IT services we don’t fall under the transport department, the IT department says this is a labour issue,” he said. “We need clear guidelines from the government, then governments can welcome disruptions from apps.”
Kiran, a 24 year old, full-time delivery partner of Zomato, agreed. He has been working for the platform for 18 months and, as he is the sole earner for the family, he has had no option to keep at the job during the lockdown. He was not very impressed when he learnt about Zomato changing its rider icon on the app to that of a hero with a cape. “If they care about us so much, instead of calling us heroes let them decrease targets, let them give us a minimum income guarantee of Rs.1,000 for 10 hours of being logged in,” he said.
Kiran added: “ They don’t do anything but call us superman. Naavu supermangalalla! [We are not superhumans!]. My back aches, I feel tired. I am scared of this virus too.”
Kaveri Medappa is a PhD researcher at the University of Sussex. Her study focusses on the changing experiences of work amongst platform-dependant delivery workers and drivers in Bangalore.
Pradyumna Taduri is a researcher at IIIT-B where he works with the Fairwork Foundation. The views in this piece are personal.