Are Zomato, Ola, and others REALLY helping the workers?

Saturday, September 18, 2021

/ by mansuralisaha


The News Cover:  Grofers is an Indian online grocery delivery service and is now believed to be a unicorn i.e a company valued at more than USD1 billion. On 25th August, one of its users tweeted in delight that his grocery order had been delivered within 13 minutes! That's right - in 13 minutes. Just image, someone put an order, the store received it, the goods were packaged, and the delivery boy reached the store and delivered the goods to the user, just within 13 minutes. Actually, the CEO of Grofers wasn't as happy. He replied that the delivery took 3 mins longer than he would have liked. He assured everyone that “We would work harder in the future". The reply was tweeted soon after some news reports stated that Grofers was planning to do deliveries in under 10 mins. Unsurprisingly, the CEO started receiving a lot of hate on social media. And Grofers isn’t the only company that’s using this strategy. Other companies have expressed that they want to reduce the delivery time too. Because in this race to cut delivery times, many people fear that the consequences would need to be faced by the delivery workers of these companies, who would have to risk on the road get these deliveries on time. This isn’t an imaginary situation. 

Something of the short took place in real life. In Pune, when a delivery executive was asked why he was driving on the wrong side of the road, he said, “I am already late for the pick-up.” The pressure on the executives is due to an obvious reason – the more orders they deliver, the more money they make. Sumit Kumar, a Zomato delivery executive had to complete 12 orders in a day to earn an incentive of Rs 200. A delivery executive in an interview stated that this pressure to do faster deliveries is not exerted directly by the company. It’s indirect and he "observed that more orders are assigned to the ones who deliver it faster." This is the story of the 15 lakh drivers working for companies such as Ola, Uber, Zomato and Swiggy. 

But the story of the delivery executives isn't as black and white. Some people argue that given the bad economy these people at least have a source of income. While others argue that they deserve fair working conditions. We’ll try to discuss two questions in this video. What challenges do the delivery executives face? And are there any positives of their jobs? And how can we evaluate it in a balanced manner? In recent years, a term called "gig economy" has been used frequently. What does it mean? A 'gig work' is basically work delivered ‘on-demand’, as and when the requirement arises, and for a fixed period of time. Examples of gig work include driving cabs, food delivery, and repairing electrical equipment. Estimates show that the number of platform-based gig workers has increased from 80 lakhs in 2016 to 1.5 crore in 2018. A BCG report added that most of these jobs are in lower-income job categories such as deliveries or ridesharing. According to this report, in the next 3-4 years, India’s gig economy will grow by 3x. While the gig economy is set to become more popular in India, gig workers don't see a secure future ahead. Why is that? There are 4 main reasons for this. First, according to numerous news reports, the majority of the gig workers overwork but don't get as much money. 

Sumit Kumar, a delivery executive at Zomato, whom we mentioned in the introduction said that Zomato's payment to its delivery partners has two components: a fixed base pay on every completed order and incentives after attaining delivery milestones. Sumit said, “if you just work for the base pay, you won’t be able to afford an undergarment for yourself.” Hence, the incentives become really important for the workers. To make an additional Rs 200 incentive the executives have to reach 24 touchpoints i.e. complete 12 deliveries. This incentive can go as high as Rs 800 for them if they make 22 deliveries in one day. Sumit says “he has to put his blood, sweat, and tears" to deliver 22 orders in a day. This was the case for delivery services. But the incentives for cab services are structured in a similar way - they have to complete a certain number of trips to get their incentive. Recently earnings of many have dropped. 

Arif, a Mumbai-based driver shared that he makes around Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000 per week. “Earlier I could make Rs 12,000 a week", he said. And why have these earnings dropped? This is because of the “carrot and stick” concept, i.e. first you feed someone and then beat them with a stick. Aditi Surie, a researcher at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements, explains that the informal sector workers were lured with higher incentives. These high incentives led to a boom in taxi registrations and vehicle loans. For example, commercial taxi registrations in Bengaluru grew 40% every year between 2014 and 2017. But in 2017, incentives were cut and the drivers’ earnings reduced, making it difficult for them to pay the debt. That's why Tanveer Pasha, the president of a Drivers Association says that "we’re earning less than usual while working more.” With a longer number of working hours, the gig workers are witnessing a toll on their physical and mental health. .

Arif has been working for Ola for 3 years. He said, "driving from 7 am to 11 pm or midnight meant disturbed meal routines and that led to acidity and body ache. I didn't even have time to take a toilet break." According to research on Ola and Uber drivers, around 90% of the drivers claimed they get less than 6 hours of sleep. The research data shows that the respondents’ consumption of cigarettes, tobacco and alcohol increased too. The increasing amount of stress has also led workers to give up on their family time. Ahmed Shariff chose to quit the ride-hailing app he worked in for three months. He said, "the kind of work needed for incentives was not worth it. I’ve gone back to driving for offline companies; they may pay less, but the job is more dignified." Third, the gig workers lack social security in their work. The investigation held by Prachi Salve and Shreehari Paliath revealed that gig jobs offer none of the benefits that regular jobs bring – limit on working hours, overtime, and health benefits. An Ola cab driver said that after undergoing surgery, he was compelled to resume driving as he’s the breadwinner of the family. He had to take a break after each trip due to the pain. The COVID-19 pandemic has made things worse for these workers. During the lockdown, nobody was using these services. 

Under a Facebook post by Ola, the comments section during COVID was filled with comments by drivers from across the country, stating their name and location, and a plea for help. Fourth, there’s constant pressure on the gig workers to maintain good customer ratings. Urban Company service professionals have to maintain a rating of 4.5. If it drops lower than 4.5, they are taken off the platform and sent for retraining. This has meant that often workers need to go beyond what their actual job demands. For example, Pooja, who provides beauty services on the Urban Company app, says that many customers "ask for a free head massage after the body massage. But if we refuse, they may give us low ratings" The focus on customer ratings gives power to the customer and strips it away from the workers. The economic logic behind this is to attract more paying customers, apps are designed to give them more power. The sad part is - workers are not aware of what ratings they receive. And the companies don’t have a grievance mechanism system where the workers can make an appeal or ask for additional information regarding the bad reviews. Many times they get kicked off a platform without receiving sufficient information. So these were the negative aspects of the gig economy. It also has a positive side. 

For example, in 2016, Pooja opened a beauty salon using a loan. Pooja struggled to repay the load, so she started working as a spa therapist with the Urban Company. Now, she does not want to leave the platform. To run her salon, she had to pay rent, give salary to the staff and buy equipment, yet there was no guarantee of client footfall. She added, "with the app, I don't have many of these expenses and I can earn more." A report conducted an interview of around 90 women from Mumbai and Delhi and showed that the women working on Urban Company, on average, earn Rs 1,550 per day against the Rs 300 per day for a routine salon job. In addition to increased earnings, women also like flexible work timings as it allows them to manage their household responsibilities. 

Almost 85% of the respondents in the study were satisfied with the flexible timings. This was an example of the positive side. Another positive side is that gig workers at least have a source of income. There are many who’re completely unemployed and have no job opportunities. But the gig workers have a source of income. And remember the hate that Grofers’ CEO received for its 10 minutes tweet? The CEO clarified that they are not going to meet the 10 minutes by pushing its drivers to deliver faster but rather because of "in-store planning and tech". This debate about the gig economy has divided people into two groups - one who thinks that these jobs are horrible and those that think that they aren't as bad. Truth as always lies in the middle. In the current challenging economic environment, these jobs offer employment opportunities to several people. 

At the same time, a lot can be done to improve the working conditions of the workers. Prof. Ramaswamy, a researcher at Indira Gandhi Institute of Development, says that India needs to set up institutional mechanisms such as labor court systems to improve the working conditions of the gig workers. And thankfully, the government is making progress on this issue. Ministry of Law and Justice has come up with a Code on Social Security (2020) that mandates the Union and state governments to offer provisions and social security to the gig workers. These would provide life and disability cover, health and maternity benefits, old age protection, education, provident funds, and other benefits. But till these regulations are acted up properly, the gig workers will continue to toil. 

As Tanveer Pasha, the head of the driving association said in an interview, “it’s a bit like a drug. We had been hooked, and our options are taken away from us. Now we rely entirely on what these app companies decide for us.” We should keep in mind that the government and the companies aren’t the only ones responsible for improving the welfare of gig workers. The customers are responsible too. And it’s not complicated. You can tip them, give a high rating if you’re satisfied with their work, and if you’re dissatisfied, and provide an explanation so that the worker gets to know the reason for the poor rating. This simple solution can have a positive and significant impact on the lives of gig workers.

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