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Gig Economy Realities: India's Post-COVID Delivery Partners

Pandora's Diaries


The categorisation of app-based food delivery services in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic as 'essential services’ necessitated the service of delivery “partners.” While an atmosphere of economic desperation that engulfed the country, a nail-biting worry lined the streets of India. App-based platform workers were on thin ice since they had to deliver food, groceries, and other essentials while coping with potential risks to their health, economic challenges, and job insecurity.

 

Despite restrictions being placed upon them, they could be seen with colourful backpacks among the few circulating. In all likelihood, one of the characteristic outcomes of this circulation was the gradual spurt in the importance of delivery partners. This was a consequence of the rapidly rising demand for online delivery services, causing stakeholders to keep the platforms running. Moreover, the COVID-19 threat was seeing a significant surge across regions. In 2021, the 28,000 delivery agents in Hyderabad were at great risk of contracting COVID-19 owing to the nature of their work and spreading the infection among their families, reported by The New Indian Express.


Gig Economy Realities: India's Post-COVID Delivery Partners

While companies called them “heroes” and the state labeled them as “frontline workers,” these individuals had become victims of the ground realities such as increased workload, uncertain incomes, logistical challenges, and social isolation from their families. With this, there were also significant changes to their pay. Wages were cut down due to the skyrocketing operational costs and many employees were fired. To counter how this affected their image, Swiggy and other startups dedicated a music video to them. According to Fortune India, companies rolled back human managers and replaced them with artificial intelligence, algorithms, and digital systems. 

 

In May 2020, Swiggy terminated the employment of more than 350 individuals following its prior decision to lay off over 1,100 personnel in the preceding month. This action was attributed to the “unprecedented” crisis. According to a survey conducted by the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER), which encompassed workers affiliated with an app-based food delivery platforms, the average weekly working hours for platform workers amounted to 69.3 hours, in contrast to the 56 hours reported for workers included in the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS).


Furthermore, the survey revealed a decline in the average monthly income from Rs. 13,471 in 2019 to Rs. 11,963 in May 2022. Delivery partners found themselves compelled to acquiesce, as any form of dissent during these precarious times posed a substantial risk to their employment.

 

During the pandemic, the slew of changes brought to hiring practices, services, and safety protocols were aimed at enhancing customer confidence. One of these changes was the incessant marketing of the term “delivery partners” by the platform economy. The use of the term “delivery partners” by e-commerce platforms gradually gained prominence over the years to soften the blow of disparity that terms like “delivery boys” or “workers” impinge on.


The phrase became popular during and after the pandemic owing to the dramatic shift to app-based deliveries. The use of the phrase, however, is much more layered than one perceives. It allows employers to obtain an independent contractor status which helps them escape the obligation of social benefits for their employees, tax responsibilities, as well as reduced liability in work-related accidents. The term “delivery partners” has therefore changed employer-employee relations as suggested by Parwez in a journal article published in the 15th Volume of Work Organisation, Labour and Globalisation.

 

The revamping of the app-based platform economy and adopting new practices resulted in a complete shift of focus and priorities for these companies. This means the supposed “new normal” for delivery workers became a routine practice. The post-pandemic era welcomed the rise of trained consumers to expect everything from groceries to furniture delivered to their doorsteps at the click of a button. 

 

After a frenzied 2021, The Hindu reported that 2022 saw a comeback in the Indian grocery delivery space owing to the gradual shift to the 10-minute delivery format which aimed at delivering every single order in 10 minutes or less, be it essential or non-essential. The consumer-centric approach of the online delivery space puts the onus on an already overworked delivery individual who typically puts in 12 to 14 hours. This move by India’s Quick Commerce market overlooks the dangerous precedent that it set for the delivery partners. This means delivering groceries in the face of the risk of speeding and then experiencing pay cuts if a certain quota of deliveries is not met.

 

The row around wages and unfair pay only scratches the surface when it comes to shedding light on the background operations of online delivery platforms. Sreeja, a female delivery partner faces numerous challenges due to the unjust systems put in place by various delivery apps, proving the inflexible realities of working as a delivery partner. She says, “I came into platform-based gigs following the death of my husband. Earlier, I used to work in the retail field. I chose the sector because I heard that the flexibility in timings would allow me time to take care of my children. Yes, it is flexible, but if you want to earn enough to run a home, you will have to slog for at least 12 hours.”

 

Flexible working on the face of it, appears to be a partner-friendly working technique on account of the autonomy, variety, and accessibility in terms of job choice, hours and pay. However, some of its downsides and less-known features are seen in the lack of any employment protection or social benefits, precarious working conditions, and a piece rate pay structure (when workers are paid by the unit performed instead of being paid based on the time spent on the job).


Through flexible gig work in platform capitalism, instead of platform workers gaining flexibility, their vulnerability continues to increase. This is because there is an asymmetry of power between platform companies and gig workers, which makes flexibility for platform drivers in gig work a myth. A thorough cost-benefit analysis conducted by Anindya Dessi Wulansari, a lecturer and research fellow in the field of public policy, in her work pertaining to the myth of flexibility for gig workers, concludes that they are in a compromised position due to the cost of working flexibly outweighing its benefits. This is how systematic exploitation and dismal working conditions under the garb of flexible working make their way into this industry.

 

In 2023, the dependence on Blinkit, Zepto, and other similar platforms, for daily functioning of urban households, was felt by many. More than 200 dark stores run by Zomato-owned Quick Commerce platform Blinkit in Delhi NCR were shut due to the strikes by delivery executives as a reaction to the change in their payout structure. This is because several delivery executives had signed contracts with Blinkit last year when the fee was Rs 50 per order. It was, however, reduced to Rs 25 per order and has now been reduced further to Rs 15 with a distance-based fee component being introduced. This move by Blinkit disappointed delivery partners who worked all those hours in pursuit of a sustainable income.

 

This instance is testament to how businesses maximise their profits by cutting down on labour costs to avoid an impact on service quality. For instance, the Blinkit website advertises a pay of up to Rs. 50,000 if one works as a delivery executive with them. The key word here is “up to” which lures one into this difficult race laid down by these unicorns.


A salary of up to Rs. 50,000 connotes that the company will pay either Rs. 50,000 or below that. In most situations, the pay fares much less than Rs. 50,000 which only comes with conditions like good customer ratings, customer tips, achieving a certain number of deliveries, etc. The lack of practicality in these conditions often entices prospective employees, leading them to undertake these jobs.

 

Furthermore, should unfair practices against delivery partners be condoned, the inherent peril to the lives of these partners becomes inexcusable. A case concerning this matter involves an incident where a young delivery executive employed by Blinkit was purportedly subjected to physical assault by a customer in Central Delhi due to the unavailability of loose change, as reported by The Economic Times. The incident serves as a compelling illustration, underscoring the notion that not only does speeding during delivery pose a threat to the life of delivery partners, but even inconsequential matters such as the absence of loose change can serve as a licence for customers to mistreat delivery partners.

 

This precarious situation of delivery workers calls for affirmative action regarding regulations, social security, and protection. To lead the way, the Rajasthan Platform-based Gig Workers (Registration and Welfare) Act, 2023, promises a lot. With this initiative, Rajasthan, under former Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, became the first state in India to pass legislation which regulates the engagement of gig workers and aims to provide social security and other benefits.

 

The bill encompasses registration of gig workers with the state government, access to social security schemes, grievance redressal mechanism, establishment of welfare boards and funds for gig workers, and penalties for non-compliance. It is noteworthy that the said companies often self-identify as "tech aggregators," "mediators," or "facilitators" in an attempt to circumvent potential accountability and responsibilities associated with the designation of an “employer.”

 

Furthermore, Frontline reported that an allocation of Rs. 200 crores to the Gig Workers Security and Welfare Fund, a seed fund of Rs. 3,000 crores for comprehensive accidental and life insurance, and registration of gig workers with the state government are some of the measures that aim at extending social security to the gig workers. Angered by the apathy and inaction of their state government, gig workers in Pune too, started an agitation to urge the government to pass a bill along the lines of the Rajasthan government’s initiative.

 

The rapidly burgeoning gig workforce is ushering in a new economic revolution globally. However, the impact of the expanding gig economy on the lives of the 77 lakh gig workers is characterised by a deterioration in remuneration, working conditions, and access to labour rights. The “flexible” working arrangements implemented by platforms such as Zomato, Blinkit (formerly Grofers), Zepto, or Swiggy Instamart are often misconstrued, concealing the underlying challenges of unfair and precarious working conditions.

 

In a post-pandemic world, not only have gig workers been subjected to the loss of income and livelihoods, but have also faced limited flexibility and autonomy due to their working conditions. However, the growing relevance of the gig economy and shift to the same necessitates the extension of these rights to the delivery partners. To begin with, the elevation of gig workers' trade unions to a position of paramount significance nationwide is essential for the establishment of a platform wherein these workers can voice their concerns and grievances. An organised framework which recognizes these trade unions and associations should be the need of the hour.

 

With this, national legislation aimed at formulating a regulatory mechanism for gig workers should be the central government’s priority on the heels of the Rajasthan Government’s recent legislation. Additionally, achieving the minimum standard of fair work, which entails a minimum wage policy, medical health insurance, and reasonable working hours, must be the foundation for platform-based delivery apps. Such changes at the base level will serve to actualise the notion of autonomy and flexibility for gig workers as well.


 

Edited by Veda Rodewald


Aashi Sharma (she/her) is a student of law at the Rajiv Gandhi National University of law, Punjab and a writer at Political Pandora

 

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