The archetypical privileged Indian ‘Rahul’ works from home, typing code for clients in the western world. Not too long ago, he’d seek instant gratification three times a day, perhaps more, but was oblivious of the struggles of the delivery worker who would knock on his door to deliver just that one chocolate, and maybe a Coke too.
He would have already paid for it, so he’d open the door, barely look up, take his order off the hands of the delivery worker and slam the door shut!
“Thank you!” – he wouldn’t bother saying it, and wouldn’t even think to. The delivery worker’s presence wouldn’t register in his mind as that of a ‘person’.
“They were just cogs in the machine that would seduce me with its notifications ‘n’ times a day – it was really hard to keep count,” Rahul tells me.
Rahul, 28, has grown cognisant of his privilege and his ‘earlier’ ignorance of delivery workers, this relatively new class of labour that is both ubiquitous and yet, in many ways, invisible.
Until a couple of months ago, Rahul would routinely order packs of iced tea and cold brews from Blinkit, a mobile app that promises to deliver groceries in 10 minutes. “But I never offered a glass of water to the delivery executives who’d reach my doorstep on the 21st floor through the service elevator,” he laments.
Rahul further explains how, in the time since he’s become acutely aware of the abysmal work conditions of food delivery workers, he’s realised how they often brave the chagrin of uncouth society guards and chiefs of residents welfare associations (RWAs). “By the time they’d reach my doorstep, the delivery partners would be drenched in sweat and visibly exhausted,” Rahul remembers. “It seemed they were catching a whiff of my air conditioner that was blowing on full blast for a second or two, before I would slam the door shut and dive back onto the sofa to enjoy my cold brew.”
Rahul types away furiously for hours on end. There’s a work policy that requires him to keep his laptop’s video camera switched on for the duration of his work shift. The ‘Big Brother’ kind of surveillance has heightened Rahul and his colleagues’ myopic view of the world. You can’t blame him for not offering the delivery worker a glass of water. There’s a hard separation between the mind and body of an IT employee. Rahul feels like a dead man walking through life’s mundane tasks. The world of digital screens with colour-coded rows of numbers is all-consuming. Rahul struggles to shut it out even when he’s sprawled on his couch and trying to enjoy that cold brew. He rubs his eyes and the pouches beneath them, but the numbers are still flashing. He struggles to take a nap because the numbers won’t let him.
Now and then, a jarring event disseminated through social media, jolts him out of his numb consciousness. “I saw a tweet,” Rahul recounts one such instance from September this year. The tweet had a video attached. It shows a German Shepherd lunging at a food delivery worker, just as both step out of the elevator of a high-rise society in Navi Mumbai. After being bitten by the dog, the delivery worker moves away, panicky and scared, his crotch showing signs of bleeding through his pants. The dog and the ‘pet parent’ are nowhere to be seen by then.
“As I pondered over the incident and replayed the video a couple of times, I struggled to reconcile myself to the fact that for so long, I had been seeing these delivery workers — who should be called the foot-soldiers of India’s thriving internet economy — as mere extensions of these mobile applications, like tentacles of a machine. I’d forgotten that these tentacles are, in fact, human hands. Like everyone else, they deserve rights at work, and crave for respect and decency from their clients, i.e. us,” Rahul observes in hindsight.
In fact, Indian gig workers’ long-drawn struggle for better rights, wages, and contracts, is at its core, a struggle against the harsh day-to-day treatment meted out to them at different touch points – by the app that arbitrarily locks them out or imposes penalties for late deliveries, their store manager who is seldom helpful in escalating their grievances to the higher-ups in the company; and finally, customers whose spectacular lack of empathy is emblematic of India’s growing income inequality and the societal ruptures this has wrought between people from different income classes.
“Their sheer number – market leaders Zomato and Swiggy have over 3 lakh and 2.5 lakh delivery workers respectively on their rosters, besides workers engaged through third-party agencies – should urge us to take a hard look at the possible consequences of having an entire generation of youngsters being reduced to this class of service workers who, with the advent of the 10-minute delivery model, are having to cater to the whims and fancies and luxury consumption patterns of a very small proportion of rich consumers,” says Abhishek Sekharan, who has researched on platformisation of work and its implications on workers’ rights, at the Centre for Internet and Society, a non-profit that conducts interdisciplinary research on internet and digital technologies.
At Jantar Mantar, a protest site in New Delhi, I asked Himanshu, a Swiggy delivery executive, about the consequences of the instant delivery model on the lives of delivery workers. He replied by showing his wounds to the camera.
“I called the company to tell them that the delivery might get delayed as I had been in an accident. They weren’t concerned about my accident, but only asked whether the food had been damaged,” another delivery executive, who chose to not reveal his name, said on camera.
“They put a penalty on the delivery worker if the food parcel gets damaged in an accident,” said Himanshu. “If any worker gets into a major accident, all of us pool in funds to help them get admitted into a hospital. There’s no guarantee on when, or if, we’ll get the accident insurance payout from the company,”
Zomato and Swiggy haven’t adequately addressed their delivery executives’ concerns regarding the unpredictability of insurance payouts.
At Jantar Mantar, a Swiggy delivery exec, while showing his wounds, said: “If I get into an accident, Swiggy’s only worried about the food being damaged!”.
— Change.org India (@ChangeOrg_India) August 29, 2022
This video was shot for an online petition asking India’s food delivery startups to stop promising deliveries in 10-20 minutes, as this promise to the customers, incentivises delivery workers to drive fast and in a rash manner, thus endangering their lives.
“The petition is one of the many things I read online that woke me up to the exploitative work conditions of delivery executives,” Rahul tells me. He undertook an interesting side project of his own, to ‘imagine’ the plight of India’s delivery workers.
Rahul and his colleagues invested in the IT sector, are bullish about artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) and their potential for unravelling answers to the most complex questions by sifting through data, metadata and hordes of data. While he codes at work, for leisure, Rahul tries his hand at creating art through Midjourney, an AI chatbot that creates uniquely futuristic images, based on textual descriptions as prompts.
Rahul, now intrigued about a day in the life of a food delivery worker, types ‘zomato food delivery worker riding cycle heat wave India’ in the Midjourney Discord server. The search produces compelling results: alarmingly post-apocalyptic but imbued with metaphors and warnings of a future where climate change can bring about a heat wave that may make one feel like their face is melting away, where parts of the city will perpetually be up in smoke, and delivery workers will go about their work wearing something resembling gas masks. The word ‘heatwave’ in the textual prompt throws up results that feel exaggerated, but when weighed against the reality of a delivery worker who has to ride for 12-14 hours a day to make a decent living wage, they seem pretty accurate.
Rahul added ‘cycle’ in his textual prompt to prompt the AI bot to fetch insights from the lives of delivery workers who’re arguably the worst-off. Zomato uses their images for greenwashing, to tell us that it cares for the environment and is serious about lowering its carbon footprint. But these cycle-bound delivery ‘partners’ receive no incentive for doing deliveries the hard way, by cycling for kilometres under the harsh sun.
Obendra Yadav, 19, delivers orders for Zomato on his bicycle in Ghaziabad, one of Delhi’s four major satellite cities. He and his colleagues have been protesting against the new wage structure put in place by Zomato, which pays a miniscule Rs 20 per delivery to these cycle-bound delivery workers.
It’s the same wage for someone like Himanshu, who delivers on a motorcycle for Swiggy.
“Rs 20, 15, 16, we have to ride 3-5 km for such paltry amounts. And we have to work for over 12 hours to be eligible for the incentive or bonus. Consider this: If I’m getting Rs 25 for a delivery that’s five kilometres away, I’m also travelling back the same distance to my central location, often with no order for the return journey. So I’ve travelled 10 km and earned Rs 25. It really seems like a joke,” he explained.
If either Obendra or Himanshu fall sick and are unable to work, they won’t be compensated for their ‘leaves’. India’s food delivery startups shield themselves from such obligations by classifying their delivery executives as independent contractors and not employees. Experts have often called out this ‘convenience’ on the part of Indian startups, whose work structure for their delivery partners, has all the makings of a traditional employer-employee relationship.
For instance, the company doesn’t offer the delivery worker the freedom to choose their ‘gigs’, but rather assigns ‘deliveries’ to them. If they decline the gig, they stand to get penalised. The company decides their wage per delivery, and places targets for them to be eligible for bonuses. All of this seems eerily similar to the set-up for white-collar employees at Zomato, Swiggy, et al.
The two food delivery giants have bucked criticism of their wages and work conditions in the past by either maintaining a studied silence, or claiming that they pay over market benchmarks. But the market they mention, is effectively a duopoly, where there’s no ‘good’ player who could set ethical payment terms and pose a threat of poaching workers and customers from their competition.
Moreover, according to the “Fairwork India Ratings 2022: Labour Standards In The Platform Economy,” both Zomato and Swiggy haven’t managed to ensure that their gig workers are paid at least the hourly local minimum wage – around Rs 16,000-17,000 in Delhi – after accounting for work-related expenses.
The Midjourney images seem more and more real.
One of the pictures generated by the AI bot, seems to suggest that the food delivery worker has evaporated into a cloud of steam atop his bicycle, seemingly because of the excess heat; another shows the delivery worker encircled by a ring of fire on a dusty road with the high-rises of the city forming the backdrop.
Rahul remembers that lone ‘humanities’ elective in his engineering course, when he read Karl Marx and his theory of how capitalist societies rob products of their artisanal value, because of the transactional nature of money and products. The fact that consumers never get to see the amount of labour that goes into, say, manufacturing a bottle of shampoo, means that they’re less romantic about its preciousness. Instead, they use the product’s branding and price to gauge its exclusivity.
But how does that explain our utter ignorance of delivery workers and their relentless toil in bringing everyday products to our doorstep. We’re seeing the labour and are yet unmoved by it. Perhaps, it’s because they’ve been reduced to pawns in a game that incentivises them to drive fast and complete deliveries in under 10 minutes – before racing away to the warehouse for Round 2.
It’s no wonder then that Rahul had turned a blind eye to the worker available at his beck and call, to bring items available at the shop barely a 100 metres away from his house. He had stopped seeing them as a person, but as one of the many spokes of the machine that satiated his cravings.
The 10-minute grocery delivery apps that are lifelines for urban consumers such as Rahul, use buzzwords such as AI and ML to wax lyrical about their ability to pack orders in seconds at their ‘dark stores’ or micro-warehouses, and ensure that their delivery partners don’t have to ride fast and in a rash manner. However, the companies don’t answer for how their algorithms arbitrarily place penalties on delivery workers for late deliveries, or lock them out of the app without due notice when a funding crunch forces the company to reduce its headcount.
In the world of instant grocery, AI and ML as buzzwords, help up-and-coming startups escape accountability towards labour rights.
“Parallely, through Midjourney, the same ‘buzzwords’ are being put to the right use, as they scour through tons of data on the internet to bring an artistic representation of a day in the life of a cycle-bound delivery worker, the worst-off among the mass of gig workers in India,” says Rahul.
Harshit Rakheja is a former journalist who has reported on sports, business, technology and society. His work has appeared in Firstpost, Inc42, Business Standard, LiveWire, The Mooknayak and The Citizen.
All image have been provided by the author.