Do Delivery Apps Really Care for Their Workers?

Do Delivery Apps Really Care for Their Workers?

In the scorching heat of a North Indian summer, delivery apps that make life easier for many of us are asking customers to offer their delivery workers a glass of water. It’s a small gesture for those rushing from home to home on e-bikes and cycles, ensuring we don’t have to step out of our air-conditioned spaces. But what are these companies—Blinkit, Zomato, Zepto, Swiggy—doing for their workers, or as they call them, “partners”?

A conversation with the guy who delivers my Amazon stuff in Patna revealed a grim reality: no hazard pay, no support from the companies they work for. The Zomato ‘partner’ fellow who delivered my food has the same story: paid by the delivery, no compensation for the heat stroke.

These workers are the backbone of the delivery giants’ much-celebrated innovation, yet they receive little in return. Our Indian startups seem to be following the footsteps of global giants like Amazon, which has been notorious for its harsh labour practices.

Gig Workers: The Modern Workforce

A gig worker is someone who takes on short-term, flexible, and freelance jobs, often through digital platforms or apps. Unlike traditional employees, gig workers aren’t tied down by long-term contracts and don’t receive standard employment benefits like health insurance, paid leave, or pensions. Instead, they get paid for each task, delivery, or project they complete.

Common examples include ride-share drivers for companies like Uber and Rapido, delivery personnel for services like Swiggy and Zomato, freelance writers, designers, developers, and task-based workers from platforms like TaskRabbit.

The Indian Context

In India, the gig economy has flourished due to an abundance of cheap labor and high unemployment. Delivery workers, or “partners,” find themselves in precarious situations. They are often subjected to grueling conditions without the benefits or security of traditional employment.

The Indian Express recently covered one such story. This is the story from Amazon’s warehouse in Manesar, Haryana. Workers, earning less than Rs 11,000 per month, have been coerced into taking an oath not to drink water or use the toilet until their daily targets are met—a demand that flouts labour laws concerning work hours and conditions.

The Global Influence

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has amassed immense wealth, currently valued at nearly $200 billion. Meanwhile, his workers, both in the US and India, face dehumanizing working conditions.

[For representation only]

In India, labour associations have alleged that rules under the Factories Act, 1948 are flouted at the five warehouses that operate in and around Manesar. As Haryana has amended its work hours to less than 10 hours a day, the company now has its employees working from 8.30 am to 6.30 pm. (10 hours!) As per the Act, if a factory worker works for more than nine hours a day or over 48 hours a week, he is entitled to twice his ordinary wages. However, workers’ rights groups claim this is not being fulfilled.

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Unlike Amazon, which at least ‘hires employees’, delivery companies like Uber, Blinkit, and Swiggy rely heavily on the gig model. This allows them to minimize labour costs while pushing workers to work longer hours through so-called “incentives.”

The Root of the Problem

What enables companies to exploit workers while maintaining a facade of concern? Ruchir Sharma’s book, “What Went Wrong with Capitalism,” offers insights. He attributes the problem to the consolidation of power among a few companies, the socialization of losses through bailouts, and a growing inequality within society.

Historical figures like Henry Ford, who paid his workers enough to afford the products they made, stand in stark contrast to today’s tech moguls.

Ford’s principle of fair wages for his workers is lost in today’s gig economy. With delivery workers earning Rs 11,000-13,000 per month, it’s unlikely they can afford the very products they help deliver. This economic disparity between producers and consumers is unsustainable and could lead to broader social and political issues.

The Legal and Social Perspective

India’s constitution enshrines dignity and equality as fundamental rights, and labour laws exist to prevent exploitation. However, the current economic desperation forces people into undignified work situations. Some argue that any work is better than none, believing that economic growth will eventually lead to better conditions. This view overlooks the essential role of state and societal intervention in protecting workers’ rights.

The Future of Work

As stories of harsh working conditions surface, they often fade quickly from public memory. Meanwhile, figures like Jeff Bezos continue their lavish lifestyles.

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With the economy and the unemployment problem going the way it is, the day is not far when many more jobs could also be “gigified”.

So next time you order a cold drink or a snack, remember to offer water to the delivery person. But also, consider the larger picture of workers’ rights and the true cost of our convenience.

What is the Gig Economy?

The gig economy is a labour market defined by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work rather than permanent jobs. It includes all the platforms and services that connect gig workers with people or businesses needing their services. This economy covers various sectors such as transportation, food delivery, home services, and freelance digital work. Key aspects of the gig economy include:

  • Flexibility: Workers can choose when and where they work, offering them more control over their schedules.
  • Technology-Driven: Platforms and apps help connect workers with clients.
  • Task-Based Payment: Workers are paid for specific tasks or projects instead of receiving a regular salary.
  • Lack of Benefits: Gig workers typically don’t receive traditional employment benefits, making their income and job security less stable.

The Gig Economy in India

In India, the gig economy has grown rapidly due to the abundance of cheap labour and the rising demand for flexible services. Gig workers in India include delivery drivers, taxi drivers, and freelancers in various digital and creative fields. Despite the opportunities, gig workers in India face several challenges:

  • Lack of Job Security: Gig workers don’t have the protection of permanent employment, making their livelihoods uncertain.
  • No Benefits: They often lack health insurance, paid leave, and retirement benefits.
  • Exploitation Risks: Without strong labour protections, gig workers can be subjected to poor working conditions and unfair practices.

While the gig economy offers convenience and flexibility, it also highlights the need for better labour rights and protections. Ensuring gig workers are treated fairly and can work with dignity is essential for the sustainability of this economic model.