A sector that created lakhs of jobs for the poorest and propped up a locked down country in its most difficult hour
Lhendup G Bhutia with Madhavankutty Pillai | 04 Jun, 2021
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
WHEN BIKASH SHAW GRADUATED with a Bachelor’s degree in commerce in 2018, he found very few jobs in Kolkata that interested him. “All that was there for a fresher like me were accountant jobs. And those paid around just Rs 8,000. How does one survive on that?” he asks. It was around this time that he chanced upon an ad online that was recruiting deliverymen for the food delivery app Swiggy. It claimed to pay up to about Rs 40,000 per month. “It was not an office job, but the money was good. Plus, you were your own boss. No need to answer to anyone or take permission for leaves. Just log off and log in as you want,” he says. Not tied to a desk and with the freedom to choose his work hours, coupled with a salary that was fairly high and dependent upon his ability to push himself, Shaw was instantly attracted to the job like many others. And nearly three years later, he continues to hold on to this image of the delivery partner’s job as one ideally suited to him even if cracks have begun to form.
The delivery fees earned per order has come down. Most food-delivery apps—now that they have established themselves in the market and attracted a large fleet of delivery partners—have slashed their rates. Delivery partners are spending more hours on the road, ferrying more orders over longer distances than they did before to earn the same amount of money. And while he enjoys the sensation of his motorbike being his office, Shaw is also acutely aware, he says, that were he to fall off it, he has very little in the way of the safety net a traditional job provides. The pandemic was when this sector really came into its own. They were the lifeline to an India locked in its homes, preventing disorder and chaos. And it also provided work because many other sectors had closed. Shaw also noticed more delivery partners on the road. The orders have come down for him, at least in the parts of Kolkata where he serves. “So you see there is now more competition (among them) for those same orders,” he says. There is also the fear of infection. “You have to wait outside the restaurant among others. Then you have to go to deliver at homes, sometimes where there are Covid patients,” he says. Since the last year, several of his friends who work as delivery partners have contracted the virus. It is obvious, he says, that they are getting it while out on their jobs. “It’s become very scary. You may have not got it. But the way it is spreading, you know it is going to catch you one of these days,” he says.
The delivery partner’s job is the perfect illustration of someone in the gig economy. They are not employees—at least not in the traditional sense of the term—and hence have little employee benefits mandated by law. They are ‘partners’ instead, with none of the equality in relationship (between the company and them) the term may suggest. They perform gigs. They use their own vehicles, pay for their own fuel, to perform work on a contractual basis. They earn not on a monthly basis, not even necessarily on hours clocked, but on orders delivered. The money earned—not a salary —is dependent on a complex matrix of distance travelled, orders delivered, customer ratings, incentives, and other factors, that sometimes even the delivery partner can’t understand.
This sector has been growing for some time even before the pandemic. According to Navneet Singh, the founder of Avsar HR Services, which fulfils recruitment needs for several online companies, including jobs of delivery personnel, it will keep growing. “You are going to see a year-on-year growth (of jobs for delivery partners) between 25 to 35 per cent for a few years at least,” he says. “You have to understand more and more delivery-centred companies are coming up, and as they grow, so will the jobs for delivery partners. They are the backbone of this industry.” Singh was a senior executive first at Flipkart and later at Swiggy involved in the hiring process of delivery partners, before establishing his own recruitment firm. He is amazed sometimes, he says, to see how rapidly this field has taken off. “When we started off (at Flipkart), nobody knew anything about this field. How to hire these guys, how to train them,” he says. According to him, even while this second wave has led to many restrictions across the country, from only essential and food supplies being permitted for deliveries to restrictions on timings in certain areas, jobs in delivery personnel have seen at least a 10 per cent growth from the previous year.
The reason for such growth lies in how the definition of the market itself is changing. Rameesh Kailasam, president and CEO of Indiatech.org, a resident of Gurugram, has an anecdote of a shop that sold jalebis and pakodas in his neighbourhood. It was a popular eatery where people would queue up. The owner employed one other person. Two years ago, he got on the Swiggy and Zomato platforms. When Kailasam went to that shop three months after that, there were four people working. “I asked him what happened. He told me after coming online, all the houses within a four-kilometre radius were within his reach. Earlier, walk-in customers would be 100 daily. Now, he was doing something like 200 to 300 houses. After some time when I went there, he had seven people working and had taken an adjacent shop too.”
The delivery fees earned per order has come down. Most food-delivery apps—now that they have established themselves in the market and attracted a large fleet of delivery partners—have slashed their rates
Indiatech.org is an association representing startups in the internet-based ecosystem. Kailasam offers the eatery’s example explaining why the demand for delivery personnel seems to be unflagging in India. What links the eatery shop owner to the wider market that had just been created for him through apps are those who deliver the food. He has some insights into how important the delivery economy is to India. Every year, he says, around 2.5 crore new adults come into their own in India. Discounting those who pursue higher education, or the ones who get employment in the tech or conventional economies, India thus needs to create livelihoods for around two crore-plus every year who don’t do well academically or drop out. Earlier, they would mainly set up shops or get into professions like security guards, drivers, electricians, etcetera. But now a large majority of them have work opportunities and better earnings in the gig economy. Within that, a large percentage ends up in delivery. Kailasam estimates their number to be around 20 lakh in India today. And they earn anywhere between Rs 10,000 to Rs 40,000. A stratum at the lowest end in India is, therefore, finding gainful livelihood. In the earlier IT-ITES boom, only the educated reaped the benefits. In the delivery economy, while the founders and those who are employed at its higher levels are the IIT-IIM types, the workforce is from the poorer rung. Providing livelihood to them leads to a more stable society, says Kailasam, giving dignity to the youth and making them productive. And they connect the old economy of sellers to new consumers through technology. India meets Bharat in this phenomenon. Kailasam thinks that it was around three years ago that the explosion of the delivery economy really happened. India is uniquely placed because labour for deliveries is cheap unlike developed countries. It is not just big cities, the delivery economy is now in Tier I, Tier II and Tier III towns too.
WHEN JATAVA SRIKANTH LOST HIS JOB LAST year at Zomato’s Hyderabad office where he helped verify documents of aspiring delivery partners, he purchased a bike on loan, and began to work in the bike -taxi app Rapido. But with fewer people hailing a bike during the pandemic, he switched to Zomato instead, working as a delivery partner. The 23-year-old Srikanth—who has been working as a peon in several offices ever since he completed his schooling—dislikes this. “Last year after I got fired, I spent about six months at home looking for a job. Even now I am looking for a job but there is nothing available,” he says. Srikanth works most days of the week, sometimes for as many as 18 hours. On a good day, he will earn around Rs 1,400. But on other days, it will be far less. “How much you make all depends upon how tough you are willing to work. I work almost every day and make between Rs 18,000 to Rs 19,000 per month (after deductions on fuel spent). I would have earned more in the past, but now the rates have come down…It is really hard work—your body tires quickly, plus there is the fear of infection. But for now I have few options,” he says.
It isn’t just the long hours and reduced rates. The job invariably also involves dealing with surly and sometimes aggressive customers. When there is spillage because of poor packaging, and customers are refunded when they complain, the money is invariably docked from their earning. Sometimes, when a customer absent-mindedly presses on the app, it can report that a delivery partner wasn’t wearing his mask, and this can lead to him being blocked from the app, leading to a nightmare to clear his name. Shaw brings up the Bengaluru incident where a customer allegedly lied online about being assaulted by a Zomato delivery partner to say that such incidents are fairly routine. Customers routinely complain about orders getting late or pick some fault to get free orders. “Last year, one of my friends in Kolkata was beaten up by four drunks because they didn’t want to pay for their order. My friend was in hospital. But those guys only got blocked from the platform, that too just the account used to book the order,” he says.
But one of the worst aspects of the job, he realises now, is that of the incentive. “It is something that keeps changing. Sometimes, if you clock 22 deliveries in a day—sometimes, 26 during weekends when people order more—you can get, say, Rs 700 extra that day,” he says. But you soon, Srikant says, become a slave to that feature. “You will have started the day feeling tired from the previous night and resolving to not work late today. But then once in the field, you will look up your watch and it shows 11.30PM, and since you are just one or two orders away from the incentive, you will wait and wait for it.”
Just in the way aggrieved Uber and Ola driver partners began to protest and go on strikes a couple of years ago, many delivery partners now seem to be attempting to do the same. Shaik Salauddin, the Hyderabad-based founder of Telangana Four Wheeler Drivers Association, which has been actively involved in organising protests for Uber and Ola drivers, has also established a Telangana Gig and Platform Workers Union to protect delivery personnel working across platforms. He also serves as the general secretary in an umbrella organisation, the Indian Federation of App Based Transport Workers, that seeks to protect the rights of app-based workers such as delivery partners and drivers throughout the country. They take up cases, for instance, when individuals fail to get compensation when they have been involved in accidents, apart from demanding fixed salaries and better wages. A few months ago, he tried to organise a 24-hour-long strike across several cities when Amazon, he claims, lowered the money paid for deliveries, from Rs 35 per delivery to Rs 10 for a small package and Rs 15 for a larger one. “This whole gig economy is an exploitative practice. You can change anything on a whim and nobody can say a thing. And you should not put in place things like incentives. Just remove that and give everyone a flat salary,” Salauddin says.
Singh from Avsar HR Services says that it was always expected that delivery rates would be slashed. “It is like what happened when Uber and Ola first came into the market. Many people purchased cars and joined the platforms as drivers because they were paying so well. But you can’t burn through your cash forever. At some point, once a company establishes itself, it is always going to rationalise its spending,” he says. Kailasam says that the Government is addressing the work status of delivery personnel. The Ministry of Labour & Employment has just come out with a social security code that gives them the status of gig workers, which means they get benefits like healthcare when this policy is implemented in the near future. Startups will have to set aside 1 per cent of their turnover and the Centre and state governments also contribute to a fund for them. “We now have a mechanism to protect and take care of these workers,” he says.
The nature of the delivery job is, meanwhile, changing. It isn’t only e-commerce products, grocery stores or food that is being delivered now. There are hyperlocal delivery platforms now used by small businesses, say by a home chef to have her products delivered; or platforms where consumers can send packages to their friends; or can use it to pick up any item from medicines to groceries nearby. Many of these existed even before the pandemic. But Covid-19 is expediting the adoption of these technologies, and with it, the use of delivery personnel.
Dunzo, one such platform, says they have between 17,000 to 19,000 monthly active delivery partners. “People from all walks of life have turned to Dunzo to get their daily essentials and consumables like groceries, fresh produce and medicines. We know that behind the success of the platform lies the tireless efforts of our brave Covid warriors — the Dunzo Delivery Partners,” says a spokesperson. Most delivery-centred companies have put in place special provisions to protect their delivery partners, from starting vaccination campaigns for them to paying them a certain amount for the two weeks or so they take to recover from an infection. Dunzo also has similar provisions in place, apart from providing fresh gloves, masks and sanitisers. If any of the delivery partners gets infected, Dunzo also compensates them for their loss of earnings and also reimburses them for the cost of RT-PCR testing. Zomato, which has more than 1.5 lakh delivery partners on the field, has also instituted several such provisions, a spokesperson claims, including vaccination and covering loss of pay when someone becomes infected, apart from regular reimbursements for reusable masks, OPD coverage and free online doctor consultations. “Our fleet is medically insured, and we have added a life insurance cover against Covid-19. We also continue to provide daily essentials to our partners in cities which are not operational due to lockdown and run an online paathshala for the kids of our delivery partners in India,” the spokesperson says. According to a Swiggy spokesperson, their platform have brought in several provisions that ensures both the safety of the consumers and wellbeing of delivery partners, from providing face masks, reimbursement for sanitizers, hand hygiene stations at restaurants for delivery partners, and tech-enabled features including a ‘safety gear audit’ that promotes mask compliance. “In case our partners feel unwell, we strongly urge them to stop logging in and get tested. Under Swiggy Suraksha, the Covid cover for our partners includes a two-week loss of pay and nutrition support. In case of hospitalization, there is an enhanced hospitalization cover. In the event of untimely demise, life insurance has been enhanced. In another industry-first, a 24*7 Covid related emergency support line set up to provide support and information on beds, oxygen support, medical support, plasma support, etc, by real-time searching & validating the availability of these critical resources,” the spokesperson says. These are over and above other programmes, the Swiggy spokesperson continues, from a vaccination campaign currently underway for delivery partners in several major cities to free telemedicine consultation and app-based support through which delivery partners can seek Covid and other illness-related consultations and counselling sessions to manage stress.
Shaw got into an accident a few weeks ago. He fractured several bones when a car rammed into him, apart from damaging his bike. In the last few years, he has toggled between both Zomato and Swiggy, working as a delivery partner depending upon which platform he thinks he is likely to earn more at any given period. Because this accident occurred on a day when he wasn’t working, he claims didn’t get any insurance to fall back on. And he expects he won’t be able to return to the road for at least a couple of months. For now, he is supplementing his income by putting up YouTube videos on how people can join delivery platforms. Because platforms such as Zomato, Amazon and others are expanding even into smaller cities and towns, Shaw finds that many youths in those places are keen to join as delivery partners. “Some of these people have no idea how it works. They will ask questions like do you have to pay the hotel (for every order placed) from your own pocket? Or how does one send the money a customer gives for an order back to the company? So I try and clear these doubts online,” Shaw says. He has been making about Rs 12,000 to Rs 13,000 every month putting up videos along these lines on his YouTube channel Dare to Dreams for over a year now.
But he can’t wait to get back on the road again. “It may not be the best job,” he says. “But for people like me who don’t like to sit in one office, it has its own attraction.”