Meet Delivery Bhoy: The man shaking up India’s booming gig economy

He was born in Punjab, educated in Europe and worked in Mumbai for almost a decade. But the Covid-induced lockdown squeezed him out of a job last year, forcing the former UX design professional to look for ways to make a quick buck.

He worked with Swiggy for two weeks, then switched to Zomato for better pay. Months later, he had an accident while riding to deliver a birthday cake at night when a scooter rammed into him. He quit delivering food the next day.

Then, in May, he read about a person dying in an accident in Ahmedabad while on delivery duty. “Some switch flipped in me that day,” he said. He tweeted about it at night.

By the morning, his message had been retweeted hundreds of times and his followers had swelled from 20 to 1,000. Using notes and screenshots gathered during his months as a delivery agent, he began tweeting about the condition of his colleagues. “Suddenly, people were listening,” he said.

Meet Delivery Bhoy, a 40-something unmarried man who’s driving conversation about gig workers in India with his twitter handle, forcing food delivery giants to respond to his allegations of poor pay and hostile working conditions.

Bhoy — who refused to identify himself for this article — takes great pains to protect his identity. He uses VPN while tweeting, limits his chats with other riders to Telegram, connects with journalists using a fake email address and voice chat on Zoom. When he tweets screenshots of his interactions with apps, he masks details that could help trace him.

He now works as a telecaller, with better hours and pay, but continues to be listed as a delivery partner with both Zomato and Swiggy. “If I am identified, a person in my financial and social position could be in for a major blowback and retaliation. Once my name is out there, my battle gets really tough,” Bhoy said.

Like him, there are now several handles that chronicle the experiences of delivery workers. There’s Surat-based rider Nitin Singh, who uses his name and photo on Twitter, @dliverypartner, @smokey33461095 and AK, a 37-year-old Hyderabad-based Zomato delivery partner. And the first one, anonymous account @SwiggyDEHyd, which got deactivated earlier this year after its user was identified and wanted to keep his job.

Together, they spotlight questions of adequate compensation, long hours, and lack of benefits and formal protections in the gig economy.

The structural and financial challenges

Delivery Bhoy’s tweets cover a vast swathe of the gig economy. These include the punishing hours agents have to put in to meet target-based incentives, humiliation at the hands of customers, the threat of getting reported for poor service, delivering through heavy rainfall, and the constant pressure to deliver orders with almost no rest.

But a common theme running through his advocacy is the demands made by the complex payment system of the delivery apps.

Typically, the payment for delivery partners has two components: A fixed base pay and target-based incentives that could include extra orders, better ratings or no cancellations. A typical order can earn a delivery agent around 25 while incentives can range between 200 and 400 for high volume of orders. A five-star rating can fetch the rider between 5 and 8, the accounts say. Working during certain peaks hours and difficult phases (such as rain) means extra income.

But these vary from city to city. In Surat, for example, Singh says he is paid 4/kilometre for delivery and an additional 50 paise for fuel. The base wage is 20 for the first two kilometres. “So, if I make a delivery one or two kilometres away, I am paid 20. But if I travel six kilometres, I am paid 24. This is apart from the 50 paise per kilometre for fuel,” said Singh.

When he waits at a restaurant to pick up an order, he is to be paid 1 per minute. If he makes 300 in a day, he is paid an additional 190. If he makes 400, he is paid 250.

“If I am logged in for at least eight hours, including for three hours between 7pm and midnight, I take home 500, irrespective of how many deliveries I made and how much I earned,” said Singh.

In reality, though, the app often calculates lower distances, doesn’t pay out waiting times and penalises him for refusing to make a delivery, he alleged. Moreover, high fuel costs mean that riders spend as much as four times higher than 50p per kilometer, apart from servicing, phone, internet and other expenses.

A Zomato delivery partner operating in Delhi, who did not want to be identified, alleged that his complaints have ranged from tiny pay outs for deliveries that took a long time, low estimation of delivery distances, and wages that left little profit after expenses.

“Petrol cost is continuously rising, my motorcycle needs frequent servicing and repair, and smartphone and internet data costs money. I barely save 12,000 in a month after riding 12 hours a day,” he said.

Zomato said riders had flexibility and could log off when convenient but many riders said that such decisions are followed by phone calls and messages from their team leads warning them.

Bhoy agreed, saying the app pushes delivery agents to deliver as fast as they can – jeopardising their safety – because it is linked with internal rankings, benefits and incentives. Delivery partners receive automated phone calls in the middle of a ride if their order is delayed. “If a fatal accident occurs during a delivery, the pay out to the rider’s family is just 5 lakh,” he said.

He also pointed towards the desperation of some delivery agents. “While these platforms boast four-day work weeks with full salary for their employees, the choice we have is turn up for work, work 12 hours straight and ride at lightening speeds. Laws exist for some of the workforce and not the other. That’s the core issue,” he said.

Zomato countered this allegation, saying riders could reject an order for “a genuine reason” without penalties, but at all other times, need to fulfil a customer’s order with the “responsibility and predictability that’s very routine for any job”. Swiggy didn’t respond to this particular question.

The fate of the rider also depends on the customer’s mood, the riders alleged. “If a customer is in a bad mood, or if the delivery is delayed for any reason, they simply rate us one on a scale of five. That badly impacts our ratings,” said AK, who made 400 after a 10-hour duty that involved riding for 50 kilometres on an average.

The battle against misrepresentation

Bhoy’s campaign tasted some success last month when comedian Danish Sait apologised after a video featuring him was criticised for insensitivity. Bhoy led the campaign against the promotional campaign, where Sait plays a delivery agent for a day, and said it misrepresented reality and erased many of the hardships faced by delivery agents.

“I respect the work that you do, & it wouldn’t be right for me to contest any of the points you’ve raised,” the comedian wrote, agreeing to take the video down.

Last week, another set of commercials by Zomato stirred a row. These commercials, involving actor Hrithik Roshan and Katrina Kaif, prompted Bhoy and others to say that the ads were tone deaf and showed that delivery agents had to rush from one order to the next with no rest. Their criticism forced Zomato to issue a response denying the charges.

“We believe that our ads are well-intentioned, but were unfortunately misinterpreted by some people. Having said that, we have been intently listening to all the chatter about gig workers and all the problems associated with this part of the economy. As a company, we have always acknowledged whenever we’ve come short, and we understand that you expect more and better from us,” Zomato said in a statement.

Some say that Bhoy and his supporters are well intentioned but don’t take into account the realities of the economy – and that gig workers would be far worse in the more exploitative informal economy. Others question whether Bhoy is even a real delivery agent – a charge he dismisses.

One of them is Safwan Rasheed, a 41-year-old rider with Zomato in Cochin. While he acknowledges a host of problems with the wages paid to riders, he thinks the pay is not bad in a Covid-battered economy. “I deliver food just four hours every day and make 350-400 easily. I know riders who earn up to 30,000 every month,” he said.

The mechanics of grievance redressal

But complaints by delivery partners are multiple and wide-ranging. Partners allege that the apps have a “penalty” system in place for refusal to carry out a delivery, or if a delivery was delayed. “If we refuse a delivery, we are fined 50. Delayed deliveries are also penalised. All this finally culminates into fewer orders for us,” said Singh. Like many riders, Singh complained he struggled to contact the companies to raise an issue.

A Zomato spokesperson countered this and said that they have 1,200 people to address the riders’ queries, “We resolve all queries well within the day itself,” the spokesperson added.

Swiggy refused to comment on the article or specific questions posed to the company but pointed to two blogs, uploaded on June 9 and July 27, that talk about the company’s Covid-19 support for delivery partners, including medical care, loss of pay, life insurance and emergency care, and a dedicated hotline SOS service that helps in compensating for pay during health crises or accidents.

“Partners who are unable to work due to on-duty medical emergencies are also granted loss of pay support, in addition to hospitalization and insurance support,” the company said in its blog.

Zomato and Swiggy are the dominant players India’s growing food delivery business and sit atop the gig economy mountain. After making its market debut in July, Zomato is valued at around $12 billion and after a new round of fundraising, Swiggy is worth around $5.5 billion.

Their success has fuelled and benefited from a burgeoning gig economy, which is set to triple over the next 3-4 years to 24 million jobs from the existing 8 million, according to a report by consulting firm Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Michael & Susan Dell Foundation earlier this year.

At the core of this success are the 310,000 delivery partners who work with Zomato and 170,000-odd with Swiggy. But they are not formal employees and are accordingly called partners, agents, executives or associates. Experts say this nomenclature that they are ineligible for several benefits, be it a monthly salary or a provident fund account.

Kaveri Medappa, a PhD researcher at University of Sussex studying platform-based work, said issues raised by Bhoy and other accounts reflected ground realities. Similar unrest has been seen in the platform cab industry over the last three years with drivers linked to Uber and Ola going to strike in several cities over falling commissions, rising fuel prices and low earnings.

A Zomato spokesperson said that their pay-out was fair “for the work that they put in”.

“We are proud to create hundreds of thousands of gigs for a strata of society which otherwise didn’t have a better source of income. For example, in a city like Bengaluru, the top 20% of our delivery partners who deliver on bikes and put in more than 40 hours a week receive a pay of more than 27,000 per month,” the spokesperson said.

But Medappa said that the pay was good only for the early birds. “With more riders joining in, the income is dipping as the pay rates and incentives are decreasing,” she said.

A Zomato spokesperson said the firm believed that “all the allegations are biased (or maybe even vested) misunderstandings”.

“According to our point of view, if these allegations were even remotely true, our business would not sustain. Why? Because our delivery partners are the face of our brand – unhappy delivery partners would lead to unhappy customers, which would be terrible for our business. It’s in our interest to ensure they are cared for and that the platform works for them,” the company said, claiming over 60% of delivery partners rated them 9 or a 10 (out of 10) in happiness surveys.

Medappa said that if these firms began caring about the riders, their promises such as time deadlines and customer satisfaction would collapse. “Their system is pretty much in favour of the customers and stacked against the riders,” she added.

The online and offline battle

Many of these accounts took to Twitter under very different circumstances. Bhoy was reeling from the death of a fellow worker. Singh wanted to vent about not getting his dues, disputed pending payments and penalties. AK was angry after he discovered the delivery fee charged to a customer was double of what he was paid.

But now their battles have coalesced into a single goal of “putting pressure” on the companies.

“Every week, I make two or three accusations. If Zomato counters them in any way, I produce the evidence. I will continue doing this till they bring real changes on the ground,” Bhoy said.

AK, Singh and others regularly provide him with material. “These riders are not employees and cannot form a union. But they can keep taking up the issues with the public until the companies feel their image is getting dented,” said AK.

They understand the power of social media. Their campaign prompted Zomato to ask Bhoy to work with them – a development confirmed by Zomato – but he refused. “Their only intention of entertaining me was that they viewed me as a PR nightmare,” he said. But he isn’t worried about repercussions. “Such a big firm will look bad if they take a delivery boy to court,” he said.

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