Chennai, TAMIL NADU— Two months ago S polished marble floors in Chennai’s five-star hotels for a monthly wage of Rs 15,000. Now he has a temperature gun pointed at his forehead each time he arrives at a restaurant to pick up an order in the city.
S, a delivery partner for Swiggy, had been on the job for 96 hours at the time of this interview and his body temperature averaged 97F. On a Friday afternoon last week, his temperature was checked once again when he picked up a slice of a bestselling New York cheesecake from a popular Chennai bakery.
“My work dried up when the hotels shut down,” he said over the phone, describing his previous employment as a floor polisher. “I saw an ad for a Swiggy job on YouTube. There was a number listed to get in touch with a manager.”
S was looking for a way to feed his wife and 2-year-old daughter after 60 days of no income; he was still ostensibly employed at the floor cleaning company but hadn’t been paid for 2 months. He already owned a motorcycle, so he was pretty much ready to hit Chennai’s empty roads.
His initiation was swift: S was sent a link on WhatsApp instructing him to download the Swiggy app, an instructional video laid out the do’s & don’ts to protect himself from Covid-19, and a final section explained how to interact with customers.
“I was told about contactless delivery. I needed to leave the item outside the door, take a picture of it, ring the bell and watch from a distance if the customer was picking it up,” S said.
As India’s coronavirus-induced lockdown gives way to a lockdown-induced recession, an ever-widening circle of workers confront an uncertain future. As livelihoods vanish and savings shrink, workers like S are increasingly looking to a sector that seems pandemic-proof: gig-based home-delivery.
Across the world, app-based service providers are seeing opportunities in growing beyond their narrowly-defined verticals; a trend that began before the pandemic and has since intensified. Taxi aggregator Uber has tied up with Flipkart and Big-Basket for deliveries (Uber sold the India operations of its “Eats” business to Zomato in January), while food delivery platform Swiggy has launched Swiggy Genie to move into the errands-space once solely occupied by Dunzo.
Amidst the endless layoffs and salary-reductions since the lockdown began, Amazon is the only company to have made a hiring announcement. On May 22, the company announced 50,000 new seasonal positions “to meet the surge in demand from people relying on Amazon’s service”, according to a press release.
Yet, the delivery people behind these corporate moves to sate India’s consumer economy are still coming to terms with the precarity of gig-based work coupled with the very real possibility of contracting COVID-19 in the course of their daily deliveries. At the end of April for instance, a Swiggy delivery agent was amongst those who tested positive in Chennai. (The agent has since recovered from his illness, a Swiggy representative told HuffPost India.)
“People are going to look at platforms as an easy way to make a quick buck,” said Zothan Mawaii, a research fellow at Tandem Research India. “What we are seeing is an oversupply of labour on these platforms where people are working for measly amounts.”
“These employees are self-employed independent workers. They are not direct workers,” and are not “attached” to companies, said S. Jude Mathew, National press secretary for Indian Federation of App Based Transport Workers and Tamil Nadu rental vehicle association state general secretary. “Here it is the case that companies say: ’Do you have a bike? Come, I will give you a job!”
Human Supply Chain
The home delivery business is complex and layered, encompassing different jobs with varying degrees of job security, risk, and employee benefits. A worker in a deliveries processing warehouse, for instance, has very different working conditions, and protections, from a delivery person on a motorcycle delivering the package. Almost all delivery companies have introduced Covid-19 specific changes to how their workers parcel goods in their warehouses; but the last mile delivery of food, essentials, and ecommerce still requires agents to interact face to face with customers, restaurant staff, and the ubiquitous security guards posted at the gates of residential colonies.
The delivery agents, trade unionists and researchers agree, have it the hardest. Most delivery agents are paid per delivery, and the nine-week lockdown — which severely restricted home deliveries of most items — has meant most have earned close to nothing for months.
“Many of these workers won’t come under any kind of protection or social security. Basically when you pick up a packet and you are delivering it to a customer, the insurance is applicable, only for that duration,” said Mathew, the trade unionist. “Apart from that, after delivering the package to the customer, he is on his own.”
“Of course, I am scared by the number of positive cases in Chennai. But we don’t have a choice, all I can do is take as many precautions"
38-year-old M joined Swiggy six months ago in Salem, 340 kms away from Chennai, but moved to the state capital when he realized he couldn’t make ends meet.
“I was an accountant and dabbled in real estate for a while. But after demonetisation work dried up and I had to find another job,” he says. “At Swiggy, I was told I will be paid weekly. I took a loan to get a bike, and a mobile phone and I started work.”
When the Tamil Nadu government announced a lockdown across the state on March 23, M travelled home to be with his family.
“When Covid-19 started I thought I needed to be home to educate my children on how to protect themselves, but I soon realized this pandemic can stretch for six months even a year, so I decided to come back to Chennai,” he said. “This isn’t likely to end till they stick a needle filled with a vaccine into my arm.”
M moved back into a one-room apartment he shares with a friend who also works as a gig worker. Monthly rent of Rs 5500 is already overdue for two months, and Chennai city has only begun to show an appetite for takeout – 30% of orders trickle in.
Over ten days, M has made Rs 4500. “Of course, I am scared by the number of positive cases in Chennai. But we don’t have a choice, all I can do is take as many precautions,” he says.
Every night, M soaks his mask and gloves in a mug full of water drenched in Dettol. In the morning he wears the pair he left out to dry the day before. “I also make a huge pot of all the spices I think are good as immunity boosters and drink a glass every morning.”
Gig workers told HuffPost India that their companies have pushed them to deliver items even to containment zones to ensure customer satisfaction; but promise workers a minimum incentive if they contract COVID-19 or are quarantined and unable to work.
Yet, there exists considerable confusion about exactly how much this minimum incentive is.
A Swiggy representative, for instance, directed HuffPost India to a company blog dated April 17, that stated “any delivery partner who is temporarily suspended due to Covid-related reasons receives 1.5 times their minimum guaranteed earnings for at least 2 weeks. Income protection and medical insurance programmes are also in place to support them financially.” Yet the representative declined to quantify exactly what these minimum guaranteed earnings are.
An Amazon representative said the company has set up a USD 25 million Amazon Relief Fund globally which is also applicable to India. It can be “utilised by qualifying individuals who have been quarantined or diagnosed with Covid-19”. Amazon India has extended the ARF to “eligible delivery associates who are part of the Delivery Service Partner Program,” the representative said.
A Zomato company blog also assures “our delivery partners that they don’t need to force themselves to work for financial reasons if they get infected with COVID-19. Zomato’s Delivery Partner Insurance Plan, which earlier covered only hospitalization, will now also cover lost earnings, in case the delivery partner gets infected by COVID-19.”
“Chennai’s streets are empty, I don’t have to slow down anywhere. But the whole point of quick deliveries is so you can pack in as many in a day which isn’t the case”
But here too, there is a lack of clarity on how lost earnings are calculated. Meanwhile workers speak amongst themselves to figure out which company offers the best incentives.
“I currently work as a delivery person with Amazon but I am only employed till June,” said an Amazon delivery agent. “The neighbouring hub to where I work is BigBasket. I have walked across a few times to enquire about jobs but they said they won’t hire anyone new right now.”
Mawii, the researcher, said the relief measures announced by platforms are completely “inadequate” and those announced by the government were not reaching this section of workers.
“A lot of these companies say they are providing personal protective equipment, temperature reading, and so on which is very customer facing. All these statements are to ease concerns of customers,” Mawii said.
“I have been told there is a minimum guarantee of Rs 300 per day if there is no order at all and if we keep the app activated all day,’ M, the Swiggy delivery agent said. “If I turn off the app then I don’t get anything. If we go into hospital then too there is a minimum guarantee of Rs 300 per day. “
Yet other workers told Huffpost India that the minimum incentive was closer to Rs 150 per day.
“The amount depends on when a delivery partner began work with the company. If it is from January 2020, then they will get a minimum of Rs.150. If earlier, then a minimum of Rs 300 per day is what delivery partners have been told,” said Dharmendra Vaishnav, president of Indian Delivery Lions Organisation, an association for Swiggy and Zomato delivery executives in Jaipur, Rajasthan. For now, workers like M and S are doing their deliveries, and hoping their safety precautions stand them in good stead.
M said he has specific spots in the city where he lounges waiting for his next order to register on his app. Usually under a tree close to a set of restaurants.
“Chennai’s streets are empty, I don’t have to slow down anywhere. But the whole point of quick deliveries is so you can pack in as many in a day which isn’t the case,” he says.
For now, he waits in 45C for an afternoon craving. “Please don’t mention my name anywhere, the company will lock my account. Just say we met at a traffic light and I told you my life story,” he said.