On 31 July 2019, Zomato stood up to a user who demanded that the food delivery service allow customers to choose the religion of their delivery agents. Twitter user @NaMo_SARKAAR claimed he was cancelling his order, and deleting the Zomato app, as his delivery agent was a “Muslim fellow”.
Zomato tweeted back saying “Food has no religion. It is a religion”.
Four days later, on August 5, a Zomato team leader in Kolkata gathered all his delivery agents in an open field outside their office in Howrah and told them their pay would be slashed. Where workers were once getting Rs 60 per delivery, they would now get only Rs 25 per delivery. Targets were mounting and pay kept decreasing.
According to a delivery agent HuffPost India spoke to, they were anyway not getting any provident fund, employee state insurance or accident insurance. Much like Ola and Uber drivers, food delivery agents are not hired as full-time employees, but as contractors, frequently referred to by the companies as “driver partners”.
“We told them that we cannot work for such a low pay and went on a strike immediately,” Brij Verma, a Zomato delivery agent present at the meeting told HuffPost India.
The worker protest was largely ignored by the media until Verma approached a man called Sanjeev Kumar Shukla, whose profile on Facebook lists him as “in-charge bjp membership programme and secretary BJP UTTAR HOWRAH MANDAL 2.”
Shukla, Verma said, helped arrange a press conference on August 12, where some delivery agents, including Verma, told the ANI news service they were on strike because Zomato was forcing them to deliver beef and pork dishes in violation of their religious beliefs. The ANI clip went viral, Twitter blew up, and suddenly Zomato was in the news again.
“A few days ago, Zomato said, food has no religion,” Shukla told HuffPost India over the phone. “We want to say, delivery boys have religion, right? What about that?” He added, “We are demanding that they be made proper employees, instead of delivery partners.”
The Zomato controversy is symbolic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term in office: As the economy bottoms out, wages stagnate and millions of desperate young Indians find themselves caught in dead-end, low-paid jobs; the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has sought to shore up support by using any available lever to pit Indians against each other.
Shukla asked, “If someone gives you beef, will you hold it? How will you feel?” He also insisted a Hindu is a Hindu first, whatever his or her vocation. “When you go for an interview, you say (your Hindu) name, in official forms you mention Hindu as your religion, you are a Hindu at birth,” Shukla said.
Meanwhile, young workers have realised that the establishment only listens to their demands — however just — when articulated in the combustible language of religious belief.
If the first wave of the BJP’s cultural war affected the informal farm economy and allied industries like meat, dairy and leather, the Zomato controversy shows its effects are now increasingly being felt in the organised economy as well. Analysts say companies are now increasingly worried that perfectly legitimate businesses and products — like Kolkata’s famous beef biryani — are being targeted by a small vocal minority that enjoys the clear support of the ruling party.
While Shukla, the BJP worker, insists the Zomato protest is completely non-political and that he is, in fact, “a social worker”; it is clear that the fingerprints of the BJP are all over this protest. Yet, this is not to say that the protest was created by the party.
Rumours fall short of Real
On 5 August, the day that Zomato delivery agent Brij Verma’s team leader said delivery commissions were being slashed, Verma claims he also told them they could not refuse to deliver any particular food items.
Verma claims he also received a message on his delivery app to that effect, but was unable to share a copy of this message. Meanwhile, a rumour spread that Zomato was adding “2 or 3” restaurants that would be selling beef or pork.
“Yeh technical ka zamana hai. We opened that app and there was a beef restaurant there,” he told HuffPost India, trying to explain how he came to know of the ‘beef restaurant’.
Verma insists that the pay cut and the news about the beef restaurant which was added in the Zomato roster happened the same day. He clearly said that no issue followed the other and they took both up simultaneously.
“I opened the app, and the restaurant was there,” Verma insisted.
When asked to name the restaurants, Verma mentioned one called “Real”. While such a restaurant does exist, it isn’t on the Zomato delivery app. The restaurant is in Howrah’s Salkia neighbourhood, where Sanjeev Kumar Shukla—the BJP worker who took the Zomato protest viral—lives, according to his Facebook profile.
“There is one restaurant, its name is Real. They will supply beef items,” Shukla told HuffPost India in an interview. “It is coming up on Zomato.”
When HuffPost India called up the Real restaurant, the owners denied any plans of signing up on Zomato. And most importantly, it’s not a new restaurant.
“This restaurant has been around for nearly 20 years, a few years here and there,” the owner’s son told HuffPost India. He confirmed they did serve beef and, yes, their beef biryani was popular.
Verma claimed that after they started protesting, the listing of the ‘beef restaurant disappeared’. “They have deleted it now, after all this started happening,” he said. A report on the Quintmentions the restaurant in question to be ‘New Real’, which is listed on the Zomato app and is open for deliveries.
On 6 August, the plot thickened. Verma, the delivery agent, said a ‘friend’ told him that “pepperoni” was made from “pig fat and pig flesh”. “We are not very educated. If we were, would we be delivery boys?” he said,
“We don’t understand English very well, so we have been delivering that thing now, we don’t want to deliver. There was Pizza Hut around for so long, we were delivering all this,” Verma said. He added, 80 people went on strike on 5 August and 200 backed them.
“Now only 20% of the staff strength is working in North Howrah,” Verma told HuffPost India. This number has not been independently confirmed, and Zomato has stated that a small number of workers are on strike.
The pepperoni revelation brought fresh energy to the strike.
“The company is not listening to our demands and forcing us to deliver beef and pork against our will,” an agent called Mohsin Akhtar told ANI. “Hindus have a problem is delivering beef while Muslims do not want to deliver pork.”
“We are not ready to deliver such things on any condition. We are forced to deliver such things,” Akhtar continued, before finally mentioning the issue that had sparked their protest in the first place. “The company has also rolled back our payout. We have been on strike for a week now.”
Yet, this is not to say that one set of demands around the pay-cut are “real” and those around religion are “fake”. Worker protests are inherently performative: by clubbing the rumours around beef and pork with the pay cuts, the workers sought to portray the company as both economically exploitative, and insensitive to their religious beliefs.
Verma said he approached Shukla for help and is grateful for his guidance. While he refused to mention being a part of any political party, his Facebook profile shows videos of him participating in a BJP rally. “So many people are protesting, each of them follow some party of the other. But this protest is about us delivery boys, not any party,” he said.
Controversies are likely to recur
Zomato, in a statement, the company said “a small group of partners” have raised concerns and they were looking to resolve the issue.
“In a country as diverse as India, it is impossible to ensure that vegetarian and non-vegetarian preferences are factored into delivery logistics. Delivery partners are unequivocally made to understand the practical nature of the job as they choose to enter the workforce,” the company said.
“All our partners understand this fully. There is a small group of partners in Howrah who have raised concerns and we are looking to resolve the issue as quickly as possible.”
Satish Meena, a senior analyst with Forrester Research said such controversies would likely recur.
“Brands want to cater to people by taking the high moral ground, but it’s not easy to do that without getting backlash,” said Meena said. “Nike did it in the US with Colin Kaepernick but they were in a position where they could take the backlash. Our customer is not so mature, and the startups don’t have the history that will allow them to take the heat.”
Yet, much like Nike’s support for Kaepernick appears at odds with the company’s much criticised track record on work wages, Zomato appears well placed to ride out the current controversy — but only in the short term.
“These issues might garner attention, but the scale of logistics in India — not just for food delivery, but e-commerce and other industries, means that there are so many people doing deliveries that incentives and benefits are now real issues that matter to the workers, and these will continue to become bigger issues as the scale grows,” Meena added.
If the economy continues to tank and the BJP continues to channel all frustration through the prism of religious conflict, things could get much worse before they get better.