Gig workers in India struggle to earn minimum wage under largely unfair working-conditions
The 2022 Fairwork India Ratings report digs deep into the structural problems of digital labour platforms and reveals that gig workers lack fair pay, representation, and overall working-conditions
At around 6pm, on his way to deliver his 5th order for the day, Biswajit Ghosh, a Kolkata-based Swiggy delivery boy tells National Herald that he has earned ₹110 through the day after covering 15km. “It’s not humanly possible to deliver 20 orders in a day during a 10 hour shift, so I make do with whatever I earn per day,” he says. The minimum wage under West Bengal government as of January 2023 stands at ₹354 per day – food and groceries delivery app Swiggy does not provide any guarantee as to whether a delivery agent will meet that mark.
The need for online delivery and mobility services such as Swiggy, Zomato, Big Basket, Dunzo, Uber, Ola, Urban Company and the likes soared in the Covid-stricken years of 2020-21. The profits of most of these individual companies soared tangentially. For instance, Swiggy saw its GMV (Gross Merchandise Value) grow by 76 per cent to $2.3 billion in 2022, while rival Zomato’s GMV came in at $2.72 billion. Similarly, Uber reported a 72 per cent revenue hike at $8.34 billion, while competitor Ola crossed the $1 billion mark for the first time in FY22.
With need and profit running high, all of these platforms required more manpower and began mass-hiring gig workers. In 2020-21, eight million workers were engaged in the gig economy in India and by 2022, that number jumped to 15 million according to a recent StrideOne . As per the same report, this number is expected to increase to 23.5 million by 2024, and their total representation in India’s workforce is estimated to stand at 4 per cent.
“The low-entry barriers and the easy-access nature of these jobs is what appeals to a large number of unskilled to semi-skilled job seekers,” says Balaji Parthasarathy, one of the principal investigators of the Fair Work India team.
However, 2022 onward, Covid-related restrictions were being relaxed and eventually the demand for these platforms began to dip. As a result, most of them ended up mass-firing “excess employees” in a series of layoffs citing tightening of funds, declining revenue, global recession, etc. For instance, in November, Zomato laid off 3 percent of its workforce, in December, Swiggy announced over 250 layoffs, Ola fired over a 1000 people over the year and Uber let go of over 6,700 people.
“I started working as a Swiggy delivery executive in June 2020 after being laid off from my previous full-time bank-job during the pandemic. On December 15, I was laid off without notice and I’m currently working with Zepto (another grocery delivery service),” Shantu Mandal tells National Herald.
Although the staggering number of layoffs exposed the insecure nature of these jobs and what that means for the employees of digital labour platforms in India, the unfair work-conditions that regularly affect gig workers remained constrained to an echo-chamber.
Even though delivery boys and drivers have often complained to their respective customers, on social media forums and during the pandemic, the structural issues that they face in these companies have hardly ever made it to the news-verse even as the industries continue to remain silent.
Some of the complaints that emerged in 2022 besides job-insecurity were the absence of any functional regulatory framework, the guarantee of a minimum wage, the dismissive approach of these companies toward their employees’ grievances whether voiced individually or through worker’s unions and the confusing and arbitrary nature of incentive systems.
The annual Fair Work India Ratings released at the end of 2022 digs deep into these structural problems and presents findings on the current labour standards in the platform economy.
"The promise of flexibility of the digital platform economy raises as many questions about livelihoods as it offers opportunities. We hope the report provides the basis for an interpretation of flexibility that allows for not merely the adaptability that platforms seek, but also the income and social security that workers lack," says Parthasarathy.
The report claims that despite the seemingly “barrier-free” and “democratic” nature of the gig economy, there is no evidence-based data which suggests that these digital platforms meet the rights and demands of the workers; there is no concrete data which reveals the share of these platforms’ earnings paid to workers.
The study assesses the working conditions of gig workers across 12 digital labour platforms in India. It maps ‘fairness of work’ provided by these platforms based on five principles: Fair Pay, Fair Conditions, Fair Contracts, Fair Management and Fair Representation.
Ola, Uber, Dunzo, Amazon Flex and PharmEasy scored an average zero out of ten in all of the principles – indicating the worst treatment of gig workers; whereas no platform scored above an average of 7.
In terms of Fair Pay, the key findings suggest that most of these companies did not provide any evidence as to whether fair pay is ensured, i.e., whether the workers earn minimum wage a day. “Except for Big Basket, Flipkart and Urban Company, no other platform publicly committed, or provided sufficient evidence, to ensure that workers earn at least the hourly local minimum wage after work-related costs. Even with workers and worker groups repeatedly emphasising the importance of a stable income for platform workers, platforms have been reluctant to publicly commit to, and operationalise, a minimum wage policy,” read the report.
“The amount we are paid depends on the kilometre we cover. The minimum amount we receive for one order is ₹20 in a day with a distance of 1.5km and take up to 20 orders depending on our own bandwidth and our vehicle’s fuel. Swiggy or Zomato does not pay for your vehicle or the fuel. You need to arrange your own vehicle and fuel before becoming a delivery boy for either of these companies” says Ghosh.
No platform was awarded a point for the principle of Fair Representation. “While workers have engaged in various forms of collective action to voice their concerns in the platform economy, platforms have been uncompromisingly unwilling to recognise or negotiate with any collective body representing workers,” reads the report.
“It is disconcerting that despite the rise in platform worker collectivisation across the country, there is little to no initiative from the platforms end to recognise a collective body of workers,” says a representative of the Kolkata Ola Uber CITU union that helps drivers to organise, protest and voice their concerns against the “unfair policies” of these mobility platforms.
Companies were largely unresponsive even when it came to Fair Conditions and Fair Management, which includes grievance redressal, mitigating occupational risks, equal and unbiased treatment and providing a safety-net for workers among other indicators.
Even though the study states that a majority of these platforms provided Fair Contracts inclusive of accessible, readable and comprehensible agreements and clauses that delineate the process of notifying workers prior to any changes in their contractual terms – Swiggy delivery agent Mohammed Asif has a different story to tell.
“I have been given no ‘contract’ as such prior to joining Swiggy. I was only made to sign the Terms and Conditions which includes the basic rules and regulations of pick-up and delivery. I got this gig through a referral system, one of my friends referred me to Swiggy and I simply had to fill a form on the app and later visit the Swiggy Recruitment Centre with my personal and vehicle documents,” Asif tells National Herald.
Upon being asked why he joined the company without a contract, he says: “I lost my job during the pandemic, this was the easiest job available and I’m earning enough to feed myself, I did not think of a contract. All of our directions are given to us via the app and through support-executives who are very hard to reach most of the time.” With no contract in hand, Asif lacks any form of job-security.
Asif works 6 days a week from 12 PM to 8 PM with a lunch-break in between. He says that the incentives depend on the amount he earns in a day and customer ratings. For instance, if he earns above ₹500 or has a 4.9 customer rating, the company offers 16 percent in incentives. “I declined a delivery once as it was too far, my rating came down from 4.5 to 4.2 just for that, and I did not receive any incentives on that day,” he says.
The incentives are the only thing that drives gig-workers when it comes to Uber and Ola, both of these companies deduct about 20-30 percent of the fare for one ride as commission. However, most drivers complain of having to drive for “inhuman” hours in a day just to unlock incentives.
“I spend 16-17 hours on the road every day to complete a set number of rides to get a higher incentive. We earn a mere amount of ₹30 for 6km as the fare is ₹150 and 20 per cent is slashed by Uber. The only earning that we make is through incentives – Uber gives ₹2,400 for four rides, ₹3,000 for six, ₹3,500 for eight, and ₹4,500 for 10 rides. But it’s very challenging to cover four rides itself considering the distance, traffic, waiting-time, getting new rides, let alone 10 rides. On an average day I make up to ₹20,000,” says Mrinal Kanti Basak, an Uber driver in Kolkata.
Despite rising complaints and protests this year, the industrial patterns and the legal landscape of the platform economy in India remains largely unchanged. “In most cases, those who question arbitrary changes in payment structure and other policies are blocked from the platform, which essentially means job loss, which creates fear among gig workers who rely on these jobs for their basic subsistence,” says Vinay Sarathi, President, United Food Delivery Partners Union, Bengaluru.
Meanwhile, NITI Aayog’s 2022 report ‘India’s Booming Gig and Platform Economy’ opens by proclaiming “the rapidly burgeoning gig workforce is ushering in a new economic revolution globally. India….is the new frontier of this revolution.”
Some names have been changed for worker’s safety