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Blocking IDs, Low Ratings: Why Urban Company Workers Are Protesting Once Again

Since October 2022, over eight protests, led by women partners of Urban Company, have taken place across India.

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(*Names changed to protect identity)

For 36-year-old Radha from New Delhi's Karol Bagh home services platform Urban Company (UC) presented a unique opportunity to work as a freelance beautician in 2018 with its "flexibility" and "family-friendly policies". Four years later in December 2022, UC blocked her ID for failing to maintain a rating of 4.8 out of 5.

When 27-year-old Pooja, based out of Ghaziabad joined UC, she was told she could accept as many jobs she liked based on her convenience. In June 2023, while she was in her seventh month of pregnancy, her ID was blocked after her she cancelled four appointments in 30 days, due to health reasons.

Radha and Pooja are not the only workers to face this. On Wednesday, 11 October, around 50 UC workers – referred to as partners – staged a protest in Jantar Mantar over their alleged "exploitation" leading to job losses.

"It's like they showed us a dream and snatched it away later. There can be emergencies. But what can we do about it? How can they throw us out for such unrealistic, arbitrary reasons," a worried Radha told The Quint.

However, this is also not the first time UC has been at the centre of protests.

Since October 2022, over eight protests taken place across India – from Hyderabad to Mumbai, Bengaluru to Delhi, over similar concerns. In one of the biggest protests against the company,thousands of female employees on 12 July, backed by the All India Gig Workers' Union (AIGWU), took to the streets against "unfair" mandates and rating requirements.

Despite repeated protests, not much has changed for UC partners.

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Why Are Women Protesting ID Blocking? 

Since its inception in 2014, UC was one of the handful gig work platforms where skilled women could find work. According to the app-based platform, one-third of the 45,000 contract workers employed are women, most of whom are engaged in beauty-related services.

A 2020 study titled 'India’s Emerging Gig Economy: The Future of Women Workers' says the majority of UC's beauty workers are non-migrant, married women with children, looking for flexible work conditions.

While partners The Quint spoke to said they were offered an initial salary of Rs 40,000, they soon realised that the wages were subject to fluctuation.

The beauty segment offers three categories of services – Classic, Prime, and Luxe – with Classic being the cheapest and Luxe being the most expensive.

While Classic and Prime partners must maintain a minimum rating of 4.7 out of 5, Luxe partners require a rating of 4.8.

Partners told The Quint that the standards are nearly impossible to meet – and most often – are beyond their control.

Since October 2022, over eight protests, led by women partners of Urban Company, have taken place across India.

In collaboration with Mehnatkash Association, 50 UC partners staged a protest demanding better pay, safer working conditions, and social security benefits.

(Photo: Varsha Sriram/The Quint)

"I have worked with UC for six years. My rating has always been around 4.5. But the company's rules to maintain a high rating is hard. I've been extremely loyal to the company and this is what I get in return?" Seema told The Quint.

42-year-old Seema, a mother of two is now anxious about paying her children's school fees. Since she was blocked in May 2023, her family has been struggling to make ends meet. She joined in 2018 and made around 35,000 rupees a month.

Radha alleged that 'a partner is often penalised for mistakes made by clients.'

"If clients cancel in the last minute, they are penalised with a fine of Rs 200. Instead, they chose the option of saying that the partner did not show up, which ends up harming us as our ratings get reduced. But if we cancel for genuine reasons, we are penalised,”
Radha, a former UC beautician told The Quint
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'Had To Beg Them To Get My Job Back'

But not all IDs are blocked permanently. Partners claimed that their IDs have been blocked 2-3 times in the last four years, but have also been unblocked a few months after.

27-year-old Pooja, and her husband Kumar, a massage therapist at UC, were blocked by the platform in April 2023. Pooja told The Quint that despite pleading with the company and showing her medical records, her ID was blocked.

After multiple visits to the office, it was unblocked in August 2023.

"My husband and I had to fall on their feet and beg them to give us our jobs back and only I got my job back. Kumar is sitting at home for the past four months with no job. We have a 1.5 month old baby and we have no income. We have to borrow money even to buy milk for the baby,"
Pooja told The Quint

Another partner Geetika said in the last four years, her ID has been blocked three times. "Sometimes, we get clients who are far away from where we are. When we cancel those appointments, we get blocked," she told The Quint.

Since October 2022, over eight protests, led by women partners of Urban Company, have taken place across India.

28-year-old Geetika's ID was blocked last blocked for over three months. It was opened in August 2023

(Photo: Varsha Sriram/The Quint)

Instead of blocking their IDs, partners believed that workers must at least get a chance to rectify an errors. The uncertain ID blockings have led to a sense of uncertainty and fear about their future.

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What Urban Company Had To Say? 

When The Quint reached out to Urban Company on 12 October, they declined to comment on the allegations raised.

The company reiterated its stance on the issue based on a statement it released post the 12 July protests. "We recently asked a few partners who were not meeting the marketplace standards despite multiple prior notices and re-trainings, to part ways with the marketplace... As a company focused on quality and customer experience, it is our responsibility to ensure that both sides of the marketplace have a good experience," the statement added.

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'Gave Our Everything, Got Robbed Instead'

ID blocking is not the only problem these partners face.

Other issues include: Unfair mandates, monthly subscription, high travel expense, convenience fee levied on workers, and rise in company’s share on commissions.

In 2021, UC introduced a Minimum Guarantee (MG) plan where partners had to sign up and pay a subscription fee starting from Rs 2,000 in return for jobs/leads that will be provided to them.

At the time, the company responded to protests, coming up with a 12-step programme to improve partner ratings and their livelihoods as well. However, protests continued to persist.

"Once the IDs are blocked, the company asks us to join from a different ID. So, to do that, we must pay for the products and equipment again," Ritika claimed.

Since October 2022, over eight protests, led by women partners of Urban Company, have taken place across India.

For the women partners who were sold UC's promises of flexibility and empowerment, the shock of losing their livelihood led to a sense of betrayal.

(Photo: Varsha Sriram/The Quint)

Company figures also showed that roughly a quarter of partner earnings go towards commissions, another 8 percent towards travel, and 17 percent towards product purchases. In general, partners earn Rs 280 to Rs 300 an hour after commissions, product payments and travel costs.

"First, we have to pay an onboarding fee which costs over 50,000 rupees where they train us. Then we have to spend every month to purchase products and materials to use on clients. We also have to incur our travel costs to visit the clients. Why should we be the ones paying for all of this? Isn't it the company's responsibility to do this?" asked Seema.
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Why Do UC Workers Protest Often? Union Leaders Answer

Rikta Krishnaswamy, a coordinator at AIGWU's Delhi wing told The Quint that the July protests was done to tell UC that the issues put forth concerned thousands of workers and not just a handful of them.

"These women partners were in fact UC's biggest competitors in the market when they first began. They brought them onboard with incentives of flexibility. Over the last 2-3 years, work conditions became more brutal. Plus, UC has monopolised the market. So the ability to work as an independent professional in the mark was not possible," she said.

The AIGWU has also filed a dispute case with the Labour Department in Delhi, Gurgaon and Noida. Eight rounds of meeting with government and UC officials have taken place to address the issues, Krishnaswamy said.

Seema Singh, director of Mehnatkash Association, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working for the rights of gig workers, said,

"It is not just about ID blocking or MG plan, it is about the larger issue of social protection for our workers. We protest often because UC comes up with a new schemes, which instead of helping, harms the partners. There is no safety or protection for any workers and we will continue to raise such issues till they provide us a solution,"
Singh, a former beautician with UC told The Quint

"We sent them an email with our list of issues, which we did earlier too. In July, we held discussion with UC representatives and they assured us of some change. Yet, there has been no progress," Nirmal Agni, who works with Mehnatkash Association said.

Shaik Salauddin, national general secretary, Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers (IFAT), an independent organisation advocating for legal reforms for gig workers, said that government intervention is essential.

"Why are the same issues emerging? Because there is no separate law that covers gig workers. The employer-employee relations does not exist here. So there's a lot of exploitation," he told The Quint.

“Our focus is three-fold; job guarantee, social security, and finally there should be a law that should cover gig and platform workers," Salauddin, said.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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