Sonal (name changed) was 30 years old when she closed her beauty salon in Delhi's Vaishali to work for the home services platform Urban Clap (which later came to be known as Urban Company) in 2018. Her business was doing well – but it kept her away from her children and family for most parts of the day.
"Urban Company was up-and-coming at the time – and they offered family-friendly policies and flexibility. I was told I had the freedom to choose my work and spend more time with my family. So, I took it," Sonal told The Quint.
Five years down the line, Sonal says she is left with nothing – neither a steady business nor a steady job at Urban Company (UC). "I was loyal to the company for years, but now they have blocked my ID," she said.
Like Sonal, many UC workers – or partners as they're called – in the beauty segment of the app say their IDs have been 'unfairly' blocked by the company, denying them access to jobs.
"They [UC] give arbitrary reasons for blocking our IDs – saying our response rate [rate of accepting bookings] is low, our rating is not up to the mark, or that we didn't accept a particular job," Sonal said.
Protesting the ID blocking system, UC workers in Bengaluru held a meeting with company representatives at its office in the city on Wednesday, 12 July.
Members of the All Indian Gig Workers' Union told The Quint that the meeting, which happened amid heightened security, yielded no results as "there was no conclusive response from the company."
Online Campaign Against UC
Many partners had staged demonstrations against ID blocking at Delhi-NCR, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Bengaluru in June, in hopes that the company would reinstate their IDs.
However, with many of them still denied access to work, partners from across cities held an online campaign against the ID blocking system from 3-11 July with the support of the All Indian Gig Workers' Union (affiliated with CITU).
The partners also held a meeting in Bengaluru on 6 July – during which they formed a 15-member committee to discuss their future plan of action.
The workers' demands primarily include unblocking all partner IDs and removing the permanent ID blocking system. They also want UC not to make any changes to the platform without the workers' consent.
The said committee will submit a representation with all their demands to the government as well as hold a meeting with government officials and company representatives, a union member told The Quint after the meeting.
What Is ID Blocking?
The Urban Company app offers three categories of services in its beauty segment – 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 minimum rating of 4.8.
Partners say their IDs could be blocked for several reasons – if their ratings fall below the stipulated threshold, their response rate is below 80 percent, or they have four cancellations in a month, to name a few.
But they say these standards are nearly impossible to meet – and most often – are beyond their control.
Anjana (name changed) has been working with UC in Delhi for the past seven years. "I had a rating of 4.9. But I had to take some time off work because I had a miscarriage. And despite my situation, my ID was blocked," she said in a video put out by the AIGWU as part of its online campaign.
"Please remove the ID blocking system. I'm the only breadwinner of my family. There are so many single mothers who work with UC – if you block their IDs, they won't have any means to survive," she went on to say.
In another video, Arun (name changed), a massage therapist who has been working with UC for the past two years, said:
"I was removed from the team six months ago. My brother had died and I was unable to accept jobs for a while. They removed me in January. Please reinstate my ID. I'm the sole breadwinner of my family."
Sonal, however, told The Quint that UC had been denying her work even before her ID was blocked.
"I had raised complaints about the app's previous policies and I was told that I'm provoking other girls. The company then stopped giving me bookings. There has been no issue with my ratings," she alleged.
She added that the company also made it difficult for some partners to access work. "To dissuade us from working, they would give us a booking that's really far away, or they give you no work all morning, and suddenly assign a job at night. For a Rs 600 booking, you'll have to spend Rs 200 for travel – and after commission, we get very little."
What Did UC Say?
When The Quint reached out to UC for comment on the ID blocking system, it said in a statement that it had "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.
However, partners say that even if they were removed due to shortcomings in their work, there has been little to no room for the redressal of their grievances. "When I went to UC's office in Noida to appeal to them, I was not even allowed to enter the office because my ID was blocked," Sonal alleged.
The company, meanwhile, said in the statement that it continues "to maintain an open-door policy and encourage dialogue with our partners. We remain committed to building a safe, high-quality home services platform."
'They Are Eating Our Money'
Partners say they are required to pay at least Rs 45,000 while joining the company – for products and equipment. They must also undergo a seven-day training session, during which they must also pay for the products they use for the demo.
They say that some of them even take loans from UC to pay for the products and equipment.
"Our investments in training (which is free of cost and not paid for by partners), technology, tooling, products, free life, accidental and health insurance etc., go a long way in having a controlled experience on the marketplace, enabling service partners to deliver best-in-class quality and earn a decent, middle-class livelihood," the company said in its statement.
But Sonal said that the ID blocking system is just another way for the company to "make more money." "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," she claimed.
"The company has always found a way to eat our money. Earlier, they used to charge Rs 10 as a late fee. This we must pay even if we start the booking late because of a delay on the client's end," Sonal further alleged.
"In addition to the commission, they cut TDS, a cancellation charge of Rs 400, service charge, and also make us pay for the products even if we don't need them. Sometimes, they send Rs 10,000 worth of products to our home without even asking us, and then charge us for it."
The Minimum Guarantee Plan & Subsequent Protests
This is not the first time that Urban Company has been at the centre of protests. In 2021, it introduced an MG Plan, or Minimum Guarantee Plan, which enabled partners to have a job guarantee provided they pay a subscription fee.
The MG Plan categorised workers as Flexi, Smart, and Plus. All the Prime partners had to pay a monthly subscription fee of Rs 3,000, whereas Classic partners had to pay Rs 2,000.
Partners who did not subscribe to the plan or had a low response rate were categorised as Flexi – and such workers were allowed to do business only three days of the week (Friday to Sunday).
In December 2021, a partner, on the condition of anonymity, had told The Quint that her manager informed her that she had been shifted to the 'Flexi' system without her knowledge. "Suddenly I was only getting gigs on the weekends. When I inquired, I was told that I can shift to the 'Smart' category if I pay the subscription fee," she adds.
"Those under the 'Smart' category will get 40-50 jobs and those under 'Flexi' will get 18-29 jobs in a month," the partner had said.
Partners had further said that apart from the categorisations and the subscription system, they were being asked to give up a 10% discount to customers from their earnings.
Protesting this move, which significantly affected their earnings, partners staged a dharna at Urban Company's Gurugram office in December, after which the company filed a lawsuit, directing the protesters to leave the office premises.