‘Food has no religion, food is a religion,’ said the Twitter handle of Zomato in its tweet to a man who would not take food from a Muslim delivery guy. On the face of it, this statement captures a powerful idea: that this company cares about its workforce and will not tolerate bigoted customers.
Zomato seems to be riding high on this attention that liberal Twitterati is showering on it. But the truth is, Zomato and other similar startups, are some of the worst workplaces to be employed in. A survey carried out by two Oxford researchers rated Zomato ‘4/10’ for its working conditions in India.
The delivery guys get little employment benefits and no fixed salary.
Overworked Employees Who Receive No Benefits
It is important to note that workers in the food delivery industry are not its ‘employees’ according to their official contracts. They are termed ‘independent contractors’ or ‘independent entrepreneurs’. Zomato and other such apps, argue that the app is not actually an employer, but an ‘internet service’ or a ‘platform’, which merely seeks to connect the customer, the restaurant, and the delivery guy.
This is an easy way to avoid all liabilities, while employing 50,000 odd delivery executives. The delivery guys get little employment benefits and no fixed salary. They can be hired and fired at will.
A ‘lower zone’ delivery guy barely earns anything substantial.
Such companies argue that the delivery guys are free to log in and log out anytime they want to, and stress on the ‘casual’ nature of their employment. This is far from the truth. When the food delivery industry boomed, several workers were attracted to it, even though there was no job-guarantee. Today, working in the industry has become a misery. Workers who work long hours with little breaks are favoured by the algorithm. The incentives are provided in a hierarchical order of hours put in, with the ‘high zone’ guy (someone who works longer hours) making progressively more on each order than those engaged in it ‘casually’.
The workers are ‘nudged’ to work inhumane hours by the food delivery industry.
Therefore, the algorithm actively encourages delivery partners to work 16-18 hours or more in a day. On rainy days, when it is particularly dangerous for two-wheeler riding delivery partners, the incentives and the pay are the maximum. Most riders complain of back injuries after long hours of riding. Thus, the so-called ‘casual’ work environment, and the ‘choice’ to take fewer orders, is a myth.
A ‘lower zone’ delivery guy barely earns anything substantial. A field research has shown that while the workers are ‘free’ to log-out of work anytime they feel like, they are constantly pestered with calls and messages telling them how they are losing out on earnings by logging out in that moment. Thus, the workers are ‘nudged’ to work inhumane hours by the food delivery industry.
Escaping Liability as Employer & ‘Informalising’ The Economy
India’s labour laws suggest that merely terming the worker as an ‘independent contractor’ will not absolve the employer of liability. Courts have looked into the actual nature of the employment. Two considerations are important in determining whether there is an employer-employee relationship: the control exercised on the worker, and the level of integration of the worker in the business. The degree of control can be gleaned by seeing who is the appointing authority or pay master, who can dismiss, and the extent of control and supervision. The level of integration can be determined by looking at the nature of the establishment and its similarity to the kind of work done by the worker.
Unlike actual ‘independent contracts’, the delivery guy cannot solicit business on his own.
In the case of apps like Zomato, Swiggy etc, the workers are hired after verification and vetting by the apps, and their pay is subject to the rules unilaterally framed by the apps. Their services can be terminated immediately by the apps. The level of control extends to giving the delivery guy the exact pick-up and drop location, and telling him the manner in which he has to carry the product.
Unlike actual ‘independent contracts’, the delivery guy cannot solicit business on his own. Last December, Zomato organised a sensitisation and soft skills workshop for its delivery partners, after a video surfaced of a Zomato guy eating from a food parcel and sealing it back. All this suggests that these apps, in addition to clearly telling them what exactly to do, is also telling them how to do it.
Not to mention, Zomato being a ‘food delivery app’, these ‘delivery executives’ are completely integrated into the system and form an indispensable part of it. Thus, a food delivery guy is, for all purposes, an employee, and yet these apps deny them their rights and benefits.
One of India’s biggest challenges remains creating enough jobs in the formal sector, to accommodate the population transitioning from agriculture.
How To Regulate the Gig Economy
In California, US and the UK, courts are increasingly realising the facade of these apps, which claim to be solely ‘internet service providers’. In the UK, the Court of Appeals ruled that Uber (another similar app) drivers are employees, because of the high degree of control and integration (similar to the Indian test). The Advocate General of the European Court of Justice has similarly opined that the ubiquity of ‘conditions’ that these apps lay on their workers, makes these workers ‘employees’, and not ‘independent contractors’.
A petition pending before the Delhi High Court similarly seeks to declare ‘Uber drivers’ as employees in India.
One of India’s biggest challenges remains creating enough jobs in the formal sector, to accommodate the population transitioning from agriculture. In such a scenario, these unregulated ‘gig-economy’ apps present a spectre of what a liberalised but ‘informal’ economy would look like in urban India. A promise of a formalised economy needs to come with a welfare state which, along with employers, guarantees basic rights and benefits to its workforce.
The gig-economy presently is booming. There is no evidence to suggest that giving employee rights to these workers will make these companies unprofitable. In fact, the UK presents a strong example of how we can have these apps without compromising on basic labour rights.
A petition pending before the Delhi High Court similarly seeks to declare ‘Uber drivers’ as employees in India. If this petition succeeds, then these apps will be forced to formalise and regularise their workforce. Until then, Zomato and its ilk may continue to peddle ‘liberal’ values while comfortably violating basic labour rights.
(Amlan Mishra is a third year law student at National Law University, Jodhpur. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)