The Personal and Social Risks That India's Food Delivery Workers Are Taking During COVID-19 

What happens to social distancing when you "live in the crowd and work in the crowd"?

Bengaluru/Mumbai: In the days that followed India’s national lockdown, delivery workers for app-based food delivery services like Swiggy and Zomato, which were identified as an essential service in many states, have been instrumental in ensuring social distancing, work from home and a sense of normalcy during the lockdown.

But how has the lockdown impacted the workers and how they carry about their duties? Telephonic interviews and a self-administered survey* carried out by the authors show that the last few weeks have been tough.

To their credit, platform companies have demonstrated a willingness to extend loans to restaurants, workers and have gathered over Rs 6 crore through donations. Companies have celebrated even delivery ‘partners’ as heroes and added capes to their backs. 

However, not all heroes wear masks – especially since the disorderly distribution of masks by companies have forced some workers to buy their own masks and sanitisers. With diminished orders, several workers claim they received no minimum guarantee or any payout from the companies since the lockdown. In addition to this, not all workers have been able to produce passes which has resulted in various incidents of brutal police checks and  violence.

The vignettes laid out in this article lay out a panoramic picture of the webs of interdependent, informal work and housing realities of workers in cities like Bangalore and Mumbai to highlight potential areas for companies and government to aid workers.

Unmasking risks of delivery work

Digital food delivery platforms have launched or expanded operations to include the delivery of groceries and vegetables during the lockdown based on their ability to enrol the labour of delivery workers. 

Despite relying heavily on workers, it is evident that the platforms have had no plans in place for workers’ safety during this public health crisis. 

Some workers reported having received communication from companies regarding mask distribution.For instance, Tejus* in Telangana received an N-95 mask from Swiggy prior to the lockdown. 

However, in contrast, workers in Bengaluru and Mumbai claim they have been asked to collect masks from the main offices or specified locations. This has led to most workers purchasing masks on their own expense as the time and petrol taken for travelling would imply a loss in earnings. 

Zomata’s appeal to its customers, asking them to support the delivery workers.

In Mumbai, workers who traveled to specified locations to collect masks complained that not everyone received masks since the company representative distributing masks was giving them to workers whose ID numbers appeared on a list. If a worker’s ID number did not appear on the list, s/he was simply not given a mask or any justification for being excluded. Those who did receive masks, got two at best and after 2 weeks of the lockdown. In effect, most workers have been buying their own masks as well as 2-4 pairs of gloves in one day that cost Rs 12-16. 

Companies position their service as hygienic by reminding workers to maintain hygiene through messages. They also provide training that workers’ explain comes as a notification in the app. 

The platforms also reassure customers that workers are practicing WHO guidelines, washing their hands before every delivery, they have also added photographs of ‘hygienic restaurants’ on the app. 

This communication of hygienic practices finds little resonance in experiences of workers. They extend contactless delivery but also allow ‘cash on delivery’ which negates the purpose of contactless delivery. Focusing on communication more than action highlights the lackadaisical attitude and lack of platforms’ understanding of their workers’ needs, safety and public health more generally.  

Swiggy has provided insurance for workers in the case they test positive for COVID-19. However, this insurance coverage is of little reassurance to workers in Bengaluru and Mumbai, given their past experience of trying to use accidental insurance. In the past, for example, workers across platforms have had to resort to pooling in money to help cover other workers’ medical expenses in case of accidents at work. 

Despite expanding business to include delivery of groceries and vegetables, workers in pockets of Bengaluru and Mumbai have spoken about how this has not led to an increase in orders for them. 

From our survey we found that prior to the lockdown, a substantial percentage of surveyed workers (30.9%) received 16-20 orders a day.

Post lockdown, only 7.2% of workers received 16-20 orders a day. 

Credit: Results of self-administered survey carried out by authors.


Credit: Results of self-administered survey carried out by authors.

Samuel* who works in Bengaluru says, “My orders have reduced since the lockdown. In the first week of the lockdown the orders were very good. I got 30 orders a day, but now [it has become less]…. I am still working 10 hours every day despite the lockdown, but Zomato has not increased any amount or incentives during this time. They just give us messages [on how to maintain hygiene] everyday.”

Filling up on petrol and food 

App-based delivery work is predicated on the existence of an ecosystem of other informal services: workers at petrol pumps and roadside food stalls. These services may not always be open  during the lockdown, so how do delivery workers continue to provide essential services?

Some workers in Bengaluru are navigating based on resources like food and petrol pumps  depending on their availability in different neighbourhoods and areas.

Iqbal* said, “With the absence of [roadside] food carts we don’t have anywhere to eat. Luckily in my area there are two restaurants that are giving us food. One pub in the location is giving us food and another restaurant here is asking us if we want food while we wait and is giving us food.” 

Petrol pumps have been identified as essential services but it is common for them to be operational for a limited number of hours or ration amount of petrol sold. Some workers in South Bengaluru found them to be open 24×7. 

However, in another end of the city Chethan* says, “There are only two petrol bunks in this area. Workers can only access the petrol bunks for two hours in the morning from 8-10 am. The police have scolded the individuals at the petrol bunk and since they don’t want any trouble they are doing this.” 

Also read: Backstory: Media Please Note, COVID-19 Has Brought out the Best and Worst in Us

Ekta* a delivery worker in suburban Mumbai said that petrol pumps have instructions to sell petrol worth Rs 100-150 to one person at one time. She explains that the paucity of orders during the lockdown forces workers to ride around, ‘looking’ for orders which requires more petrol. 

Companies pay workers a daily minimum guarantee (between Rs 300-Rs 500), if workers complete a certain number of orders or have clocked in a certain number of hours on that day. In order to earn at least the minimum guarantee in the context of reduced orders and diminished incomes, workers are being compelled to ride around for longer hours exposing themselves to the possibility of contracting the virus, just trying to find work.

Despite wearing the uniform, workers in Mumbai reported being questioned and sometimes slapped by the police for violating the lockdown. Ekta, explained that perhaps because she was a woman she was subject to only suspicion and chiding and spared the slaps others received. She recounted her recent interaction with a policeman who doubted her being a worker because “anyone can wear these clothes.” He asked, “How do I know you’re not just doing timepass outside?” when she had no parcel to prove she was out trying to deliver food. 

Across platforms, in normal times, when workers meet with an accident, have conflict with the police or customers, companies expect them to call either the team leader (usually an ex-delivery worker), the helpline number or report the issue in the app. Sometimes workers can also visit the nearest hub. During the lockdown, team leaders and company representatives running the hub are working from home and workers report they are less likely to answer phone calls, especially if they’re not during ‘working hours.’  Samuel says, “In Zomato everyone has worked from home, the customer care option is gone. But we have to think about getting thrown out or getting new rate cards. We don’t even have enough money for food, diesel and rent. They haven’t done anything during this time.” 

Most workers in Mumbai mentioned that companies provided passes that they could show policemen but only few workers received hard copies. The rest received soft copies.  Some workers wondered how the company expected workers to print the soft-copies during a lockdown. Several workers pointed out that initially policemen did not have the patience to wait for workers to pull out their phones, look for the pass and finally produce it.

“We live in the crowd and we work in the crowd”

Food delivery workers’ residence within the city, in dense housing arrangements like slums and chawls also contributes to the complexities, obstacles and fears involved in working outside one’s home. Especially now, when working from home and practicing social distancing are understood as protecting oneself and others from the spread of COVID-19. 

In some cases, the geographical location of the workers’ residence also inhibits some from working, a respondent from our survey has said“I live in Virar and work in Andheri West. I’ve not been able to log in because I can’t travel from Virar because of the lockdown.” 

All workers are petrified of contracting the virus and spreading it to family. Alam, who lives with two children and his elderly parents explained, “You know how hot it is in Bombay right now but I wear the company’s uniform over a layer so that before I enter our home, I can shed the uniform outside. Then I enter and put pants and other things in the bathroom, wash my face and hands thoroughly before I interact with my two children.”

Arif, a migrant from rural Bihar who works in Mumbai, said that his landlord warned him that he would lose the room if he stepped out to work. He knew the money he had (approximately Rs 2000-3000) would not tide him over the 21 day period if he was not able to supplement it by working. So the morning after the announcement of the lockdown, he and 7 others – some app-based delivery workers, others working as drivers and in the hospitality industry – rode to Bihar from Mumbai in pairs. They took three days and made stops for the night in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh taking shelter in closed down dhabas. When Arif reached his village he went to a nearby hospital for a check-up. He has been observing self-quarantine, living in the aangan (courtyard) of his home and has not interacted with his family members. 

His friends who had recently purchased motorbikes to make deliveries were paying EMIs and were forced to stay back and work. Arif had paid back the loan  for his bike and left because social distancing would be impossible in Mumbai. He said social contact was implicit in his work and living arrangement, “Hum bheed mein kaam karte hai aur bheed mein rehte hai (‘we live in the crowd and work in the crowd’).”

Also read: As Mumbai Seals Slums, Residents Face Struggle to Access Basic Necessities

He decided to make the journey after having seen visuals in the news of workers being brutalised by the police. However, he felt that even if he were to get brutalised and detained by the police, he expected the facility to allow more social distancing than his room in Mumbai which he shared with eight others. Fortunately for him, the police were cooperative and even helped him get a meal. 

Risks involved in going back to the village

App-based work and workers are generally associated with technologically advanced, urbane ideas. However, there is a need to tether the imagination of these workers to their rural roots. Like Arif, several workers from Bengaluru and Mumbai used the bikes they use to make deliveries to ride back to their villages.Some workers went back on the day of the janta curfew (Sunday, March 22) to celebrate the festival of Ugadi (Wednesday, March 25) with their families, since they are otherwise mandated to work on Sundays. Therefore, they were not prepared for the announcement of a three week nationwide lockdown (Tuesday, March 24). 

Arjun* who is currently in his hometown in Karnataka says, “I have managed with regards to this month, next month onwards I don’t know what I will do. I’ll have to see what happens I have a lot of tension about paying rent and loans but for this month I am okay.” Chethan*,who recently came back from Tamil Nadu with his family, echoes the same fear as he says, “Every last earning will go in the next few days, I don’t know what to do.”

Those who find themselves in their villages without a clear indication of when they can travel back also have to pay the rent for an empty room in the city without the usual income. Since workers are keenly aware that their ‘choice’ of taking an annual break negates the consistent work they do throughout the year, they are concerned about facing punitive action from the company upon return, whenever that may be.

It is common for workers to work long hours (10-18 hours every day) and nearly six days a week in order to receive higher rates per order. But when they take a few weeks or one month off, annually, to travel back to their village and do not log in for two consecutive Sundays, they receive less money per order. Vijay* who has been working  with the same company for two years explains how he earned Rs 1,200-1,700 per day but this was reduced to approximately Rs 800-Rs 1200 once he returned from his village

Sharan* who is currently in his hometown in Andhra Pradesh was convinced that work will resume on April 15 and that he had no problems joining the work then. When asked what he would do if the lockdown were to continue he said, “I have my two wheeler, I cannot just sit at home waiting. We have to work, no question about it. If they extend the lockdown I will take my two wheeler and drive back to Bengaluru. If anyone stops me I will show the soft copy of my pass and tell them about my work. I have to go back to work. I have no choice. I can’t stay here forever.”

Simiran Lalvani is an independent researcher currently working with the BBC Media Action and has previously been engaged in research projects at Microsoft Research India and the Centre for Internet and Society.

Bhavani Seetharaman is an independent researcher studying the role of labour and technology in the country, with a special focus on understanding agency in the digital platform economy. She has previously worked in organisations such as Microsoft Research India and Centre for Budget and Policy Studies, Bangalore. 

* The self administered survey had 104 respondents over the past five days. In addition to this, 15 telephonic interviews with workers were conducted by the authors.