Business

From Health and Harassment to Income Security and Loans, India's Gig Workers Need Support

The very people on whose labour the fortunes of e-commerce has skyrocketed during the lockdown are the least benefitted by it.

Nearly two weeks ago, news broke that a Zomato delivery worker tested positive for COVID-19 in New Delhi.

As many as 72 families in the south Delhi neighbourhood where he made deliveries have been quarantined, along with 17 other people he worked with. With the luxury of social distancing not extended to delivery workers, the incident further fuelled the apprehensions and uncertainties that they already were contending with. This was only a matter of time.

Deemed an “essential service” by most state governments, and thereby exempt from temporary suspension during the lockdown, food, groceries and other essential commodities have continued to be delivered by e-commerce companies and on-demand services including Swiggy, Zomato, BigBasket, Dunzo, Housejoy and Flipkart.

In choosing to continue operations, these companies have then rushed to enforce measures to put customers at ease. Such measures have included no-contact deliveries, card-only payments, and displaying temperature readings of workers.

Uber and Ola Cabs suspended services in most areas, and announced that in places where they are providing essential services, workers have been instructed to wear masks and observe hygiene standards.

Also read: The Personal and Social Risks That India’s Food Delivery Workers Are Taking During COVID-19

Swiggy and Zomato announced they were communicating with workers about safety and hygiene standards. Zomato has more recently announced that the company is making the Aarogya Setu app mandatory for workers to receive orders.

Relief funds have been set up— donations to these funds continue to be solicited from the public and company executives have made grandiose gestures of contributing their salaries to these funds. 

Stark reality

The situation on the ground, however, tells another story. Actions to protect workers, who are taking on significant risks, have been far less forthcoming than those for customers. Workers are also bearing the brunt of arbitrary surveillance measures, like being asked to download the Aarogya Setu app, in addition to scrutiny they are placed under regularly. No such surveillance measures have been placed on customers. The priorities of on-demand service companies are clear: protect the bottom line at the expense of vulnerable workers. 

In the absence of any concerted support from the companies, service workers could have looked to the state for relief. None has been forthcoming. Government action has pegged the targeting of relief works and services to those currently eligible for welfare programs and registered under its various schemes. Most gig workers, if not all, are ineligible as a result of the arbitrary conditions underlying these schemes. 

We spoke to the leaders of four unions — including the Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers (IFAT) and the Ola and Uber Drivers and Owners’ Association (OTU)– who represent gig workers across the country about the risks and vulnerabilities that they are having to contend with.

The precariousness characterising gig work could not be starker. A summary of the discussions can be found here, while the recommendations emerging from these discussions have been shared with government officials and company representatives and can be found in full here

Below are some of the key recommendations that emerged from these discussions. 

Health

Many on-demand service companies have not provided workers with any personal protective equipment (PPE), not even to delivery workers who face heightened risks of exposure to the coronavirus at nearly every step of the delivery process.

Some unions had to take to distributing masks, while many other workers continue to incur repeated costs to safeguard their own health. At a later stage, Swiggy announced that workers would be reimbursed for these purchases, but the process is so tedious that workers have found it untenable.

In addition, health awareness campaigns regarding safety measures and risks were also launched very late into the crisis, and then were not in vernacular languages and could not be comprehended by most workers.

In terms of insurance, most platforms have announced financial assistance for workers who test positive for COVID-19. This is aimed at covering their hospital expenses, as well as providing a daily stipend for a limited period. However, these come short as there are no provisions for OPD consultations or even for the cost of going and getting tested (losing one day’s work and then potentially one more before the results come in).

Delivery worker Devender Singh, who works for Licious, an online meat store, passes a order to a customer, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to slow the spreading of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New Delhi, India, April 6, 2020. Picture taken on April 6, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Additionally, the difficulty and expenses of obtaining a test could place an additional burden on workers — as without proof of a positive test, workers will be unable to access this fund in the first place. This is far from the robust health insurance that must be provisioned to ensure workers’ health and safety. Some platforms have made telemedicine services available for workers and while this is a step in the right direction, it must be backed by more tangible protections like covering part of the costs incurred for treatment.

Unions demand that companies provide adequate PPE to workers free of cost —masks, gloves, hand sanitisers, and soap. If platforms continue to ask workers to log in at significant risks to themselves and their families, provision of safety equipment is the basic minimum requirement that must be met immediately. This should also include a plan to ensure workers’ access to clean and hygienic sanitation facilities, as they may not have access to these on their delivery routes. 

In addition, platforms must provide health insurance cover in addition to accident insurance coverage and hospitalisation cover for COVID-19. This should include OPD consultations.

Income security and social protection

With services suspended or demand really low, gig workers have either lost their income or seen it fall drastically — delivery workers’ daily earnings are as low as Rs 150-Rs 300 for a full day’s work.

Almost a month into the lockdown, there is little clarity as to who is eligible for the funds that companies have raised, and in what manner and or what purposes it will be disbursed.

Ola Cabs has offered interest free loans to drivers for relief in the short term, while some Uber drivers have received a Rs 3,000 grant from the company. If disbursed universally this would ensure availability of some liquidity for workers, although at this stage it remains unclear if all drivers are eligible to receive the grant. 

Workers and unions are afraid that this grant might only be accessible for workers with high ratings, or those who have logged longer hours especially through the course of the lockdown period. This would effectively penalise workers for going to their homes for the lockdown, or being otherwise unable to work. Unions have estimated that not more than 20 percent of workers continue to remain active through the lockdown period.

Moreover, research has shown that workers are not necessarily aware of the protections made available to them as a result of the legalese that companies couch these terms in.

To ensure income security, platforms must make direct cash transfers to all workers who have logged in for at least two weeks between January and April 2020. This should be fixed according to minimum wage standards for skilled work in each state or at Rs 1,000 per day of the lockdown, and will have to be enforced with retrospective effect.

The former should be treated as an entitlement of workers while a portion of the latter can be asked to be repaid by the workers over the course of the next year. The fiscal responsibility for the cash transfers can be shared with governments. Governments can request the data held by these companies for the transfers.

Rent and loans

Some states have announced moratoriums on house rent but again there is no explicit mention of gig workers being included in this — and in states where such a move hasn’t been announced, gig workers must continue to pay house rent without having a source of income to rely on. 

On the issue of loan repayments, the RBI allowed lending institutions to grant a three-month moratorium on retail loan repayments as a part of its COVID-19 regulatory package. On the one hand, availing of the moratorium will significantly increase the loan tenure and total amount to be repaid. On the other, several gig workers have reported that the enforcement of the moratorium itself has been piecemeal outside of public sector institutions.

Representative image of a worker handling an Amazon package in the US. Photo: Reuters

Here again they have to make a Faustian bargain. The government should enforce the RBI’s directive strictly so gig workers get some relief. 

Further, several companies themselves have leased vehicles to workers, for which payment of EMI must be ceased through the months of March to May to allow workers some relief without requiring the return of vehicles. Currently, EMIs have only been stalled on the condition of returning vehicles.   

Harassment

Workers have been subject to harassment and discrimination by the police and customers alike, making it difficult to continue work. Despite the categorisation of delivery as an essential service, companies are finding it difficult to get easy access to movement passes in bulk, which implies that workers are penalised by being unable to work even if they are available. Companies have come out to allege harassment despite clear directions to allow movement of delivery workers, which points to gaps in enforcement. 

Further, frequent barricading has implied that workers are not able to complete orders without diversions despite having passes for movement. Meanwhile, companies continue to mandate door-to-door delivery so as to ensure that customers are not inconvenienced at all. In some cases, this has implied that workers have to travel on foot in barricaded areas to deliver orders. 

We recommend that companies urgently set up a helpline for workers to address such issues that may arise in delivery. We also recommend that companies proactively work with the government to map hotspots and containment zones and cease delivery in such areas. Thus far, there is no indication of any such measures by companies. 

Post-lockdown revival

The lockdown brings to the fore just how vulnerable gig workers are.

This is a direct consequence of the gig work arrangements structured as disguised employment. Deeming workers as independent contractors and self-identifying as technology providers, on-demand service companies have washed their hands of the responsibility of providing labour protections and social security measures despite exerting extensive control over the conditions of work (such as wages, incentives) and the manner of its dispensing (such as the standard of work, hours of work).

Governments, too, have done little to recognise gig workers although they have been added as a category of workers in the draft Social Security code. Relief measures announced by the government exclude them. However, the government needs to intervene urgently in the current situation.

Platforms are likely to recover once the lockdown is lifted —home delivery services like BigBasket and Grofers have already seen their businesses skyrocket.

However, there is an urgent need to rebuild on-demand work as one that isn’t merely in the service of capital. A first step to that would be to reduce commissions to 5% for at least 6 months so that workers can recover financially. The unencumbered spending to capture market share at the expense of workers needs to be curbed. Enforcing these recommendations will require a coordinated effort between governments and on-demand service companies. As consumers, it is also our responsibility to question companies that do not take on the moral responsibilities of extending adequate worker protections.

With unemployment in the country skyrocketing, it may be the case that on-demand work opens up avenues to securing work. It then becomes imperative to ensure any future of work is one that is inclusive and accounts for the systemic changes that are now impossible to ignore.

While social distancing is a choice truly available to a privileged few, we need to ensure that social protection isn’t. 

Zothan Mawii is a Research Fellow at Tandem Research. Aayush Rathi and Ambika Tandon are researchers at the Centre for
Internet and Society, India.