Gig workers, whether in mobility or food delivery, are now considered to be frontline workers in the time of coronavirus. But, at what cost?

COVID-19 Drivers and delivery persons doing vital service but whos protecting themImage Credit: Picxy.com/munna
Delve Labour and Employment Saturday, March 21, 2020 - 11:28

The afternoon heat is beating down on Bengaluru, but Naresh, a delivery executive for Swiggy, is zipping around making lunch deliveries. A college student, Naresh took out a loan to buy a scooter to be a delivery executive. Making deliveries for Swiggy is Naresh’s sole source of income, and also how he pays off the monthly instalment on his loan. 

However, this month, he’s not sure he can. Like Naresh, many gig economy workers, such as those who work for food delivery apps like Swiggy and Zomato, mobility platforms Uber and Ola or hyperlocal delivery apps like Dunzo, are caught between a rock and a hard place — choose to work to pay bills while putting yourself at risk of contracting coronavirus, or stay home and lose all income. 

Gig economy workers engaged in these services don’t have the option of working from home. The government, too, has declared delivery as an essential service that will continue to operate even as other sectors shut down. They also don’t have the entitlements offered to salaried workers or an employer who will take responsibility for them, as they are labelled as independent contractors. These issues are not new but they gain newfound importance in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, something most companies have never dealt with before.

While companies refused to divulge numbers, anecdotal evidence shows that food ordering has slumped, and ride-hailing has nosedived by as much as 80%, union estimates suggest. 

These jobs inherently require significant public interaction, and companies have reached out to ensure the safety of the customer and the product they are selling. For the personnel themselves, companies say that they are providing sanitisers, masks, educating them on good practices through this period, and are offering financial assistance if they are diagnosed with COVID-19 or are quarantined by the government. But is this enough?

In the wake of a pandemic, gig workers continue to perform what is now an essential function — putting themselves at risk for a customer who is bound to their home. It brings to the fore a long-standing question — who takes responsibility for gig workers and the risk they undertake to do so?

Risks

Gig workers came into prominence after the 2008 recession, at a time when jobs were hard to come by. These companies offered people a way to make money with the resources they had on hand. They were independent contractors, not employees of the company, and were marketed as being their own boss — with the freedom to choose how long they wanted to work and how much to make. 

However, regulations have not caught up with the gig economy in the decade since. There have been demonstrations demanding benefits, but nothing has come to fruition so far. Companies have now put in place insurance policies for these workers, which usually only cover hospitalisation. 

Aditi Surie, a researcher on the nature of employment in platform economy companies in India, says that as a lot of India’s productive population works in the informal sector, and social protection measures usually come from the state, rather than through the employer. 

And at a time like this, she says, delivery and mobility workers perform what could be termed as a public service. “How does the government then acknowledge the fact that a private player is doing a public service? That's a real fundamental question that in a pandemic of this nature, these people are doing a very vital service. How do you protect them? Is the state going to step up and say that they will take responsibility for them? People’s lives are at risk. How, then, do you kind of be responsible for that?” she says.  

Gig workers do this at the risk of contracting and being carriers of virus by either delivering to a sick person or taking one to the hospital. Additionally, they lose out on income for the days they have to self-quarantine.

A lot of focus has been put on that the good the consumer is getting is safe, but we don’t look at the safety of the personnel, says Bhavani Seetharaman, an independent researcher studying the role of labour and technology. 

This was a common theme in the advisories put out by both Swiggy and Zomato, where they ensured customers that their food is safe through features like contact-less delivery.

“The only reason that companies are even attempting to do something now is because of the customer's fear of coronavirus. What I also think is problematic is that the case of Zomato partners who want to isolate themselves are getting messages from Zomato to log in for a certain number of hours every week. With platform-based economies, there are no rules regulating how they treat their workers,” Bhavani adds. 

The problem for gig workers is currently two-fold, with either option none the better. The income earned on these apps is based on the number of tasks one completes, and both food delivery and mobility companies have seen a drop in volumes — leading to longer hours to earn money. In addition, incentive structures are different for different workers, and without regulation, platforms can change rates whenever they want to.

Tulsiram, a delivery personnel with Swiggy in Bengaluru, says that he used to make Rs 1,500 to Rs 1,600 for 15-16 hours of work. For the same time period, he says, he makes around Rs 1,000. Longer hours lead to greater exposure to the virus itself, but not adhering to it also takes food off the table at a time when income has already become scarce. 

Similarly, Uber and Ola drivers have seen a drop of 80%, according to Tanveer Pasha, the president of the Ola, Uber Drivers and Owners Association in Bengaluru, as people are not going to work, aren’t stepping out for leisure, and trips to the airport have dropped. This has led to mobility drivers being on the road longer in the hope to get customers, while earning lower income. 

Liability

Gig workers will continue to do these jobs unless these apps are shut down by the Indian government. Given the precariousness of the nature of the job of gig economy workers plus their necessity, there is the question of who the onus of the worker’s safety lies on. 

According to Aditi, it lies on both the state as well as the company equally. “If someone from one of these companies falls sick, I’m not sure what their access to public health would be at this point. Does the state then step in to say, because you've done this public service, we will make sure you get the best medical care for this disease? I'm not looking at large scale change. Can the guy get into a hospital and really have that?” she asks.

On average, for the coronavirus, companies seem to provide driver partners and delivery executives insurance that is already in place, or financial assistance for 14 days if they are infected and/or quarantined. 

Aditi, however, says insurance doesn’t necessarily always work in a cash-based economy. Many issues do not require hospitalisation and require going to local level clinics and time to recover — all of which require cash in hand. None of this, she says, comes from an insurance pay-out. 

Role of the consumer

It is not a stretch to say that working from home for many still remains a privilege and luxury — to have a job that is flexible, and lets you stay home and keep yourself safe is an option unavailable to vast swathes of those part of India’s informal economy. 

Consumers too are faced with a conundrum — demand for these services is crucial for the earnings of the members who work for them, but on the other hand, the demand puts them at greater risk.

A single consumer cannot make a change, but Bhavani says that consumers can demand better protection, not just in terms of hygiene but also in protection for the workers. “The only way you can ensure that workers are safe is if they are quarantined, and the only way they can be quarantined is if people universally stop ordering and they demand that workers should get a certain basic minimum transfer into their account,” she says.

You can choose whether or not to use these services, but if you are choosing not to use them quietly, it may be time to make your voices heard to the company about why you are doing so. 

Possible solutions?

The idea of a minimum basic wage and a guarantee of a job when they return if they choose to leave was a solution suggested by both Aditi and Bhavani as a short term measure that companies could undertake. 

“Say the platform model was to shift to a kind of model where everyone who's working on the platform is assured at least Rs 15,000 a month, given that they spend four or five hours a day on the platform. When you do have a pandemic, they would have some kind of assurance of money coming in,” says Aditi. 

Bhavani, however, says it’s a tough task to estimate a salary or a minimum assurance that the drivers get, given how the systems are made. 

“A certain base amount, or an average amount of what they would earn in a week, needs to be transferred to all of their bank accounts,” Bhavani says.

She also suggests more immediate measures that companies can undertake to slow the spread of the virus. 

“There need to be better mechanisms for the workers with regard to hygiene and sanitation practices, there needs to be minimum wage deposits transferred to all of their bank accounts so that they are incentivised to stay at home. Cloud kitchens should be shut for the foreseeable future, considering how it's so easy to spread the disease. Even if one person in that building gets it, it could spread rapidly,” she says. 

Heavier questions weigh on the minds of gig economy workers. Tanveer Pasha, the founder president of the driver’s union, says that they want free masks and sanitisers to be provided, along with a halt on paying the EMI on their loans. 

“A lot of our vehicles are on loan from banks and financial institutions. We have to pay the EMI, and they won’t leave us a single day. We are requesting the government to talk to financial institutions and give us a waiver of 2-3 months on payment of interest, without additional interest and overdue charges,” he says. 

It is important to note that despite the prevailing conditions, Uber continues to have pool rides (although Uber has disabled it in other parts of the world and Ola removed it on Friday) — something which drivers say should be removed for the time being. 

As Bhavani points out, gig workers have historically not had any labour protection and not given the importance that employees on a company’s roll do.

Internationally, Uber drivers are asking for better protection measures from the coronavirus, but no such thing has happened in India so far. The Union government has attempted to cover gig workers as part of the Code on Social Security Bill, and the Karnataka government has mulled a law for the gig economy, but it may be time to take a closer look at who and why we choose to put at risk.

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