Hyperlocal players are pushing the limits of fast-paced delivery options, but it takes a toll on overworked, overstressed workers.

A Dunzo delivery executive trying to cross between dividers next to a 'take diversion' boardPicxy/Abhishek N Chinnappa
Atom Labour Wednesday, August 25, 2021 - 19:25

Grofers wants to get you groceries 10 minutes after you order them, Dunzo between 19 and 29 minutes, and Swiggy between 15 and 30 minutes. The competition in the Indian grocery market isn’t new. It began well before the pandemic, and many players dropped out and few were left standing. But when 2020 hit, the sector received a big fillip, and this hyperlocal space saw the entry of players with deep pockets as well. Now, many of India’s well-funded internet startups are vying for a piece of the grocery pie, and they’re doing it with hyperlocal delivery. 

Timed express deliveries started with Domino’s Pizza promising to deliver in 30 minutes or less, and these assurances have been started and scrapped multiple times over the years. A need for such express delivery arises as there are instances where while cooking, people realise they don’t have ingredients or are in a situation where they can’t quickly run to a store, says Himanshu Bajaj, a partner with consulting firm Kearney in Consumer and Retail practice. Additionally, consumers are now willing to pay for such quick deliveries, he says.

The gig economy, however, is precarious. In the current economic climate, workers are not in a position to reject these jobs, and take whatever is available.

As far as platform companies are concerned, they are vying to capture a market and find new frontiers, says Noopur Raval, a researcher at the AI Now Institute at New York University and gig economy researcher. “How do these platform companies grow? What more can they offer? In that race to grow — to perhaps break even or raise more funding — they are clearly coming up with these “innovative ideas” and squeeze the workers to fulfil them,” she says.

Hyperlocal express delivery comes at a time when delivery executives have taken to Twitter to point out exploitative practices of gig economy platforms — that even though they are the reason this system works, they are exhausted, work more and with rising costs, are left with less than ever. Delivery workers are pushed to stay logged in with promises of incentives, as well as more insidious measures. According to Entrackr, Zomato shows delivery executives how they rank against others in a particular week.

“The conversation [about new verticals] pretty much has nothing to do and has no input from the people who will have to execute those promises, which are people in the grocery chain and the delivery workers who have to then execute this promise,” Noopur says.

Growth at the worker’s expense

After years of pilots and companies entering and exiting the market, grocery delivery is growing and companies are more invested, says Himanshu from Kearney. “Grocery delivery is getting to a size and scale where it could become more sustainable, and growth is likely to continue in the coming years. I do expect that this will continue to grow at a faster pace,” he says. Elements that affect the business, he says, include how long a customer is willing to wait, as well as factors such as pricing, discount, quality and assortment.

According to a report by management consulting company RedSeer, kiranas still dominate the overall grocery market, while online grocery is expected to penetrate 3% of the overall grocery opportunity by 2025. It has a market size of $24 billion, the report says, especially with more households transacting online and the pandemic leading to a shift in consumer mindset.  

But the many promises of faster deliveries mean that delivery platforms will expand fleets and add more jobs, but the same practices continue.

There is a market for convenience which is showing signs of growth, and platform companies are capitalising on this. However, the costs at which platforms are assuring conveniences need to be looked at, says Kaveri Medappa, a researcher on the gig economy at the University of Sussex. Consumers, too, need to reflect if they need such services and accept conditions that are bringing a service, perhaps, at the cost of the life of another human being. 

Many delivery executives say they wish to save up to start something else, or that they intend to do this till something else comes by. Platforms switch around models to keep workers on their toes, and give them information on a need-to-know basis, says Noopur. 

While there have been questions about why workers can’t move to other jobs if these are exploitative in nature, Noopur says that despite being physically taxing on the body and mind, it is a sort of digitally mediated work and may appeal more than jobs in manufacturing or construction. “I think it is a big trade-off as to why people might also be sticking with this,” she says. 

There may be a labour force available to do these tasks, Kaveri says there must be regulations that will now allow businesses or platforms to have limits on deliveries, as well as allow consumers to reject such propositions. 

“If they have been on the road for eight to 10 hours doing all this, I really don't think it leaves the human capacity to be able to upskill themselves and get out of this system,” she adds.

The man behind the Twitter handle @DeliveryBhoy tells TNM that riders are constantly anxious. 

“Imagine spending a whole 12 hours doing nothing but being in a hurry. It messes you up mentally. By the time you get back you’re tired, and not just physically. It increases your chances of doing something stupid, like not being able to focus on the road, when your phone is constantly buzzing and you are constantly looking at Google Maps,” he said.  

“You are constantly tired, and have to look at your phone and follow the map and it’s possible that you miss a signal,” he adds. 

The ignored fallout 

The delivery executives of Swiggy and Dunzo said they did not know about the time limits promised by the platforms for grocery delivery. What they only knew was that incentives only applied if they delivered a specific number of orders in a fixed time. In the race to deliver faster in order to get more orders, riders often do get into accidents. 

DeliveryBhoy says riders must be informed about how much time they have to deliver an order, as in the current system they are always in a hurry even if an order may have been picked up ahead of time. 

Unlike food delivery, platform companies adopt different models for grocery delivery. Dunzo promises to deliver groceries between 19 minutes and 29 minutes through Dunzo Daily, where it has a chain of dark stores called Xpress Mart. Similarly, Swiggy does this through its dark stores for Instamart in various locations. Dark stores are retail stores exclusively for companies, and serve as the local distribution center for online shopping, which cannot be accessed by customers. Sometimes, players tie up with a local store nearby, or deliver from a central location.

Dunzo Daily delivery executives whom TNM spoke to say that Dunzo Daily delivery executives are separated from those who carry out other functions of the hyperlocal platform, with them being restricted to a 5 km radius for grocery deliveries. Dunzo Daily delivery executives are paid a flat fee of Rs 22 for each delivery, and have incentives depending on the number of orders completed in a fixed number of hours. Incentives, Dunzo executives said, ranged from Rs 475 to Rs 1,000 (they get the earnings or the fixed incentive amount, whichever is greater), for a fixed number of orders delivered. 

Swiggy executives, on the other hand, said that there are no such demarcations for food and grocery deliveries, like Dunzo Daily, and that they get paid on the same basis.

One delivery executive said he was scrambling to reach the set number of orders last week because of an offer for an increased payout that the platform was running. The executive, who is not being named, adds that he has a meagre amount left in a month after paying for heightened fuel and other maintenance costs. 

Workers of both platforms say they pay anywhere between Rs 250 and Rs 350 a day for fuel alone, due to which they aim to get the incentive or increased payout each week. In addition, the delivery executive has to pay for his company t-shirts and other branded merchandise from his own pocket. 

Rahul*, who has been riding for Swiggy in Bengaluru, says he has about Rs 8,000-Rs 10,000 for all expenses in a month after paying for fuel. “I came here [Bengaluru] from West Bengal in search of a job, and this is the only thing I have been able to do. I want to save up to start something of my own, but we have very little left after paying for petrol,” he says. 

Read: Food delivery workers tell their story on Twitter, say it's a losing game

Kaveri says that when there are such conditions, the workers are just going to push themselves to deliver as many orders as possible. “You will see many jumping signals, more rash driving, more accidents, and more deaths,” she says.

DeliveryBhoy points to company policies, where riders are sometimes told to present a bill to be reimbursed in the case of an accident. Even right after the accident occurs, he says that a lot of the onus to coordinate is on the rider.

“Platforms know our location,” he says, adding that people handling emergency response must be trained by actual experts, must calm the rider down and help them through it, as well as inform team leaders.

With platforms raising customer expectation and then trying to deliver it, Noopur says the other realities don’t change — the traffic, the logistics and supply chain issues, which are already a part of the grocery supply business. “It's not the delivery executive’s fault if that promise isn't fulfilled, because all these other issues will continue to persist,” she says, adding that it will only lead to increased customer entitlement.

Read: The ‘customer is king’ motto has invisibilised the food delivery rider

Kaveri termed the promises as “unattainable and unachievable,” stating that all that customers see is an icon moving on the screen, ignoring other hurdles.

According to Kaveri, this is bound to affect the rating mechanics that platforms use to show, as customers will know the consequences of bad ratings on the income-earning capacities of the delivery executives.

Kaveri adds that the business has no idea about the number of traffic signals and jams, potential tyre punctures and a procession, among other reasons. “These assurances to customers are completely detached from the actual realities of life — of riding on the streets. That's why it's even more ridiculous. How can you guarantee somebody a 30-minute delivery when there are so many factors beyond one's control and determine how fast or how slow you can ride?” she asks.

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