The delivery executives behind the anonymous Twitter handle tell TNM that they deliver more food, travel more but earn less than ever before.

Swiggy delivery executives waiting for the orderFILE PHOTO/PTI
Delve Gig economy Wednesday, August 04, 2021 - 13:47

Throughout the pandemic, even as restaurants were shuttered to diners and grocery stores closed early, food delivery executives have remained a constant, traversing cities at all hours of the day to bring meals to your doorstep. Yet, during this time, many of these executives have stood in protest against practices of food aggregators like Swiggy and Zomato, which, among others, they say have led to a steep drop in earnings. Now, some of these delivery workers are taking their fight to social media to demand their fair share.

Twenty-four-year-old Ravi*, who goes by the Twitter handle @SwiggyDEHyd, is among a handful of delivery executives who are bringing attention to the decrease in wages by food aggregators. He posted screenshots of his earnings for one day on Twitter posing a question, "You want us to survive with this payout?" The tweet went viral inviting angry reactions from social media users, many of whom demanded the food aggregator compensate the executives properly.

Ravi tells TNM that he chose to be anonymous because he fears losing this source of income as well. “I don't want to lose my job as I am not financially stable,” he says. Ravi, who began to work as a food delivery executive for the food aggregator in 2019, used to earn between Rs 20,000 to Rs 26,000 per month, travelling an average of 100 kilometres per day and spending nine hours on the job, he alleged. However, since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, Ravi says he has witnessed a huge slump in his earnings. Ravi says he barely earns Rs 15,000 to Rs 17,000 a month now. He also finds himself making more food deliveries, working more hours and riding longer distances.

“I now work 11 hours every day and ride over 150 kilometres on average per day,” says Ravi, who someday hopes to become an entrepreneur and start his own shawarma or thickshake store.

Ravi wishes to save up for his business, but says he struggles to do so due to what he currently makes. “I have to bear petrol expenses as well as vehicle maintenance charges every month. After this, I’m barely left with Rs 8,000 for home expenses. It’s not enough and I am facing financial difficulties," he alleges.

Swiggy has denied the post on daily earnings, saying that payouts that are currently available on social media do not show the full picture. It added that things vary from city to city, and that the screenshot of earnings of a delivery worker from Hyderabad does not include other major components such as incentives.

In response to the tweets by the two delivery executives that went viral, the Swiggy Twitter handle wrote, saying, the payouts shared by the delivery executives on Twitter were selective and do not include other major components such as incentives. “While a particular delivery's payout varies depending on distance, delivery time and other factors. Our average delivery partner payout in Hyderabad was Rs 65 per order last month, with the highest performing partners making Rs 100 per order. Apart from this, all tips paid by consumers go directly to the delivery partner in full.”said a Swiggy spokesperson. 

Zomato, too, said that average earnings per order differs across regions within a city as well as hours they are active on the app. “This depends on factors such as the nature of the city with regards to overall volume, cost of living, city structure (size of the city, average distances, time taken per order etc.) and competition pressures,” it said.

Gig economy workers are not employees of the company that they sign up with, and are paid per task — rather than a fixed salary with benefits, and are labelled as independent contractors . In the case of companies such as Swiggy and Zomato, they will be paid per delivery, are required to have their own bike and bear their own petrol expenses and vehicle maintenance charges.

Swiggy says that a delivery executive’s earnings has three main components — per order pay based on factors like distance and time taken to deliver the specific order and a base pay component to ensure a minimum earning guarantee; surge pay for orders during high demand, late in the night, during rains, etc.; and incentive pay, which Swiggy said is paid daily and is based on order completion and logging in regularly.   

“Delivery partners are aptly compensated for the distance travelled and delivery time among many other factors and most delivery partners in Hyderabad made over Rs 65 per order last month, with the highest performing partners making Rs 100 per order… Additionally, 100% of the tips from customers are passed onto delivery partners,” says Swiggy in its statement.

Ravi says he earns Rs 6/km for making food deliveries, which he says is far lower than the Rs 35/km he started out with, “The app now assigns the order only within 2 kilometres to 5 kilometres so that they don't have to pay me more,” he alleges. In addition to this, he says he gets no new orders till he returns to the restaurant. Aggregator apps do not pay for the fuel cost for the return journey of their delivery partners.

Swiggy delivery executives are tagged to a zone — a smaller geographical area — from where they primarily receive orders, and a return bonus is paid if they have to travel outside that radius. “If we travel 10 kilometres or 12 kilometres, Swiggy used to pay for the long distances travelled with a return bonus. But they extended the zones without our consent, so now they don’t have to pay us to return bonuses. They also stop assigning new orders when we are about to reach our targets in the app,” he alleges.

“After travelling more than 70 kilometres to 80 kilometres our order earnings would be Rs 375. Then Swiggy pays Rs 150 as a daily incentive. This means for Rs 375 we earn from food deliveries they pay us Rs 150, a total of Rs 525 amounting to Rs 15,750 a month,“ Ravi adds. 

Swiggy also has another daily incentive slab offering delivery executives Rs 250 as an incentive for Rs 750 worth of order earnings, a total of Rs 1,000 a day, “But this one is harder to achieve. They removed the weekly and monthly incentives last year,” he adds.

Swiggy says it offers incentives in three types — weekday, weekend and monthly — to their driver-partners. These incentives are calculated based on work hours, earnings from each delivery and the number of orders they reject. More than one reject is not allowed to get a daily incentive.

In the case of Zomato, it said that apart from a basic fixed payout, variables include wait time and distance.

For this drop in earnings, Swiggy says earnings of driver partners dropped due to the lockdown last year, but has since picked up. “On average nationally, partners who have spent 180+ hours have earned Rs 17,500 in July 2021, in our major cities (including Hyderabad) they have earned around Rs 20,000. As orders have increased, so have the earnings of our delivery partners,” Swiggy states.

Zomato, too, said that over the last one year, the average amount per order for delivery partners has increased by roughly 20%. “This is based on additional variable components we have incorporated and continue to add,” it said.

Injuries on the job

In February, a Swiggy delivery executive and his friend were killed in a road accident in Bengaluru. Goutam, the food delivery executive was just 21 years old but was run over by a speeding SUV. In January 2020 a 37-year-old Swiggy executive identified as Sathosh died after being hit by a speeding public transport bus in Hyderabad. Deaths due to bike accidents have also been reported among delivery partners of Zomato. In December 2020, a 20-year-old Satish Parasnath Gupta, a delivery partner with Zomato was killed by a speeding Mercedes car. There are also smaller accidents that result in major to minor injuries.

On July 27, Swiggy said it had rolled out a 24x7 hotline service for their delivery partners facing emergencies while on duty. The Emergency Support Service (ESS) includes a hotline number, emergency cards and a direct link to the local police and an ambulance service via an SOS button on the Delivery Partner app.

But food delivery aggregators are also incentivising their delivery executives for quicker food deliveries, the executives say. “The app does not say we have to drive fast. They don't say it directly but we have observed that more orders are assigned to the ones who deliver it faster,” says Ravi. More orders are also assigned to those with higher ratings, he adds.

In an emailed response to TNM, a Zomato company spokesperson said there is no communication from their end about an order’s urgency or for them to deliver faster, but added that it nudges the delivery partner on the app if they are in one place in the middle of an order. “This is to help us identify emergency support in case of vehicle break-downs, unprecedented traffic/weather led delays among others. Likewise to discourage a partner from speeding, we use a similar nudge to request them to slow down,” it said. It added that ETA on the app is updated based on real-time delays, and that riders are not given a target time for delivery.

However, it echoed what Ravi said. “That said, In order to do more deliveries and earn more in a day, a delivery partner may push for more orders,” the spokesperson said. 

While the question of tips was raised online as well, the SwiggyDEHyd handle said that the delivery executive does not know if a certain customer has tipped them, and how much they have. 

Exploitative in nature

Kaveri Medappa, a researcher from the University Of Sussex, was part of year-long research in Bengaluru. The research at Hyderabad and Kanpur were carried out by Rajorshi Ray and Mohammad Sajjad Hussain. The researchers interacted with close to 200 male food delivery executives who were dependant on the platform for a living. The research found app-based aggregator services employing delivery executives to be exploitative in nature and have an upper hand over these workers.

The working conditions of these workers have been progressively worsening since 2019, says Kaveri. “There is a lack of institutional mechanisms to counter such work conditions,” she adds.

As part of her research, Kaveri found that the payment rates for delivery executives are extremely hard to track because as a strategy, these platforms have different rates for different kinds of workers. “They fragment workers so they don’t have any common ground to unite under. It’s a classic strategy used to break unionising.”

In the case of Swiggy in Bengaluru, the researcher observed that there were different rates for part-time, temporary and full-time.

This is one way of creating a difference between them. The other way is by differential payment rates for different localities within a city. “So, a delivery executive in Indiranagar earns under a different rate as compared to the executive at a Vidyaranyapura or Sahakara Nagar. Swiggy has now gone for flat rates within cities, offering Rs 5 to Rs 6 per kilometre. But then the rates again change depending on cities so it gets hard to track the rates as there is no uniformity,” she adds. 

In 2017, delivery executives were earning Rs 50 per order. Today, these base rates are about Rs 20 rupees per order, says Kaveri. Incentives have also fallen dramatically since then.

“The proof of the inhumanity lies in the fact that when in March 2020, as the pandemic began and food deliveries saw a fall, Zomato ruthlessly curtailed incentives. They didn't do this uniformly so as to avoid a protest. In September 2019, when they cut incentives uniformly, the Zomato delivery executives protested across many cities. The rate cut in March 2020 kept the delivery executives guessing, while some saw new rate cards some still had the old rate cards. The delivery executives were left wondering if they did something wrong,” she adds.

Code on Social Security

On September 23, 2020, the Lok Sabha passed the Code on Social Security, the first time an attempt was made to cover gig workers under the law and provide for social security. The Union government has yet to notify the bill and has not issued any directions to the states. The draft rules for the Code includes benefits such as a disability cover, accident insurance, health and maternity benefits, and companies’ to contribute to a social security fund.

Read: Gig workers to get health and maternity benefits under draft rules for Social Security

Read: App-based gig workers write to Labour Ministry, express concerns on Social Security Code

As labour falls under the Concurrent List, both states and the Union government can make laws. State governments can formulate and notify welfare schemes relating to provident funds, employment injury benefits, housing, educational schemes for children, skill upgrade for workers, funeral and old age home assistance. The funding for these schemes can be by the Union government or partially by the state government. In addition, it can be through funding from the workers or through Corporate Social Responsibility  (CSR) obligations of companies.

Kaveri, on the other hand, says the Bill was rushed and does not have an accurate definition for gig or platform workers. “The definitions for gig workers and platform workers in the Code are shoddy as there are many overlaps,” says the researcher, who adds that it was brought at the behest of tech companies and was a knee-jerk reaction to protests against gig economy companies by workers all over the world.

Kaveri adds that in a country like India, with a labour surplus and unemployment crisis, the tech companies are aware they can keep pushing wages down and there still will be enough vulnerable workers to take on these jobs.

With inputs from Haripriya Suresh

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