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

The ‘customer is king’ motto has resulted in the invisibilisation of an entire community of people who form the backbone of the food delivery enterprise: delivery riders.
Two Swiggy delivery executives talk to each other while a Zomato delivery rider collects a food parcel
Two Swiggy delivery executives talk to each other while a Zomato delivery rider collects a food parcel
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Ordering food as a Swiggy or Zomato customer is a minimum-click process. Open the app, eye the offers that jump out, and decide on a meal that suitably satisfies hunger. Add it to a cart, select any of multiple coupon codes to chew away at the total price. Tap, click — and the food will be here in 25 minutes from a restaurant 7 kilometers away. 

Using these platforms is designed to be a fairly easy, maybe even a mindless, process — and deliberately so. The customer is carefully protected from a performance happening in the wings: of a delivery rider summoned to the “red zone” before his first mile kicks in, depriving him of charges owed for a first mile; a rider getting told off by restaurants for standing too near the establishment; a rider getting stuck in traffic that Google Maps didn’t anticipate; a rider feeling his phone buzz incessantly, reminding him that the order was dangerously close to being late; a rider who has to contend with security guards about parking and take a separate lift or hurry up the stairs of a gated community, adjust his mask, and hand over the order to an unmasked customer. After this song and dance, the order is delivered. 

The rider is still not off the hook: if he’s not at the mercy of an AI bot, he’s now relying on a customer’s good rating, which will make or break the rider’s performance and get him closer to an incentive. But more often than not, the customer simply forgets unless they’re nudged gently by the app — and who’s going to do all that when they’re busy digging into a biryani or seasoning a pizza? The customer knows little to none of the actual performance that led up to the meal in front of them.

On one side of the door, the rider leaves, his rating perhaps forgotten, his incentive now farther away, his next meal way off. On the other side, the customer rips open their package: it’s time for dinner. 

Customer is king 

In August 2014, when Sriharsha Majety and Nandan Reddy, quoted as “two bright minds full of ambition” central to the story of Swiggy, launched their product, this is what they said about the switch from a courier service aggregator to a food delivery platform: “From the concept of serving ice-cream, the idea switched to delivering happiness in the form of food.”

In a July 2021 interview, Majety in an interview with MoneyControl was asked about Swiggy’s vision going forward, to which he said, “Our mission is to deliver unparalleled convenience to urban consumers.” 

In the last decade or so of market-cornering by platforms like Swiggy and Zomato, food delivery (and internet-centric commerce at large) evolved and mutated from a straightforward transaction to something more amorphous. What used to be an exchange of goods and services (i.e. food for money) now became dressed up as an emotion: platforms deliver happiness, convenience, satisfaction. The customer is at the heart of everything they do. No expense is spared in centering the customer and making the operation look as effortless and frictionless as possible.

And now, the “customer is king” motto stretched to its limits — lightning-fast deliveries; outrageous discounts; premium perks, pandering to them on social media— has resulted in the invisibilisation of an entire community of people who form the backbone of the enterprise: delivery riders. 

‘We’re essential workers, not subhuman characters’

One need only look at the Twitter timelines of @DeliveryBhoy and @SwiggyDEHyd over the past few weeks to get a sense of the invisibilisation: their demands for increased transparency, clarity on arbitrary penalties, and complaints about deflated payouts have barely been addressed or ignored by the otherwise tweet-addicted accounts of Swiggy Cares and Zomato Care. In a separate Twitter thread about Zomato’s latest campaign, Zomato Pro Plus, founder Deepinder Goyal can be seen replying to each customer’s tweet and answering their questions personally.

“Even the worst, the most dishonest politician in the country will talk to people in the country,” Delivery Bhoy says. “He replies to everyone in his tweets, but never to us.”

The man behind the Delivery Bhoy account, who is choosing to remain anonymous to protect his job as well his efforts to help his colleagues, began riding with Swiggy and Zomato after his own founder experience with a start-up didn’t go the way he hoped. In just the first two weeks, he says he began noticing dodgy inconsistencies in the app -- he knew user flows, UX/UI design and coding, and knew something was off about arbitrary caps on orders, the inconsistency between delivery times and speeding rules, and the rider getting penalised if the customer cancelled the order or the restaurant packed the food improperly.

He knew something was off about their claims of valuing their ‘Hunger Saviors’ and delivery partners when he got struck by a drunk rider on the job with Zomato and never ended up getting compensated for the damages to his bike or the pay promised to him for the days he couldn’t ride.

He describes the harried hours of full-time and part-time riders: they’d eat one sandwich over 12 hours during the worst days of the pandemic in 2020 in a stairwell during a delivery because 15 or 30 minutes was simply not enough. This is still the case for a few riders -- DEs in Chennai confirmed that they get 30 minutes offline during a full-time shift, which can stretch anywhere between seven and 15 or 16 hours. 

If by chance a restaurant offers them a meal and they eat it in public, there’s every chance it gets filmed and shared as evidence that delivery boys routinely pilfer packages and eat customers’ meals. (Delivery Bhoy: “There’s no way you can open and eat someone’s food and not deliver it because they’ll fine your ass.”) 

“This is the life of the delivery guy,” he says. “You really understand the value of being safe in a house or office when you do a job like this."

“We were out there in the sun. You have a red back the whole day and you can’t stop delivering. You go to buildings and you get abused by the security, and then the customer doesn’t want to come down, so he starts threatening me and the watchman.” 

The branding of delivery partners and delivery executives on marketing assets — calling them ‘Hunger Saviours’, essential workers, even the equalising term of “partner” — and the lived reality of delivery riders can make for a dizzying study in contrasts. Delivery riders in Chennai —a city that saw a strike in 2019 against a revised payment structure that cut wages — say they don’t really know if a customer tips in-app. The platforms say that the tips are transferred to the delivery agents, however many agents say there is a need for transparency. They don’t really know what happens inside the app, how algorithms allot orders, and meeting incentives can be a Sisyphean task when orders dry up. A 10% of weekly incentive provided for fuel costs  — Swiggy’s peace offering — made one delivery rider chuckle hard in dejection: 10% of Rs. 1200 barely got him a liter of fuel. Again, the customer—the person for whom all this is orchestrated—knows none of this.

To add on, riders describe how they’ve been forced to go all the way to the open doors of customers who had COVID-19; customers who grab the packages and slam the door without so much as a thanks; and even one customer who, not having change, made the delivery rider go to a tea-shop nearby, get change, and come back.

There’s no real grievance mechanism to address these kinds of issues — even if a delivery executive can navigate the labyrinthian mess of contact forms and different customer care personnel delaying help, how would one even begin to complain of an entitled customer who might have affected the delivery boy’s hours or health? Customer is king.

“We’re made to watch videos every now and then about safety, about how to treat a customer, about how to go up — why doesn’t the customer ever have to take a selfie of themselves wearing a mask while they take an order?” Delivery Bhoy says. “We are essential workers providing a service. We’re not servants, we’re not subhuman characters. Why are our lives dispensable?”

One delivery executive in Chennai, who previously worked in customer service, says every job comes with irate customers and overbearing bosses — but when wages were higher, incentives better, and payouts more reliable, dealing with arrogant customers was at least worth it. 

“What’s got us where we are now, it’s because the customer is spoiled in a way — delivery time is less, the choices have increased, the prices of things have come down with discounts and things,” Delivery Bhoy says. “Ten years ago, you wouldn't have thought of having McDonald’s every day.”

The flip side of taking pride in providing choice and convenience is that this doesn’t occur in a vacuum: in India, this takes place in a landscape already defined by existing class and social divides, where a large portion of the middle class, already contemptuous of blue-collar workers,  is now more empowered and enabled by choice, convenience and the deliberate perception that they’re top of mind for companies like Zomato and Swiggy — often either indifferent to or oblivious of the cost.

Masterful perception of being progressive brands 

In short, what the rider sees and experiences of these platforms is unpredictability, intransparency, and arbitrary and gamified targets. What the customer sees and experiences is the effort to mask any evidence of that: it could be through well-timed discounts or offers or memberships. It could be the personal touch of a CEO’s reply to a tweet or a Customer Care employee joking around with customers in a thread. It could be Swiggy or Zomato’s handle parroting a viral Instagram or Twitter template of the day to engage customers and cement the masterful perception of these companies as cool, progressive brands that would never dream of neglecting their Hunger Saviours, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

“If you have to learn from somebody about creating discourse and being in charge of narratives, you have to learn from these companies,” Kaveri Medappa, a research scholar at the University of Sussex studying the lives of gig workers, says. “They are so good at using words and setting a rhetoric of themselves being very good employers. It’s obvious that this customer obsession and love for customers comes simply because they’re anti workers. If they had any respect or care for workers, they cannot perform so well with customers.” 

Medappa has studied the effects of gig-based apps on workers, documenting the effects of long hours, unaccountable algorithms, and existing labor conditions on workers.  Many of the workers she spoke to were high school or college level graduates who took on these gigs as temp jobs because of lack of opportunities elsewhere, believing it would empower them to be in charge of their day and their work, only to discover the stringent conditions strapped on to incentives, the cap on cancellations, and the power of AI and customers to dent their earnings.

“Who gets to leave this job is also a good question,” she says. “Workers with some form of social capital with some contacts can get out of these jobs. But for a lot of them, especially migrants from other cities, who have not built a social network in the city, it's extremely hard to get out of these jobs.”

This reality rankles more when “armchair experts”, as Delivery Bhoy calls them, bloviate about the economy and crib that, actually, delivery guys get paid just fine, as Medappa sees on her tweets.

“You have these armchair experts sitting around saying ‘yeah, well, this is capitalism, they should pay you well, you shouldn’t have to rely on tips;’ unfortunately this is the real world,” Delivery Bhoy says. “Until the payouts increase, pull your wallet out and pay the guy. No one is telling you not to order. But until these companies improve, the rider needs you to order and tip.” 

If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, did it even fall?

The average Indian customer can be easily kept in the dark as long as their eyes are glued to their smartphone, Delivery Bhoy says. If they — thanks to platforms simultaneously falling at their feet and artfully hiding what they don’t want discussed, be it through shutting up riders by blocking their IDs or through social campaigns —don’t know the real cost of their food, they’ll find it hard to muster empathy or sympathy. But now that he and his colleagues are making it public, he’s hoping that Zomato and Swiggy are cornered into answering his queries and many more customers will snap out of it now.

“We need more political will in calling out these platforms to hold them liable to ensure a decent wage and a consistent income,” Medappa adds.

Though the ultimate onus of changing reality is on platforms themselves, Delivery Bhoy believes Zomato and Swiggy have enough of the market cornered that they can afford to take a gamble and push for better customer treatment of workers, as well as aggressively improve conditions for the workers and be held accountable themselves — and that they shouldn’t run away from challenges like this. 

“You don’t even have to do much -- you just have to pay me well and ensure people treat us well.”

But until then — as long as service is seen as servility — the only gamble is how much more the customer is willing to stomach.

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