Consequences of COVID19 on food delivery workers in south India
Drawing on self-ethnographic research as a food delivery worker in south India, Shyam Krishna (Royal Holloway University of London) explores the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis on gig workers in a Global South context. His insights highlight the heightened risk borne by food delivery workers, the continuation of algorithmic control in spite of the emergency, and the protection gap resulting from a problematic nexus between the state and platforms.
As the COVID19 crisis unfolds in India, it is clear the country’s largely informal workforce is facing the brunt of the impact. The workers in the growing Indian gig-economy, particularly the food-delivery workers are heavily affected. With severely lowered income they also face the danger of possible exposure to infection during their daily work. In the early part of this year as the impact of COVID19 was barely surfacing globally, I was working as a food delivery worker in south India conducting a self-ethnographic research project. Based on both my experience working in food delivery and a continuing engagement with those workers who are currently active, I explore here the impact on the gig-workers and some of the consequences of the crisis.
Even in normal times food delivery workers assume enormous risk on behalf of both the restaurants and the customers due to a near constant exposure to risks such as dangerous road traffic and harsh weather conditions. These risks have been compounded by the current crisis where some measures taken to protect the general public affect the workers adversely. Under the isolation efforts safety is paramount with ‘contactless’ deliveries becoming the norm within digital platforms. But this means that the workers themselves continue to take ownership of risk during this crisis and are seen to be a potential solution for delivering help to those affected. In these extraordinary times the government has also encouraged the ‘citizen’ use of food delivery platforms. Both as a rhetoric and a policy this is a problematic nexus between the state and digital platforms without due support to workers. The unfortunate counter intuitive impact of governmental controls such as lowering the number of operating hours for restaurants and shops is that without due protection, it forces the food delivery workers to queue up in the short time the busy locations operate. This clearly heightens the workers risk of social contact and infections even while customers avoid the risk. One of the workers that I interviewed over phone sums this up by saying that this crisis highlights to him clearly the absence of actual care and accountability towards the workers that was expected of digital platforms and the state. They report that even efforts taken to provide personal protective equipment to workers are inadequate. Many they report continue to purchase their own masks and gloves. Such efforts towards worker safety have also not been made mandatory or provisioned by the state, andsimilar stories are emerging from cities across India.
Food delivery workers also report that their income has greatly reduced given the 60% reduction in volume of orders has been reported on food delivery platforms. On top of unfair work conditions that have been reported in normal times, the workers report that the platforms continue algorithmic control such as imposed daily targets with lowered rewards, and this forces the fewer active workers also on longer delivery trips. These trips may now be of more than 10 kms, making it twice the distance during normal times. But now, riding across the city on a scooter also means navigating road blockades and encountering police – many of these interactions can be very risky. Further in responding the current crisis the digital platforms have taken to introducing or ramping up delivery of medicines and groceries using the same set of workers, encouraged by the government. These newer services are both untested and take a lot more efforts on behalf of the worker. But they continue to be compensated only at the same level as they would for food delivery. As one worker mentions, queuing up and picking up groceries can take 2 hours while they are paid the same as a food order which can take as little as 15 minutes. This, especially in a crisis is a situation ripe for necessary state intervention to impose the digital platforms to guarantee a ‘per hour pay’ structure for these workers and with mandated perks for additional risk efforts like queueing up and long-distance rides.
While a structured response that guarantee pay and protection to workers is still yet to be announced, digital platforms (and in ostensible support by the state) have resorted to donation or charity driven responses even as they seek governmental bailout. The largesse of the platforms is performed in asking the customers to provided tips or donations to affected workers. Funds are also collected by platforms which are raised by future facing subscriptions that lock customers to platforms. In either case the commercial nature of the platform and the relationship of these worker to the platforms does not see any intervention. In fact, the workers feel efforts such as ramping up subscription services, introducing grocery deliveries without changing the pay and even efforts of charity meant for workers will only ensure the commercial future of the platforms and not the future of the workers themselves. They point to evidence that digital platforms and their pay structure continue to be extractive including actions such as the platforms still deducting money for loan repayments even amidst these extraordinary times. As these loans are governed by private sector partnership contracts they fall under a regulatory void. The response to COVID19 by the Indian government only mandates deferment being granted on repayments schedules for loans given by many public entities.
Ultimately, the absence of regulation within the gig-economy particularly its labour practices during the COVID19 crisis is compounded by efforts of the state and digital platforms that do not go far enough to help the workers. This leaves the gig-worker to be treated as a much-needed solution for supporting the wider community even when their own livelihood is left to be governed by extractive terms set by digital platforms and their marketisation efforts. In the absence of any state mandated social safety in terms of employment protection or guaranteed wages gig-workers face an unfortunate choice of either depending on charity or putting themselves through risky work. The state though continues to engage with digital platforms as either as a utility provider for last-mile logistics or as if they are a charity in this time of need. But this leaves out the actual responsibility of the platforms as employers signalling strong need to question the underlying assumptions of the gig-economy and the way it treats an already vulnerable workforce who have now become key to responding to the COVID19 crisis.