"Please help/ support our warriors," a Chennai techie who became a Zomato delivery worker for a couple of days wrote in a post on LinkedIn, explaining the challenges he faced in his short experience.
Srinivasan Jayaraman, who recently left his job as an IT analyst at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), joined Zomato for two days in late March to understand the problems faced by those delivering orders for restaurant aggregators such as Zomato and Swiggy face on a daily basis.
"As a human, I just wanted to understand other human emotions or their human life, how they are living — just for my experience and knowledge," the 30-year-old software engineer told Gadgets 360 in a telephonic conversation.
The thought of living the life of a delivery worker came to Jayaraman during the coronavirus lockdown. He wanted to know how they are able to work around the clock at a time when people are largely sitting in their homes, fearful of the deadly virus.
Jayaraman decided to write his experience in a LinkedIn post, which has received reactions from over 83,000 people since it was published last week.
One of the key challenges the engineer faced in fulfilling order deliveries was the fact that the delivery locations of customers and restaurants were not always accurate in the app.
He told Gadgets 360 that in one case, he was not able to deliver orders on time since he had received multiple orders from a single restaurant, but one of them was meant to be delivered to an address 14km away.
The first package of that multiple-order batch was to be delivered to a nearby location, but it took 20–30 minutes to fulfil that delivery. The location was not described accurately in the app, and the phone number provided by the restaurant was not the number they were calling from, he said.
After that order, he had to travel 14km to deliver the next order. He received a Rs. 10 tip for that delivery.
"Someone I met when I worked with Zomato told me it assigns orders that require covering distances of even 20–25km," he said. "We cannot deny it."
The engineer suggested that Zomato should not assign long-distance orders, as customers complain of delays in such cases and this eventually impacts delivery workers.
Srinivasan Jayaram turned a Zomato delivery worker for a couple of days in late March
Photo Credit: LinkedIn/ Srinivasan Jayaraman
Zomato, for its part, claims to offer incentives for long-distance deliveries, though it is unclear whether these are effective enough to persuade delivery workers to accept orders to locations that are far away.
Responding to Gadgets 360 about the points raised by Jayaraman, a Zomato spokesperson said that delivery workers can decline orders within a stipulated time. The app's timer automatically accepts an order after a few minutes if the delivery worker doesn't decline it, and there is a "siren" running on the app until the timer is acknowledged. The duration of the acceptance timer differs for each delivery partner, and is based on their average acceptance time. "So, if someone has an average of declining in three minutes, it will run for four minutes, [giving them an] extra one minute."
The app also learns that declined orders might indicate locations where the delivery worker does not want to go to, so it starts looking for others. Declining doesn't impact the driver's rating if it's done within the stipulated time.
Delivery workers are, however, not allowed to decline six orders in a row, the spokesperson said.
It is important to note that delivery workers are not able to see the distance and an estimated time of arrival (ETA) for their destination before confirming an order pickup. They can, however, see the total distance of the journey. The spokesperson added that 80 percent of orders are within a 6–7km total distance.
When asked what the maximum time allowed for a delivery is, especially in the case of these long-distance routes, the spokesperson clarified, "There is no deadline that could be set for an order. And even in that case, there's a pop-up [to ask the delivery worker] if our real-time ETA falters. And in case of accidents/ emergency situations a helper, a co-delivery partner, gets tagged in."
Shaik Salauddin, National General Secretary of Indian Federation of App Based Transport Workers (IFAT) and Founder and State President of Telangana Gig and Platform Workers Union (TGPWU), told Gadgets 360 that while lot of orders that delivery workers received were for locations between five and 10km away from the pickup location, some orders were less than 6km and some could even go up to 25km.
"The company does not mention a time limit in which an order has to be fulfilled," he said. "Having said that, Zomato indulges in time-discipline for workers by actively monitoring time required to complete a delivery. At times, if the average delivery time is more, the workers are notified about the delay in delivery."
He also pointed out that the lives of delivery agents include a lot of unpaid work in terms of time and distance.
“Zomato offers many incentives including long-distance orders. But such incentives do not completely compensate for the distance travelled for an order,” he stated.
Jayaraman opined that Zomato and other such aggregators are essentially playing with the psychology of delivery workers by pushing them to fulfil order deliveries as quickly as possible.
"What they are doing is pushing people to do quick deliveries by giving them the ratings and points that they have," he noted. "They cut the orders from people who are not able to fulfil existing orders."
Salauddin agreed with Jayaram's take, and said that the per-delivery earning model meant a delivery worker earned more when he completed more orders.
“Workers tend to internalise this and motivate themselves to complete deliveries quickly so that they can do more orders,” he said.
Another big challenge he found during his short stint as delivery worker was the increasing cost of fuel that is impacting the earnings of workers. He also pointed out that Zomato and other key app aggregators don't have comprehensive health insurance for their delivery workers.
These companies just have basic insurance for their delivery workers, which is not at par with what we normally get with a corporate job, he said.
The Zomato spokesperson told Gadgets 360 that the company provides health and accident insurance to its delivery workers and their dependents. They can also get an online consultation with a physician.
Salauddin acknowledged that Zomato does offer insurance to its riders, but, he noted, a lot of problems arise when trying to claim it.
"When an accident happens, the claimants are unaware that insurance exists, or even if they are aware, they don't have access to the insurance details required to claim it," he said. "There are also a lot of terms and conditions that a worker has to meet to claim the insurance."
The insurance offered to delivery workers doesn't cover treatment against critical conditions such as kidney failure, paralysis, or cancer, since these workers are on contracts and not on the company's payroll.
Claiming to help delivery workers in the face of increasing fuel prices, Zomato last year introduced a variable pay component. This is intended to automatically change the payments given to delivery workers on the basis of changes in fuel prices.
Salauddin argued that the variable pay component introduced by Zomato does not help delivery workers meet the rising cost of fuel. Delivery worker unions including IFAT demand that this cost should be passed directly on to customers.
"By not increasing fuel prices [for customers], transport workers including delivery workers are made 'shock absorbers' of rising fuel and essential commodity costs," Salauddin said.
The LinkedIn post received some comments from people who earlier worked as delivery workers for Zomato and other companies. Zomato also reached out to the engineer to get clarity on the challenges he highlights in the post.
"The delivery partners are the ones who make Zomato possible every day with each order," the company says in its response to the original post.
Jayaraman told Gadgets 360 that the purpose of his post was not to become popular or to criticise a particular company. It was just to point out the difficulties that delivery workers face when fulfilling orders.
"It's not as easy as people think," he said. "We should respect these workers… So many people who have engineering degrees or other [qualifications] are also working as delivery workers because of some circumstances."
Aayush Rathi, Senior Researcher at the Centre for Internet and Society, told Gadgets 360 that the hardship that Jayaraman faced temporarily as a delivery worker was the endless, everyday reality of millions of workers.
"The post showcases several challenges attributable to poor tech design, but there is so much more that can be attributed to the working conditions created by exploitative business and labour models of platform companies," he said.
Rathi also underscored that these issues have severe implications when gig work is an individual's only source of income and not a stopgap between two white-collar jobs.
"Gig workers' conditions, despite platforms' various attempts, aren't stories of heroism to be celebrated," he said. "Nobody should have to labour in such conditions to earn what is ultimately not even a living wage. Platform companies have to start taking full responsibility over the working conditions of gig workers, and policymakers need to move fast. We have to start paying more attention to gig workers and their movements."
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