The People in The Food Apps

Examining food delivery platforms & why you should care about them.

A friend of mine uses my phone nearly twice a day to place an order on Swiggy because mine is the only one on our floor which has a ‘Swiggy Binge’ plan, which offers free delivery. After the order is placed, Swiggy reminds me of the progress periodically and lets me know that the order is being prepared, the delivery partner is at the restaurant, that he has left and he’s nearly arrived. The process seemed new and exciting to me two years ago, when I would watch the bright, purposeful icon on a nicely coloured, empty map zoom around my city. It almost felt like a game, where I had to scour the app for the highest rated restaurants, find the discounted items, try to club them with the best coupons and with a few taps I could summon this little man on the map to bring me food. Swiggy is one of the many digital labour platforms in India who are increasingly coming under fire from labour organizations in India and abroad for their unfair labour practices and working conditions. Around 8 million people are currently engaged as gig workers in India as of 2021, and it is not surprising that the number of gig workers in India is growing at a rapid pace. This is no longer a section of the workforce that we can ignore. But first, what are digital labour platforms?

Digital labour platforms are markets where transactions are facilitated using digital and technological tools such as apps or websites. This was general seen as a big boon, because work was geographically bounded with labour being one of the most important factors of production. However over the past few decades there have been two major trends, the intersection of which has encouraged the rise of digital labour. As utopian as this may seem, with claims of flexible hours and seemingly unlimited pay, the reality is very different. In this project we'll be looking at two such platforms, Zomato and Swiggy and seeing how they differ, if at all, in terms of the way they handle labour.

Employees vs. Partners

Swiggy and Zomato, and if you're familiar with the apps and their delivery screens, calls their delivery fleet 'partners' or 'executives'. While these may seem like seemingly harmless terms, by not classifying them as employees, these platforms are able to avoid taking a whole slew of responsibilities.

Benefits For Standard Employees

Overtime Compensation

Workers working beyond the stipulated hours, that is, 9 hours a day and 48 hours a week are guaranteed an overtime compensation of 200% of their normal wages.

Employment Contract

An employment contract may contain details about the term of the contract, pay and so on. This assures the services of the worker to the employer and cements the terms of the job to the worker.

Notice Requirement

The employer is required to give the worker a notice of termination and severence pay before terminating their contract and firing them.

Work Injury Benefits

The worker is covered under a health and accident insurance that covers expenses for accidents that may occur during work.

Paid Leaves

The worker is allowed to take a certain number leaves that are earned after working for a certain number of days. They do not suffer a loss of pay on such days.

Sick Leaves

The worker is allowed to take leaves on days that they are sick. They do not suffer a loss of pay on such days.

Minimum Guaranteed Pay

The worker is guaranteed a minimum compensation in accordance with the legislation in their state.

Dependents’ & Survivors’ Benefit

Families or dependents of the worker are assured some benefits should the worker get permanently disabled or die during the course of employement.

Employment Status

The central or state governments recognizes the worker as an employee and hence grant them all rights as are applicable to other workers.legislation.

Health and Safety

The employer has to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all the workers while they are at work.

Labour laws are an important part of any employee-employer relationship. The laws exist to ensure that the employees are treated and compensated appropriately, and their rights are protected. Laws in India, though they may vary slightly by state, ensure some minimum benefits to standard workers (workers who are recognized as employees).

Because Swiggy and Zomato do not classify their delivery crew as employees, but as delivery partners , they are legally excused from providing most of the benefits and protection that they would have had to otherwise ensure.

Aside from being deprived of these rights, workers for such platforms face a host of other problems. Let us have a deeper look at them.

Aside from the legal rights that are not provided to the workers, there are other important structural problems in the platforms themselves.

Complaints & Appeal

Before the pandemic, both platforms had so-called ‘Hub Managers’ that handled certain zones and would overlook the functioning of delivery partners and register any complaints or problems they may have. That has since been replaced by a ticketing system on their apps. Any problems they might have, such as falling sick, meeting with an accident or getting held up by thieves at night, are routed through this system. While this achieves cuts in staff that the platforms want, there is a trade-off in the efficiency and quality of redressal. By asking partners to only report incidents through the app, there is already a divide between those who can read and write and those who can’t, as well as those who know how to use this system and those who don’t. This does not always guarantee a reasonable solution to their problem, which may be more varied than what a few options that a chatbot might present.

I have had an accident
Dear Partner, we have received your request. Our team is working on your concern. We'll get back to you within 24 hrs with a resolution. Thank you.

Fluctuating Pay

Swiggy and Zomato advertisements claim that a delivery partner can earn between Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 40,000 a month because no limit on the number of deliveries present the potential to earn an amount that is competitive with entry level jobs in the formal sector. These figures are not a general average and don’t take into account the fuel, maintenance and personal costs that partners bear while on duty. There is no set minimum base pay for a single day, which means any leave can lose you a significant portion of earnings. Orders may also not necessarily be assigned equitably; In our survey, partners recounted how they seemed relatively free as compared to the other delivery executives in the same area. A partner may be logged into the platform for 8-10 hours but only get 5-10 deliveries during that time.

Arbitrary Penalties

Workers are at the mercy of the algorithm when it comes to facing penalties. There are no fixed guidelines to decide exactly when the worker is accountable and for what. For instance when any damage or spillage occurs due to poor packaging, the worker informs the customer care executive who in turn informs the customer about the matter and cancels the order. However, Swiggy penalises the worker for not delivering the order and not the restaurant for their mishandling. Another worker we interacted with recounted how his account was suspended from a platform because he took a sick leave for four days. A series of bad customer reviews can lead to an account suspension and wipe out earnings for days or even weeks. Such incidents leave many workers unaware about the reason behind the consequences that they might face and the circumstances under which they will face it. Since there is no way to contest a decision, the person is forced to move to a different platform.

Both platforms also have certain ‘levels’ that they assign each delivery partner depending on whether they drive a motorcycle or a bicycle, which gives them access to farther or nearer orders (therefore affecting earnings). As penalties, they may be downgraded to a different level as well, even if they’re still working the same distances.

Myth of Flexible Hours

One of the biggest selling points of any digital labour platform is the flexibility of the hours. They advertise that fact everywhere:

Platform Advertisement Copy
No fixed earnings, effort-based pay so that you're not stuck
with a fixed earning.
Choose your delivery work hours according to your convenience.

The problem lies in the fact that flexible working hours come with the opportunity cost of not earning enough money. Since the pay is variable and dependent on the number of hours they work for and the number of orders they complete in a day, the workers often end up pushing themselves to work for more hours than they desire to in order to earn enough money for their survival. There is no guaranteed minimum pay offered to them. We collected data on delivery workers from different platforms to look at how many deliveries they do and what they earn. Let's see what that looks like.

We surveyed 50 delivery workers from Swiggy and Zomato and asked them what their daily earnings, number of deliveries, average pay and time spent on each order was. This data was analysed and we trained a model by using these parameters to see if we could ‘generate’ our own deliveries for any number of days and see how much we could earn during that time. Now it’s your turn, how about you give food delivery a go? The results of our analysis has been turned into a short interactive experience which will allow you to see how much you can earn doing deliveries. Give it a go and see how you do!

Start Your Day

Congratulations, you're a delivery partner now! You've gone through the onboarding process, you've bought your bag and uniform and you're ready to log on to the SuperEats app to start your day. Scroll further to turn on the app.

Begin Accepting Orders

Click on the blue button to start your day. For your convenience, we're going to accept all orders that come within your zone. We want to maximize our productivity, right? Begin scrolling to deliver your orders. Don't waste time, you'll be rewarded for every order you deliver.

Long and Short

On any given day, your orders can be both near and far away, you really don't know what you'll get. While longer distances earn you more money per order, you'll be able to complete fewer deliveries unless you're willing to put in more time. Keep scrolling, keep scrolling. There's still a way to go.

Incentives! More Money!

Remember that you have a daily target that you have to reach in order to earn more money. Every time you reach Rs.600 in a day, you'll get a bonus of Rs.230. While this may seem easy to reach, it all depends on whether you're able to complete enough orders during the day. Scroll scroll.

Almost there...

You've reached your daily target, but you feel you can still put in a little more time. Night orders are high earners, let's do this. We're almost there.

Okay, enough for the day

Okay that was hectic, but not bad for a day's work. You head back home to catch some sleep. But this was just one day, why not try some more? Click on the black button to start again. Scroll faster this time, lets see how many days you can put in before you get tired.

How much can you earn?

You have worked for
Click Button to Start Working
Rs. 0
0 deliveries

You managed to earn Rs. 0 in 0 days
by working for0

How much of that will you save? You travelled around 0 and you'll be spending approximately Rs. 0 on fuel, Rs. 0 on rent and Rs. 0 on general expenses. You might be able to save Rs. 0.

What is the way forward?

Even with such a short experiment, it begins to become clear that the money that such people make is just enough to cover expenses and not more. By not being able to earn enough to save, this section of the workforce is at high risk of going into debt and generating a negative cash flow. Platforms tug at your hearstrings by providing you short snippets of your delivery person's lives and ambitions ("Tariq has studied up till class 10. He dreams of owning a restaurant some day", Zomato tells us when we ordered something from them), in an effort to make you tip them. That is not the solution to the problem. Tipping can only go so far and it is the platforms that must take responsibility to make sure that their delivery fleet, essentially the people that make the platform run, are being properly compensated. There is some hope of change and governments around the world are re-evaluating how they deal with these companies. In California, lawmakers passed legislation requiring ride-hailing platforms to categorize drivers as employees and not self-employed partners. In the UK, courts ruled that drivers for Uber should be treated as employees. Meanwhile in China, the government recently issued guidelines to delivery giants on how to treat part-time and contract workers. It remains to be whether the government in India will follow suit. As for us, we can do our part by recognizing the problem for what it is. The person in the map is more than just a colourful icon and deserves a lot better.

A Project by Aman Bhargava, Ananya Shenoy

For our data, we collected information from 50 delivery personnel, equally from Swiggy and Zomato, on various aspects of their daily earnings and deliveries. This data was processed in R to calculate mean and median earnings based on distances, incentive rates, time per and between orders. We took these summaries and wrote a small script to generate deliveries and earnings based on the real distribution. Data on fuel costs, rent and general spending (this does not take into account personnel with families, since our interviews were only with people who lived alone) was collected through verbal interviews with delivery personnel in the Yelahanka area. This may differ based on the area but was consistent enough for a good understanding of spending for the purposes of this project Website and code by Aman Bhargava.

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