“Sir ji, aap apne order men kuch return to nahin karenge?” in trembling low voice, grocery delivery boy Sohan was asking me yesterday. I could not understand his question, so asked what he meant. He again asked if I was returning any item; I said no, I want all items I had ordered. He then said that he will press the ‘delivered’ button on his mobile to meet the deadline of delivery before time.
It was 5 minutes to 9 pm, and two other customers, one from my colony and another from neighbouring one, were already calling Sohan for delaying their delivery. I collected my stuff, and thanked him with a small tip. Elated, he bent to touch my feet with respect and gratitude.
How come this young man was so terrified in doing his job with honesty? Because, I discovered, that traffic jam caused by a new arts exhibition on the main Mathura Road had delayed his movements. He had to make 10 deliveries in two hour slot in locations spread over ten kilometres, in order to earn his minimum wage. If delayed by a minute, because of any reason, the digital platform marks ‘demerit’ points, and his payments are cut.
What payments these delivery boys and girls receive? The newer ones (less than 5 years experience) get between 8-12000 rupees per month, calculated on the basis of numbers of orders delivered. Those with more experience (10-15 years) may earn upto Rs 20,000 per month. The working hours are long (at least 12 hours a day), no weekly off, all days of the month, only then above wages are made.
But they have to continuously speed up their deliveries, since payments are made on piece-rate basis.
I remember another delivery incident a fortnight ago. A young delivery girl Vinika had come home in the afternoon to bring some grocery. I was surprised to meet her, smartly dressed, pleasantly speaking in English, and carefully lining up the products I had ordered. I asked her if she would like a glass of water; she hesitated, but I offered a glass anyways.
I called her in, she sat down had a sip or two, and then tears rolled down her eyes. She felt so touched by that offer of glass of water that she could not control her tears. She told me that she is a graduate from a college in Dehradun area, has been working as delivery girl for three years, because the pandemic led to closure of her family shop back home. This was the first time in three years that she felt human as a delivery girl!
It is estimated that there are more than one crore (10 million) delivery agents in the country today. They are not workers or employees; they are labelled as ‘delivery partners’ and ‘executives’. (Soon, they will be called GMs and MDs!). No labour laws cover them; they are treated as ’self-employed’. They have no stipulated working conditions. And, they still do not make minimum wages prescribed by law. These ‘aspirational’ youth of India earn less than Delhi’s minimum wages of 18-19,00 rupees per month for semi-skilled category. And, they have to own their own two-wheeler to earn this!
But they are highly skilled, in my view, since they carry enormous loads of packets on their shoulders, around their necks and on their two-wheelers. We all notice these variously coloured large plastic bags hanging out on both sides of their bikes, covering as much space on the road as a Maruti Alto.
We also see them jumping red lights, navigating furiously between lanes to reach their next delivery destinations. Yesterday, Sohan made me understand why he has to drive like a maniac on the roads because some ‘smart algorithm’ is monitoring his delivery time, to fix his earnings for the day/week.
Alas, a young IIT engineer, worshipping ‘Lord AI” (Artificial Intelligence), coupled with IIM’s fetish for ‘maximising’ corporate profits has been designing, refining and tightening the performance-tracker for these so called ‘partners & executives’ serving urban middle class like us, far away from the air-conditioned ‘design studio’ of that techie! Yet, the top-notch ‘delivery’ companies like Swiggy, Zomato, Blinkit, etc. etc. seem to make no profits, as their losses continue to increase. Just now heard the news that Zomato is exiting 225 cities after adding new losses of several hundred crores.
However, the infusion of fresh capital from international ‘angels’ continues unabated. More capital is coming to such enterprises which do not provide decent wages, dignified working conditions and respect for human labour!
It is perhaps ok to give these Sohans and Vinikas a label as being part of ‘gig economy’; but they are neither creating anything, nor smiling on it. This model of economic activity is exploitative, dehumanising and precarious for the growing numbers of young, educated and aspirational boys and girls of India. The investment of capital should be enabling them to create, build and sustain such economic enterprises which are ecologically harmonious and humanly dignified.
The article was first published by The Times of India as Delivery pains on February 13, 2023.
Read more by IMPRI: India’s G20 Presidency & the Urban Agenda for the Developing Countries.