COVID-19: Between company and customers, food delivery executives get exploited

Ojaswin Kathuria
Sunday, 31 May 2020

"Civilised life, you know, is based on a huge number of illusions in which we all collaborate willingly. The trouble is we forget after a while that they are illusions and we are deeply shocked when the reality is torn down around us."

― J.G. Ballard

Ever since the nationwide lockdown has been announced, all of us are trying to achieve normalcy in our lives. Trying to follow a work from a home pattern, maintaining work-life balance, taking care of chores- all these grounding tasks have helped us feel normal. One element of our modern civilised life that brings us rather close to normalcy is the delivery service of essential goods. Now with the relaxations in the modified lockdowns, delivery of non-essentials in all zones except containment is also permitted. The delivery servicemen are essential workers helping us in the current situation where the reality is far from normal. With over 1.8 lakh cases in India, these men are essentially putting their lives in danger to help us survive the pandemic.

Delivery service platforms have expanded their operations to deliver everything from vegetables to cosmetic products, but even though they rely heavily on their workers, it is evident that they do not have a safety plan in place to help these essential workers during a worldwide health crisis. The ground reality for these delivery executives is the daily fight against the extreme working hours. These men are logging in 16-hour shifts to fulfil order targets, but still, they aren't earning enough to survive.

"I can't fulfil my daily target deliveries because orders are less, I start working from 8 in the morning till 10-11 at night just to complete my target so that I don't lose my job, but even then I am barely earning enough," says Aman (name changed), 32, working with Zomato.

The food delivery giant, like many other delivery services, has cut back on the usual number of target orders. But still, the order numbers are not that high like they used to be in the pre-pandemic market. Since the delivery agents get paid a percentage amount depending on the orders fulfilled, this affects them directly, so they tend to put in extra hours of work under the current risky situation.

Like Aman, there are thousands of delivery agents logging in extreme shifts with minimum pay in an unsafe environment. Besides the threat of catching the virus, these service providers have to face poorly implemented laws and often get beaten up by cops and traffic police personnel. Reports of physical assaults on delivery executives by police in Bengaluru and Delhi had surfaced during the first phase of lockdown, but no safety measures have been taken.

There are no labour laws in place for delivery service executives since they are not official employees of such companies. They are considered autonomous contractors or partners.

After obtaining bar codes/passes to be able to deliver in different zones, the delivery executives reach your gate with a sanitised sheet at the back of the parcel, maintaining a meter of the distance they safely deliver your orders. But most customers expect the executives to deliver till their doors and claim that since they have paid for the order, they expect a door delivery. Social distancing? Zero-contact delivery, anyone?

"Customers yell at us and ask to deliver the items till the door, even though the guidelines clearly state contact-less delivery. We are forced to walk up to every door without any protective gear. No masks or sanitisers are provided," adds Aman before mentioning that the pays are not enough and since they are expected to buy protective gear themselves, they keep themselves protected the best that they can with masks, gloves, handkerchiefs and sanitisers as their protective gear.

After the case of a Dominos delivery executive testing positive for COVID-19 in Delhi and infecting 96 other people, all companies are regularly testing their workers.

"If there is any new guideline or hygiene instruction, we are all sent a message by the company. Hygiene reminders also come via notifications," Aman explains.

Organisations preserve their reputation by informing staff through texts to keep hygiene. They also provide training that comes as a notification in the app to explain to the workers. Delivery service and e-commerce sites also inform consumers that staff follow WHO protocols, wash their hands before each delivery, and add images of 'hygienic restaurants' to their mobile apps. Focusing more on feedback than actually helping their workers highlights the lack of commitment and lack of understanding these companies have for their employees.

Even though the delivery services have expanded from groceries to non-essentials, the number of orders are still very low. This pushes the delivery executives to take farther orders which means more expense on fuel and longer travel even for late-night orders.

"I usually work in 2 km to 5 km radius, maximum up to 8 kilometres. But these days for every order I travel up to 10-12 kilometres. The fuel is expensive, and there are timings when we get petrol at stations."

Due to the lockdown, all businesses have suffered huge losses which have forced them to lay off employees. After Zomato reduced its workforce by 15 per cent along with 50 per cent pay cuts, Swiggy will lay off 1,100 employees in the coming few days. Jobs are difficult in this economy; thousands of workers have been laid off their service across all sectors. Some of them being the sole breadwinner of their families. In fear of losing jobs, those of who have their jobs have been working tirelessly with no defined working hours.

Despite the gruelling realities, Aman like thousands of other delivery executives keeps waiting for the next order because having a stressful job is still better than being unemployed.

"These days, we are essential workers; we struggle but deliver your orders. The only request I have is for customers to at least come till the gate to collect their parcels. I use my own sanitiser, maintain distance, the parcels also come with a sanitised sheet for customer safety. Just yesterday, a customer filed a complaint against me because I told him to come to the gate and collect the parcel. The company only listens to customers; they should at least follow the guidelines," he signs off after delivering us a bagful of plights.

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