Delivery persons working for Swiggy — one of India’s largest online food ordering and delivery platforms — have been on strike in multiple cities of the country over the past week. The scale of this labor action is expanding, as an increasing number of these workers down tools in a protest against the squeeze on their earnings.
While the delivery costs charged to the customers have increased, delivery persons complain that their basic pay per delivery has been decreased to less than half — reduced from Rs. 35 (USD 0.47) per order to Rs.15 (USD .20). Incentives and other charges paid to riders, which vary from city to city, have also been sharply reduced.
Having worked throughout the lockdown — risking COVID-19 which many have allegedly contracted on duty — delivery riders are now left with little to show as earning after deducting the cost of fuel and maintenance of their vehicles.
In the south Indian city of Chennai, workers on strike have been holding a number of demonstrations. Protests on a smaller scale have also been held in a number of other cities, including Hyderabad. Striking workers in all these cities have complained that the company, instead of addressing their grievances, has been blocking their work ID cards.
This, in effect, is a summary dismissal because their contracts do not identify them as employees of the company, but as ‘delivery partners’, who are only to be paid per delivery. WhatsApp groups of Swiggy workers have been seething with anger. Screenshots of blocked ID numbers are ubiquitous.
“Swiggy is robbing money from both the customer and the delivery boy,” read one message, accompanying a screenshot showing that Rs. 45 (USD .60) was charged from the customer for the delivery, while the payment made to the delivery person was only 15.
Others are sharing clips and pictures of demonstrations in various cities. One or the other variant of “only an all-India strike can yield a solution” is a common response.
Changes to payment structure
According to Newsclick, the earning of delivery persons in Chennai, where the strike is currently the most wide-spread, has been slashed by almost 60%. Loss of income is even sharper in the capital New Delhi. Changes made to their payment structure by Swiggy a little over a week ago, have reduced their earnings to a third of what it used to be before, according to Kabir, who has been on strike for a week now. He can only earn 18% of what he used to earn in March when Swiggy started making a series of changes to the payment structure.
“At that time, Rs. 40 (USD .53) was the payment per delivery, and each delivery was regarded as a kilometer’s travel. If the distance to be covered for a delivery exceeded one and was up to two kilometers, it was regarded as two deliveries,” he told Peoples Dispatch.
Just before the lockdown was imposed on March 24, it was reduced to Rs. 35 (USD .47). Then, about two months ago, the pay per order was further reduced to Rs. 15 (USD .2). A little over a week ago, “the company then manipulated the delivery distance,” he said. “While one kilometer was regarded as one delivery previously, it is now three kilometers.” His basic pay per kilometer has therefore been reduced to a fifth, from Rs. 40 in March to Rs. 5 (0.06) now.
Other components of the earnings have also been slashed or scrapped entirely. When Rs. 15 was the basic pay per kilometer, a waiting charge of Re. 1 was paid for every minute the delivery person had to wait at the restaurant. Another Rs. 5 was paid upon completion of delivery. “Average waiting time at the restaurant is about 10 minutes, so a delivery person used to earn about Rs. 30 (USD .40) per order,” he says.
“In one shot, the company tripled the delivery distance needed to be covered to earn Rs. 15, and withdrew the payment of waiting charges for the first five minutes in the restaurant. Rs. 5 payment upon completion of delivery is scrapped entirely,” he says, producing screenshots as proof. In effect, the same amount of work which used to fetch an average of Rs. 30 up until a week ago, now fetches only Rs. 10.
Earlier, night deliveries between 12 am and 6 am had an additional payment of Rs 20. Three months ago, this was slashed to Rs. 10, and has now been scrapped entirely. Another Rs. 20 was previously paid for deliveries made while it was raining. Three months ago, that was slashed to Rs. 5. “About a week ago, just as daily rains began in Delhi, this additional payment was withdrawn entirely,” he adds.
“All this amounts only to the loss of income we suffer in the second half of our delivery work,” Kabir says, adding that the first half of the work is to go to the restaurant to collect the order.
“For this part of the trip, we used to receive four or five rupees for every kilometer that has to be covered en route to the restaurant. Now we get nothing. Many times, we have to ride four or five kilometers to the restaurant. The out-of-pocket expenditure on fuel is eating into our meager earnings,” he complains.
Kabir confirms that strike action in Delhi is ongoing successfully in at least four zones. A group of these striking workers have come together under the banner of All India Gig Workers Union (AIGWU) and have given a call for a Delhi-wide strike on August 20.
All India IT & ITES Employees Union (AIITEU) has expressed solidarity. Some of its members in Delhi are helping the striking workers with social media outreach. “Tech workers make and maintain the software that is ultimately used to exploit gig workers. We do not want our work to be used for such ends. We especially stand against algorithmic manipulation to cap gig workers’ pay,” a member of AIITEU, Delhi, explained to Peoples Dispatch.
Peoples Dispatch has reached out to Swiggy for a response. In a statement released in a tweet on August 18, the company said that “most delivery partners who have actively delivered during the week made over Rs. 45 per order.” The company even went on to claim that some delivery partners were getting Rs. 100 per order. The company said that its delivery partners received “an industry-best service fee.”
The risks of protest
It is anticipated that strike action in Delhi will be accompanied by protests. Meanwhile, protesting workers say that the company has penalized them for taking a stand.
Raju, a delivery worker, said, “About 10 days ago, some colleagues and I were holding a protest near the Forum shopping mall against pay cuts. We were also demanding regular supply of masks. The company gave us masks only twice since the lockdown. Those were not reusable. We’ve had to spend money on masks and sanitizers,” he said.
“Someone came to us with a pen and a notebook, and started asking us questions. We thought he was a reporter. He took our pictures on the phone and noted all our names and phone numbers before leaving. Two days later, all ten of us who had participated in this demonstration found our IDs blocked.”
His team leader allegedly told him that he will intervene this one time to have his ID unblocked, but Raju was warned that he is not to protest against the company in public. “You must understand we are already running a loss,” he was told.
Raju says that it has been three days since, and they are still waiting for their IDs to be unblocked. “The company owes me Rs.1,500 but I cannot claim it till without logging in using my ID.”
Shaik Salauddin, national general secretary of the Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers (IFAT), told Peoples Dispatch that this form of penalizing is a common practice of Swiggy across the different cities. “They are scanning Facebook accounts. Anyone found with a placard wearing the Swiggy uniform is having his ID blocked immediately,” he said.
From his experience organizing delivery persons in Hyderabad, he said that “the company is trying to divide the workers and break the strike. As soon as a protest starts, the company is splitting them in two groups. One group is given some incentives, and they are brought back to work. Others are finding their IDs blocked and payments withheld.”
Salauddin recollects that the Rs. 200 that was given to the workers to buy masks and sanitizers soon after the lockdown was only one a one-time allowance. After this was exhausted, workers, whose pay is being continuously squeezed, are unable to afford quality safety gears.
“Despite the risks involved, delivery persons considered it a duty to the people during such a time. Many contracted COVID on duty. But disregarding all their sacrifices, the company has shown an absolute insensitivity to the essential workers,” he complains.