In Conversation with Sowmiya Ashok, journalist
Or listen here:
Multiple people singing happy birthday.
Deepika: Wow, what is this about!
Arpita: Well this is a classically odd outcome from a very strange time – so through multiple lockdowns in the past years, it became more and more isolating and my friends and family were scattered all through the country. I think just to break the monotony and find something to laugh and feel happy about – I started doing these big birthdays for everyone – sometimes in collaboration with friends otherwise just by myself.
Deepika: That explains the off tune singing!
Arpita: Well you should try to make people sing happy birthday in sync on zoom – there’s always too many wonky Internet connections there! But you know it did its job – and the reason why I’m telling you this is because a big part of this b’day thing was sending food.
Deepika: I remember you and Nidhi sent me this lovely birthday breakfast, my favourite buttermilk pancakes and cheese sandwiches! And yes food is most comforting and cheering and it was a great start for my birthday!
Arpita: I’m glad you enjoyed it! There is something to sharing food which speaks of care and love – and what platforms like Swiggy and Zomato did was that we could send stuff to people in different cities. So I think i ordered food for people in Mumbai, Dehradun, Hyderabad, Chennai – and it was amazing to hear the joy in the voices of people who received it.
Deepika: Yeah there seems to be a lingering ‘but’ there?
Arpita: There is cause this chat today is not about the people who got the food but those who delivered it – the gig workers. The ones on the bikes, those tiny people icons zooming across all these cities on your maps – making these deliveries happen!
Sowmiya: So I think the gig economy is a concept that sort of came to us along with the digital age that we are all currently living in.
Arpita: This is Sowmiya Ashok, a freelance journalist based in Chennai.
Sowmiya:I was previously with The Indian Express and the Hindu as a correspondent. And over the last year, I’ve been back home in Chennai, and writing mostly about things that sort of intersect in the India – China space. I also write about archeology. And then I also write about the environment once in a while.
Arpita: But we chatted with Sowmiya specifically about the gig economy and the rights of gig workers and what changed through the period of the pandemic as this is something she has been studying at length recently as one of the fellows of the 2020-21 China-India Visiting Scholars Fellowship at Ashoka University.
Sowmiya: So just to give a background of what the China- India Visiting Scholars Fellowship is, it is constituted by the Ashoka University. And the, the idea was to bring together people who were interested in researching on China. And part of the plan was to actually visit China for a particular period of time for us to do our research. So in my case, since I’m a journalist, I would have done ideally some ground reporting from Beijing, and bring back those insights and do sort of a comparative analysis with what I would have seen in India in the same time period. Clearly, the pandemic changed a lot of these equations, many of us actually all of us could not travel. And so what I ended up tweaking my research to was, if I just take the food delivery sector through this time, like if I look at the app based food delivery service, how did it sort of change in the year 2020. In China, as compared to India, this is what I went in with.
Deepika: That’s really interesting – while we hear enough of the ups and downs of the Indo-China political relationship we somehow barely ever hear of what’s emerging from their regular social lives – what do the Chinese eat, drink, think about. And a comparative look between India and China particularly with regard to this issue through the pandemic period somehow makes it all the more interesting – because its been complicated and hard on both countries with their large populations.
Arpita: The veil is still rather thick when it comes to China and so it is very exciting to hear Sowmiya’s analysis. She shared her approach and methodology to the whole research and also did some context setting for the two countries.
Sowmiya: From a journalistic perspective, I looked at.. let me look at news reports that may look at research, let me speak and interview academics. And similarly do the same thing in India. So if you look at both the Indian and Chinese space, clearly, the breaking into this market happened earlier in China as compared to India. China also saw a lot of push-back much earlier than what we saw here last year from the labour point of view. So what you would see over the course of years leading up to the pandemic in China was actually one of collective action in many Chinese cities, where, you know, I was looking specifically at this app called Meituan. So a lot of labour delivery workers employed by Meituan had come together and protested in different cities, asking for better wages, and so on. So this was a general push-back that happened years before the pandemic a couple of years before the pandemic in China.
Deepika: Right, China was of course ahead in terms of digitisation embracing tech so this is not surprising.
Arpita: Yeah also Internet access right? By around 2021 it was estimated that almost 70% of the population there had access to the internet whereas in India it is still about 50%. And to put the timelines further in perspective – Meituan, the company Sowmiya mentioned, was an already very well established Chinese shopping platform for locally found consumer products and retail services – we are talking here about dining, delivery, travel and other services – and it was founded in 2010. And in India, Swiggy, which started off as an online food ordering and delivery platform but now also does package and grocery deliveries, something it added during the pandemic – was founded in July 2014.
So yeah, things went a bit differently in India even where the growth of the gig economy and the conversation on gig workers is concerned as Sowmiya explains.
Sowmiya: And I think in India in the same vein, as our market sort of expanded, and, you know, both Swiggy and Zomato sort of grew into being bigger companies, the pandemic pushed delivery workers into a space where they felt exploited, they felt that they were not getting their deserved wages deserved, you know, a specific sort of commission per delivery and so forth. So you would see sort of a mirroring of what was happening in the both the countries but one thing that was very similar is in both of these spaces you know, delivery workers started to be seen by the public: by users, by us who use these apps as frontline workers. They sort of played a bigger role because we were all sitting in, at home through the lockdown multiple lockdowns that we faced here and multiple lockdowns the Chinese people faced. Many of these men and women, actually, largely predominantly men ended up becoming frontline workers through this phase. So that’s really one big similarity that what we ignored in the past as an essential service actually turned out to be a very big boon for all of us to have access to groceries and medicines and whatever else we wanted.
Arpita: Which brings us back to those birthdays and frankly to so many other such services that I’ve availed, we’ve availed, through these last few years!
Deepika: Yeah – I used a whole host of these delivery services as well for chores which before the pandemic were part of my weekly go-to-store-and-get kinda list.
Arpita: Veggies of course
Deepu: And medicines
Arpita: And pet products
Deepu: and food and household items – just so many things!
Sowmiya:We all faced the pandemic around March or April. And I think in India, it was a little delayed just from the point of view of permissions for many of these apps to continue working through lockdown. That did take a while for the government to say okay for them to go ahead and deliver through this time. So if you remember, I don’t know if this was the case in Hyderabad, in other cities, but in Chennai, it definitely took three or four weeks into the lockdown for services to start functioning. So even a Big basket or, or a Dunzo started picking up within like a month into the lockdown. So in comparison, when you look at Wuhan, Wuhan already had opened up by April, people had come out of lockdown by April, they went into lockdown much earlier. But the sentiment is sort of similar, whether it happened exactly at the same time. The sort of sentiment that we all felt towards delivery workers seem to sort of mirror maybe one after the other, but largely that these were, you know, people who were trying to help and playing such a big role in getting us our food and medicines and so on.
Deepika: In so many ways the middle class of India almost had this sudden forced conversion to using online shopping apps and websites. I used to like planning my grocery days before – swinging bags and just looking through fresh produce but all that changed and became unfeasible so suddenly.
Arpita: I remember this moment through one of the lockdowns, where I had to emerge from my house to get some medicines and the whole place was something out of the movie ‘I am legend’ which is basically about the sole human survivor of a plague! The roads were absolutely empty, it was so quiet i could hear the tree branches creak and sway – the only people who broke that eerie silence were the gig workers on their bikes – Like Sowmiya says I don’t think we ever saw them as front-line workers till that point where we could adhere to the lockdown basically because of them delivering things to our doorstep!
Deepika: So true – they took on the risk of exposure to the virus as we sat at home, while simultaneously I suppose the companies themselves saw an opportunity for tremendous expansion.
Sowmiya: It has had a huge impact on the growth because what immediately happened is, since we were I mean, we were essentially trapped in our homes, right? Like the only access to the outside world, in many ways was through the internet. And so an obvious sort of outcome of that would be huge growth in the digital service economy. Across the world. It’s not unique to India, it’s not unique to China. But across the world, people were accessing things much more online. And even here, I mean, after demonetization, we saw a bit of people going online, but I think it really did pick up last year.
Deepika: Did she say specifically how this panned out with regards to the companies she was studying?
Arpita: Yes, this was her take on what happened with Meituan.
Sowmiya: But clearly Meituan, the company I was studying made huge profits. So essentially, it had a bit of a dip at the beginning. And then it sort of found ways to diversify into various aspects, not just food delivery, it also as a company started becoming cleverer on how to pitch itself. So one way was to also offer groceries, what Dunzo does for us here. So it started adapting very quickly, and you could see numbers scaling up, like massively through 2020. So you went from May of last year to February of this year, where it even ranked amongst the third largest tech company in China.
Deepika: And meanwhile what was happening in India?
Sowmiya: So here on the other hand, you would see similar efforts by both companies, what Zomato and Swiggy. And others were doing here was also pitching to the government asking them to partner with them, right saying, look, we provide a service, use us effectively, Ola, and Uber were doing this as well, they were delivering groceries through that time. So they started pitching as, look, we are important, we are an essential service, pay us attention.
Deepika: Attention which of course they eventually got – they became one of the exceptions to the lockdown rule as I remember – am i right?
Arpita: Yeah, cause it became immediately clear I think that if a country like India with its substantially crowded cities had to have lesser people outside, then it would make sense to have them receive things at home – which would ensure they stayed there!
Sowmiya: But at the end of the day, the person who’s actually going to deliver that product at the end of the day is a delivery worker, is a human being. So when we talk about how has this impacted the worker, it has, in many ways, adversely impacted the worker, because he has had much more orders coming his way, and not being compensated enough for his time and energy and effort that he puts into each of those orders.
Deepika: Hey you know now that we’ve gotten a sense of the context and getting into the bit about gig workers and what happened to them through the period of the pandemic – it might be useful to just step back a bit and look at what gig work actually means?
Arpita: Yeah, well that makes sense – so this is how Sowmiya defined gig work.
Sowmiya: So in very simple terms, it is defined by this labour system that has short term, that relies on semi permanent work that relies on contractual work. So in a way, it’s a kind of a… that’s why it’s called a gig, you kind of get paid per gig. And what this ends up happening then through the system is there is scope for sort of undefined ways of people or most likely labour being exploited in the space. So when we talk about gig workers, it is in our simple sort of parlance of everydayness in India, it would be your Swiggy and Zomato workers or even those who get on any kind of e-commerce sites to jump on for a particular period of time. So these are the broad set of definitions.
Deepika: Okay so we are talking about semi-permanent or contractual work here when we try to categorise the gig workers and understand the nature of their work.
Arpita: The thing is that when it first really began to take off in India – maybe around 2010 – a multitude of online service platforms which offered a range of services from you know ride sharing to delivery to house cleaning etc – it was like this great new way of doing things had emerged. They had created new ways for workers to seek out income opportunities.
Deepika: Yeah it was exciting for all of us i think – suddenly there was a new and seemingly much more easier way of doing things.
Arpita: And the selling point for the people looking for jobs was that it often required basic skills, had flexibility – you could join and leave as you wished, do as many hours as you wished, and it had great earning prospects as per the companies.
Deepika: But it didn’t quite pan out that way?
Arpita: Looks like it hasn’t – not quite. So interestingly I came across this 2020 study of Ride hailing and Delivery workers in San Francisco which along with other things did a kind of profile of who gets into this kind of gig work and to put it simply these were their findings – firstly that it was a group that was highly diverse made up of minority and marginalised groups and these were people who were struggling financially. And secondly for many of them it wasn’t a gig, they were doing this full time and it was the only income for their households.
Deepika: That sounds about right in terms of what we see in India too I suppose –
Arpita: I couldn’t find any research clearly stating this but anecdotally it does seem to be the case. So while it looked great packaged as the concept of ‘delivery executives’, what you had was a lot of people in financially precarious positions within cities joining a job which had basically no securities of any sort attached to it.
You know I discovered this term – labour arbitrage, which is basically used to describe the practice of searching for and then using the lowest-cost workforce to produce products or goods, which is what is happening here. This of course is also a good indication of the built in power asymmetry – the workers have almost zero bargaining power within this kind of setup.
Sowmiya:One thing about gig workers is they find spots in various parts of the city, we would have all noticed it. Next to my house, there’s a nuts and spices shop and just outside on the steps every evening, Swiggy and Zomato guys get together and hang out and chat and compare notes. And they have a community going as well. But from our perspective, when you walk past the group of men like that, ‘oh, yeah, they are just Swiggy guys’ but it’s really more than that, I feel like reducing them to a company’s name, sort of invisible, makes them invisible once again, to just be like this is some dude who gets me my food. And I think it’s important to shake us out of this space where we think, you know, it’s okay to do this, like I was in Delhi recently. And I ordered something and I thought, how is it okay for me, being me sitting on the second floor of his apartment, and him being him having to climb two floors up to hand over hot food to me, under 23 minutes, right?
Like, what like, what kind of what kind of weird, like society is this, that this allows it in a way that is naturally like, there’s a power imbalance here, if he doesn’t show up in that time, I can actually rate him poorly. I have the power to not let him get further orders, and so on and so forth. And I just think, once we realise that this is the extent of the power that we have, I think we should use it responsibly and not be callous and like, ignore that you know, what we can do better for people who actually make our life so much more convenient.
Deepika: So what Sowmiya is saying is that not only is there this built-in power asymmetry but also that the workers are made sort of invisible by the kind of system the app has created. So did something change with the pandemic?
Arpita: Yes, it does seem like it did. Firstly, like we were saying, the invisibilisation reduced during the lockdowns. Also, while as customers we access a certain interface of these apps, the delivery workers access another interface which tells them where to go, records their payments and how they’re rated, gives incentives etc. The app runs on an algorithm which is sort of the programming logic behind it that drives the business.
Sowmiya explained how with the coming of the pandemic, the workers noticed sudden shifts in the nature of what was being offered to them as pay and incentive on the app. Here she’s giving an example of what happened with food delivery apps.
Sowmiya: So it’s an ever changing constant sort of amalgamation of incentives thrown at you to make you work for that day or week or month. And many people I interviewed said, at the beginning of the pandemic, the companies have just gotten rid of say rain surges, like you get a surge, you get a certain hike in remuneration if it’s raining, or festival surges, you get a certain hike when there’s a busy time, or, you know, something else that will provide a specific incentive, all of those were sort of wiped clean at the beginning of the pandemic, plus the slashing of prices down to 15.
This is not a new model of tweaking algorithms to make profits. But what happened through the pandemic is, at least in India, you had like a slashing of remuneration from like 35 rupees to 15 rupees per order, right, that’s huge. That’s more than double. And what we understood from that is, this is all you’re going to get, and the work is going to be higher through the day. And what also happens is this sort of clouding of incentives – not fully understanding what really you’re going to get at the end of the month.
Deepika: I read about this and it’s quite shocking really – that is no small cut at all going from Rs.35 to 15!
Arpita: Yeah and imagine this is during the pandemic when things became much more dangerous for them as one of the essential workers within cities. Unfortunately it was also a time when other jobs weren’t easily available so there was also no other job to consider.
Sowmiya: Plus, in some cities, Zomato even expanded its range. So if you look at your apps closely, Swiggy sort of sometimes tells you: it only offers you a certain number of restaurants in your neighbourhood. And it says if you look to get something further down, it will say this is a bit further off, and you will have to pay an extra price for it. Every time that’s happened to me in Chennai, I checked Zomato and Zomato seems to have an expanded sort of range, right? Like they don’t seem to ever think anything is too far. So this has happened across cities where, opening up of where you operate, which means you literally can be travelling 10s of kilometres per day and criss-crossing the city to catch orders.
Arpita: One such incident took place in B’lore in September of 2021 when without warning, and here I’m quoting an article on the incident, so without warning the delivery platform tweaked its algorithm to extend the riders’ delivery zones.
‘Riders are usually assigned jobs within a prescribed area, normally around 10 kilometers. But all of a sudden, they found themselves being sent to pickups and drop-offs up to 40 kilometers away and this meant that the riders would not be able to meet their daily quota of deliveries to be made or they lost out on incentives which they needed to make a living wage’.
Many also reported that ‘the new delivery radiuses meant they’ve had to travel to unfamiliar places on the outskirts of the city, resulting in a surge of thefts of their phones and vehicles’.
Sowmiya: Things have been fairly like it feels like someone’s tweaking the algorithms sitting in headquarters and how it plays out on the ground is not effectively noted. And the delivery worker at the end of the day has to bear the brunt of whatever that tweak is.
And more often than not, and this is a complaint I constantly heard is when there is an issue with the order or when there is an issue from the delivery workers perspective, there’s nobody for them to go complain to. They end up having to fight with technology. And the technology is more often than not not very helpful, because it is in the interest of the company and the customer to prioritise them over the delivery worker. So I think this is really how it’s panned out.
It’s, frankly, very complicated. The idea is to just point out how incredibly difficult it is to come out with a specific, simple, you know, like how we get in our news rooms, for instance, a salary slip at the end of the day, with clear incentives, I don’t think you can find that on an app if you open their version of a salary slip.
Deepika: Wow that sounds awful. There seems so much uncertainty and lack of clarity in terms of what the outcomes of your work day might be.
Arpita: You know when questions on such practices began to surface, the companies took an interesting approach.
Sowmiya: So what ended up happening is these companies, at least in India, looked to the consumers to also say, why don’t you help us, you know, pitch in, let’s start a crowd-sourcing sort of crowd-funding, crowd-funding sort of model where you pitch in, give us some of your contributions. And we’ll pass it on to the worker as like a goodwill through this time. Now, how much of that money actually reached the worker is unknown. It’s not like these companies put out any public sort of, you know, documents to say this is where it went. So what we do know through that time is playing a good cop, many of these companies were sort of showing off as: Yes, we are, we are benevolent people. But you could see clearly after that, two massive strikes that happened in India, one in Hyderabad in August and September, suggests that it didn’t actually end up with the labour, it didn’t end up with the delivery worker.
Deepika: She means here the tipping mechanism which got incorporated within the apps during the pandemic na?
Arpita: Yes. You are now given a chance to include a tip payment when you pay the bill. So basically, what you see here is that the company’s used the concern of the public to actually make them partly pay the delivery person instead of really addressing the issue internally.
Deepika: And that was it? There wasn’t more to their response.
Arpita: Well yes and no.
Sowmiya:So quite frankly, it’s hard to get a straight answer from these companies. Even as a journalist right? Leave alone, the delivery worker, I have in the past sent out questionnaires to big Internet companies in India and often you are directed towards the PR agency that manages them. And then they send you in response to say five questions you’ve asked them probably send you a line, which is largely suggesting that they have their delivery workers best interest at heart. Some researchers say that perhaps the companies had something to do with, you know, drawing up the social security code that came out last September. And that’s still vague, that doesn’t nail the company down to any great responsibility. So while it shows that it’s doing something, is it really doing something is a question one can ask.
Arpita: Sowmiya is referring to the Social Security Code 2020, that was passed by the central government in September 2020 to consolidate the laws relating to social security and attempted to bring gig workers under the ambit of social security schemes.
Deepika: So that’s a good thing right?
Arpita: Well it’s been complicated. While it was a welcome move to include gig workers within the ambit of social security laws, the Code has been heavily critiqued by workers and labour law experts for unclear overlapping definitions, putting the weight of the action on governments and none on companies and the framing of the worker as a beneficiary of schemes versus being provisioned a right.
Deepika: So that’s it? That’s where we are?
Arpita: I’m so glad to tell you that it’s not! While all this was happening – something new was simultaneously emerging and that really grew during the pandemic period.
Sowmiya: Now, what has happened, meanwhile, is this great thing called the Internet, which we all use, which, which the same delivery worker who uses it as a source of livelihood has also picked this up as a source of dissent. So in the last months, you can see online, if you just get on Twitter, you’ve seen a bunch of anonymous accounts that have popped up, mostly identifying themselves as Swiggy de or like delivery boy, and so on, and so forth. And these are people who are actually delivery workers on the ground, using Twitter as an effective means to tell you, the customer, that things are not okay, that things are exploitative and you should be more aware of what’s going on if you’re going to be the end user of this app.
Deepika: You know there are days when you’re surrounded by the conversations of the Internet being turned into a vehicle of surveillance and exploitation and then there are days when you hear stories like this and remember things like the Arab spring – and you know begin to remind yourself of the potential it still holds for honing freedom instead of curbing it!
Arpita: I think the Internet reflects the complexities of the real world.. But definitely in new and fascinating ways. Many of the delivery workers are young digital natives and so I suspect we will see the Internet play a role in these conversations.
Sowmiya pointed out this additional incident to explain this.
Sowmiya: You would have seen the lovely Hrithik Roshan ads that Zomato put out. And, again, which got massive pushback, right? Like people were like, what kind of advertisement is this?
Deepika: This was the one where Hrithik Roshan opens the door to receive a food delivery and the delivery person doesn’t even have the time to take a selfie with the actor and instead has to run and leave to make other deliveries right? And there was a similar one with Katrina Kaif?
Arpita: Yeah those are the ones. And what’s interesting is that almost immediately there was this pushback as Sowmiya mentions. While Zomato claimed that they were celebrating the heroic ethic of the delivery worker to deliver on time rain or shine, what a lot of people felt online was that it normalised an unusually intense work pressure that comes with uncertainty and poor pay. In fact, this was corroborated by the Fairwork India Rating 2021 report, which found that the take-home earnings of gig workers declined in 2021. Out of a 10, many of these companies scored really low in their ratings as fair and safe work spaces for gig workers – Swiggy and BigBasket got a 4, Zomato a 3, Amazon, Dunzo, and PharmEasy scored 1!
So these sort of incidents and reports have also helped build the online space for a larger conversation.
Sowmiya: And I think delivery persons are using this space very effectively in this process. And the companies in a way are not able to keep up. I don’t think they saw this coming. I don’t think they necessarily like that people are creating these accounts and screen-shotting apps and screen-shotting incentives and saying this is how little we get paid for that one piece of cheesecake you ordered on that Tuesday afternoon when you had a craving, right? I think what would be very interesting to watch would be how this progresses and whether this will lead to a more efficient sort of space where we can demand better wages for people doing gig work.
Arpita: And even as conversations have come together online, in the real world gig workers across many such platforms have overcome the odds and managed to collectivise in these past years.
Deepika: By collectivise you mean they’ve been able to come together as a union now?
Sowmiya: So what’s really interesting is that it has really picked up and there’s quite a nexus across cities, it’s not just one or two cities, but there’s a lot of conversations going on across unions and smaller groups and WhatsApp conversations across different parts of the country, maybe you would have like a South Indian block and a North Indian block, perhaps only because it’s easier, more regional.. region specific. But what they’ve done effectively is call to attention exploitative practices by these companies.
Arpita: It’s always so much more difficult to collectivise when you’re part of something as unstructured and fluid as gig work but still they’ve managed it. At the lead is the IFAT or The Indian Federation Of App Based Transport Workers which was formally established in 2019 in Mumbai and brings together ride-sharing and other gig transport workers. And since then they’ve been instrumental in voicing the issues and concerns of gig workers. In fact they are the reason that more of us in the customer base are hearing with greater depth the challenges faced by gig workers.
Deepika: So what kinds of issues have they been intervening on?
Arpita: Well it began with issues like demanding a minimum price per kilometre, insurance for the workers but then the pandemic related issues came up. Like for example safety equipment for the workers, cover and support for those who fell ill while doing the job.
Deepika: Oh yeah I read some really heart-breaking stories of gig workers who got Covid while working and their untimely death has meant tremendous struggle for their families who’ve lost their sole breadwinner.
Arpita: Exactly, the pandemic really brought out how disempowered and precarious the worker’s life was within this situation of gig work. And hence one tremendous thing that took place was that IFAT decided to actually file a Public Interest Litigation, a PIL, with the Supreme Court in order to bring gig workers into the ambit of the law and provision basic rights and support for them.
Here’s Shaik Salauddin, General Secretary of IFAT in a conversation on CNBC explaining why they needed to do this.
Shaik: (in hindi) The govt is also not listening to us, the companies are also not listening to us. And yet our problems are increasing day by day, not decreasing, hence we took this decision.
Reporter: (In Hindi and English mix) In your PIL you’ve mentioned you want to be categorised as employees and not partners, because there exists an employer and employee relationship. Can you elaborate on this?
Shaik: (in Hindi) Companies, be it Ola, Swiggy, Zomato – call us partner partner but meanwhile have scattered, destroyed our rights. Now when we go, be it labour ministry, IT ministry or transport ministry – when we go to any of the three, they say you are not related to any of us because you’re a ‘partner’. By giving us this term partner, they have looted us. That’s why we consider the status of employee valuable and not being ‘partners’.
Deepika: I get that – cause it doesn’t mean anything to be a partner if it doesn’t come with any attached rights recognised by the law. It sounds nice but doesn’t translate into any bargaining power for the workers.
Arpita: Exactly. And this is what the PIL is trying to address, hoping to bring gig workers within the ambit of laws that provision basic protection and support for such workers.
And the heartening thing here is that this is not happening just in India! All around the world, platform workers and working conditions came into focus during this period and really just as a tribute to their work and recognising their poor working conditions and situation – we’ve been seeing courts around the world try to make things better.
WION anchor: In a big setback to the ride hailing company Uber, the top court in the UK has ruled in favour of the group of drivers saying that they are entitled to worker rights such as the minimum wages and regular breaks. Uber drivers are currently treated as self employed or contractors.
Deepika: That really is heartening – cause even one court saying something like this sets the ball rolling sometimes!
Arpita: And it looks like it has cause it’s not just the UK, Brazil and South Africa and even some of the US state courts and labour regulators are moving to classify platform workers as employees which guarantees them certain rights under law.
And not to forget – we were discussing China – there too the agitations of worker collectives and public opinion in favour of delivery workers has pushed China’s online food delivery giants like Meituan and others in September 2021 to say that they will not force couriers who work for them to register as independent businesses. The promise comes as part of a broader push from regulators to improve conditions for gig workers.
Deepika: So much about the nature of work is changing in these times, and so quickly. I feel like our laws have a lot of catching up to do with these changing times – and these new moves from governments and even the forming of unions – all of it feels like it’s moving towards a good direction – though i suspect it’ll be a fight.
But you know, there is always that one last question for us – what can you and I do. As customers and as people who benefit from their hard work – how can we support gig workers?
Arpita: This is a hard question but one that is often at the heart of change right? If we care, how do we begin to show up – and Sowmiya had some suggestions.
Sowmiya: This is an interesting question that I’ve been thinking a lot about, because I continue to use these services despite knowing that there is a very clear, you know, balance of power here. And I think one way to address it is to educate yourself on how these apps actually work. And one way to do that is actually to communicate with the person who’s coming to make a delivery to your house, if he has some time to chat, then I think it’s worth actually putting a name to that person and asking how their life is, and how much do they actually get out of deliveries.
The other thing is, I wonder if it’s useful to tip in cash, because I don’t necessarily know if the tip I provide on the app actually goes to them. And so perhaps it would be something that we can consciously change, about not entirely relying on our phones to make all digital payments, but make this extra sort of tweak in our routine of like handing over a cash tip, if that’s useful to the person.
Deepika: That’s really practical – humanising the situation and the second tipping idea – I know this to be true of some of the app based taxi services, they ask for cash cause then they don’t have to wait for the company to pay – so the cash tip makes sense.
Arpita: And alongside these practices Sowmiya also suggested some macro level shifts.
Sowmiya: Call to question how the companies do their job, ask them for more transparency on how their algorithm works, to show us their incentive structure, hold them accountable for it. I know, they’re not the government and private companies only have a certain ambit. But I think what we can do is a protest. So we do have the option of not using the app. And I think that’s one very telling way of marking our protest, you know, before which we can actually demand to know better about these big companies and how they function. So I think the Internet will be a useful space to do this, I genuinely think Twitter, Facebook and other forms that we’re constantly on, then become tools for us to ask these questions.
So I think, hopefully, when we look at future of work, it would be one where, through the pressures from, you know, pushback from delivery workers, through more public sort of outcry and public questioning, we should hopefully see a much more sort of, you know, equitable distribution, I suppose of wealth or profits of coming out of these big companies.
Deepika: You know many a times one hears how clicktivism or online activism isn’t particularly effective but i think it needs nuance, and that form of activism also has its useful moments. When lots of people register discontent with a certain state of affairs, then it does help and give heft to the voice of the core group, in this case the union of gig workers for example – and pushes companies and governments to respond and engage in deeper conversations and actions as we’ve seen. Our little actions do make a difference.
Arpita: You’re absolutely right. While sometimes it can feel futile, a large tide of opinion in the direction of supporting the well-being of all workers, especially those who have done such a tremendous job through the pandemic and in such vulnerable conditions – it deserves our attention and concern.
And I think it feels fitting to end with these words from Sowmiya which I think go to the very heart of the conversations on connecting back to our communities and social eco-systems – on considering our collective well-being within cities.
Sowmiya: I think in my article, or on the Twitter thread that I put out about my research, I talked about the idea of seeing these little figurines on our cell phones sort of moving around the space, like it’s a game. But actually, our doorbell rings, and there’s a real person standing there with our food. So I just think we can very easily get conned by this idea that all of this is happening on a virtual space till someone knocks on our door. And we’re actually snapped out of this sort of cognitive dissonance. It’s kind of like a cognitive dissonance where you’re like, oh, there’s actually a human behind this, right? So we haven’t definitely evolved to a space of robots coming to deliver food. So I think we have to be very aware that behind each of these people are.. is an entire story, their families, their homes, they have to pay bills and school fees, and so on. So it will just be a humongous sort of effort from our side to just give, give them five minutes to tell us how they are doing and ask them about it and find out how we can make lives better. I really think that’s one way to do is to just ask questions, and ask the right questions.
Outro: You can learn more about Sowmiya’s work through her many articles available online. We’ll also be exploring this theme further in our social media spaces so do join us there! For the next month we shift to the theme of children and well-being. We’ll talk to Praveetha Patalay, an Associate Professor based at University College London to understand children’s mental health and larger well-being, both in the present time having emerged from the pandemic, and in the future. Do join us!
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Credit: This podcast was created by Srinidhi Raghavan, Deepika Khatri and Arpita Joshi. The sound editing was by Vijay Chawla.