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The backstory of the boy who delivers your food order at your doorstep

The daily effort to calm impatient customers and earn the maximum money has both physical and mental consequences.

Updated: Dec 16, 2018, 11.19 AM IST
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The hard slog behind that hot samosa delivery
There is a constant lure to earn more money. A delivery rider's salary is determined by the number of deliveries they can make in a day.
The viral video of a Zomato delivery rider in Madurai taking bites from a customer's order and then resealing the packets sparked both outrage and empathy. Another news item, though, got less attention. A Swiggy delivery rider, Sariful Sheikh, was caught in a head-on collision. The 31-year-old had just bought a bike and started work as a rider two-and-half months ago to supplement his income as a tailor. He's now on a ventilator.

Sheikh's injury could be seen as just another incident on the country's dangerous roads, but it also shows the dark underside of the so-called sharing economy. The ease of getting our biryanis and brownies delivered home with a few taps on our smartphones renders invisible the thankless and strenuous nature of these jobs. Incentives that depend on how many hours you work and how many meals you deliver make delivery persons take great risks to meet their targets. And though they are given high-sounding designations like delivery executives or partners, they are not classified as employees but as independent contractors, which leaves them with relatively little bargaining power, and no path ahead.

In recent months, there have been several reports of delivery persons dying while on duty in Gurugram, Ludhiana, Nagpur, Hyderabad and Delhi. This July, on a rainy day in Delhi, an 18-year-old delivery boy was electrocuted after he lost control of his motorbike and slammed into an electric pole, sparking off a protest by several Swiggy employees in Noida. In Nagpur, delivery boys from Zomato went on strike over inadequate insurance after one of them was killed by a speeding car in June.

Narayan*, a delivery boy from Chennai, says that he gets a 30-minute deadline to pick up food from the restaurant and deliver it to the customer. "Given the traffic conditions, many of us tend to over-speed to avoid a negative review from the customer. Also, some customers return the order if it is late," he adds.

There is also the constant lure to earn more money. A delivery rider's salary ranges from Rs 15,000 to 30,000 and is determined by the number of deliveries they can make in a day. Each order can fetch anywhere from Rs 35 to Rs 80, depending on the distance travelled. Companies also offer incentives for completing every 10th or 20th delivery, which encourage workers to chase more doors in a day.

The daily effort to calm impatient customers and earn the maximum money has both physical and mental consequences. There is also an unacknowledged and stressful element of 'emotional labour', says Noopur Raval, who studies the sharing economy. For instance, the need to earn five stars compels cab drivers to be constantly polite and attentive to the customer's moods.

Vishal Shriram Dhoopkar, a delivery person in Mumbai, says he can never have his dinner before 1 am as the last delivery ends only around midnight. "I eat my dinner only at 1.30 am and by that time most of the family is asleep," he adds.

Almost every delivery person we spoke to stressed the fact that the Zomato incident was an isolated case of misconduct and that none of them have the inclination or the time to even look inside a food parcel. For Simab Mulla, another delivery person in Mumbai, weekends are the worst since the press of orders makes it hard for him to spend time with his family.

Kolkata's Raju Koyal admits the incentive-driven model seemed very exciting initially. "Now, the extra earning pressure haunts me 24x7. I hate to work extra hours but the pressure of earning more does not let me call it a day. The body doesn't always tolerate that pressure," he added.

And of course the incentives — as those who drive app-based cabs have also found out — dry up when the going gets tough. Last week in Chennai, delivery personnel from Swiggy struck work over pay-related demands, such as restoring "the incentive amounts that had been reduced recently". Swiggy, which claims to have one lakh 'delivery partners' for food, said the "revised payout scheme" was in "alignment with the efforts of our partners on-ground, and takes various parameters including peak hours and distance into consideration". Swiggy also said it had offered partners benefits such as accident and medical insurance, on-call doctors, accident response and emergency management. Though traditional unions don't cover these hyper-flexible workers, there is pressure around the world to come up with new models of protection for them.

Despite these moves to improve working conditions, some are simply unable to cope with pressure. After his employer reduced his payouts per food delivery, Benglauru-based Parag* took up a job with B2B delivery platform Shadowfax, which had benefits such as minimum earnings on days when he didn't get enough orders. and the ability to schedule his payouts as per his requirement. "After the payouts in my earlier job reduced, there was a lot of pressure to deliver more orders. I had to complete 25-30 orders to earn Rs 1,000 a day. If I had to take a leave due to an emergency, my weekly incentive went away. Sometimes, we even drove on the wrong side of a one-way road to beat traffic and deliver orders quickly. Now, I don't need to do that anymore."

*Names changed on request.

(With inputs from Ram M Sundaram,V Devanathan and Dwaipayan Ghosh)
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