For Poonam, Dussehra usually marks the start of a busy festive season giving beauticians like her no time to breathe between house calls, with several gold facials and chocolate waxes squeezed in. But this year, Poonam, along with several other Urban Company (UC) employees, logged out of the app and refused to work till their demands for lower commissions and better working conditions were met. Post-pandemic, Poonam’s monthly earnings had been slashed by half from an average Rs 60,000 a month in 2019 and she was desperate. “One woman was under so much pressure that she was near suicide,” she confides.
On October 8, workers sat on a dharna outside the UC Gurgaon office. Their voices would have probably been ignored but for some behind-the-scenes techies at the All India Gig Workers Union (AIGWU) who helped draft their charter of demands while Twitter accounts like @DeliveryBhoy, @ZomatoPartners, @aigwu_union and @SwiggyDEHyd amplified their protest.
On October 14, UC announced a slew of changes such as cutting commission, unblocking IDs of striking workers and starting a helpline. A UC statement said, “The urgency with which we are moving is because it is the right thing to do and not under business pressure.” This has been a rare victory not just for the 3,500 UC workers in Delhi-NCR but for gig workers across the country. While the gig economy has transformed the world of work, the precarious nature of employment has left many insecure and unprotected. Now, they’re slowly realising that combining forces and using social media can make their voice heard more effectively.
Food delivery workers were the first to take to Twitter, launching more than a dozen handles, three run by registered unions, to aggregate and amplify cases of discrimination (not being allowed to use building lifts or restrooms at restaurants while waiting to pick up orders), and working conditions — be it blocked IDs of riders, lack of responsiveness from the company on accident cases or heavy workloads. Ahmed Mohiuddin
, a Zomato delivery agent, started the Telangana Gig and Platform Workers Union Twitter handle @TGWPU in August this year. “I barely save Rs 10,000-12,000 a month after fuel costs, maintenance and other expenses despite working over 10 hours a day,” says the 20-year-old who supports his family and pays his college fees with his meagre earnings. Twitter, he says, has encouraged other agents to speak up as well. “Other delivery agents and friends ask me to post on their behalf because the company blocks IDs if it finds out who has posted them,” he adds.
TGWPU founder and national general secretary of the Indian Federation of App Based Transport Workers (IFAT) Shaik Salauddin, who drives a cab himself, says that though it has been a hard task to bring workers together, their social media strategy seems to be paying off. “Earlier, if there was a local-level protest the company would block IDs and just use new agents. Now we use social media to name and shame them.”
In India, the gig economy workforce is estimated at around 8 million people but has the potential to provide work to as many as 90 million people in the next decade, according to a recent Boston Consulting Group report. While this is promising, gig work is far less so. Last year there were a series of protests by Swiggy workers in Chennai, Hyderabad and Noida, protesting against pay cuts and removal of monthly incentives during the pandemic, while ride-hailing giants Ola
and Uber also faced protests over the 20% commission charged despite a steep drop in business.
These strikes were spontaneous but ineffective, says Girish
(name changed), coordinator for the AIGWU. Girish, a Delhi-based techie, is part of the All India IT and ITeS Employees’ Union and one of the volunteers raising awareness among gig workers, creating structures of leadership and providing support with social media. “We have been helping workers from various platforms connect by holding monthly meetings and strategising with them so they are able to fight for their rights,” he says.
In 2019, a collective of about 40 people including academicians, NGOs, lawyers came under the aegis of the Working People’s Charter to bring workers under a cohesive leadership of IFAT. With the pandemic further impacting income of gig workers, IFAT now has 35,000 members and growing.
Rahul Sapkal, professor at IIT-Bombay and IFAT co-founder, says, “Gig workers are not even recognised as workers under Indian law. We have adopted a multi-pronged strategy — advocacy, studies to capture the impact of the pandemic on their livelihoods and approaching the courts — to build pressure on the government and the companies.” In September, IFAT filed a petition with the Supreme Court seeking social security benefits from platform companies including Uber, Ola, Zomato and Swiggy — the first such lawsuit in the country.
Kaveri Medappa, a doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex who has studied the living and working conditions of delivery workers in Bengaluru, said that it was unfortunate that Twitter had become a platform for negotiation. “Social media has proved to be the Achilles heel for delivery and ride-sharing companies. Workers have been able to use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to share how work happens, how minutely their lives are controlled and how they are punished,” she says.
A Zomato spokesperson dismissed these allegations as biased misunderstandings. “If these allegations were even remotely true, our business would not sustain. Why? Because…unhappy delivery partners would lead to unhappy customers, which would be terrible for our business. It’s in our interest to ensure they are cared for and that the platform works for them.” The company also said that they had a team of over 1,200 people to address 25,000 support requests and most were solved within 24 hours. Ola did not respond and Swiggy refused to comment on the social media criticism.
Medappa feels the government should be doing more for labour rights. Parliament passed the Code on Social Security in 2020, bringing 250 million unorganised workers within the social security net and providing benefits like old-age pensions, health insurance and disability aids. But the code is yet to be implemented. She cites progressive legislation in UK, and China where workers’ rights have been protected by laws. “Despite threats of retreat of capital, we must continue to push back to be heard,” she says.