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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Digital labourers: A dedicated workforce poorly treated by app companies

Right from the promise of the 30-minute pizza delivery to huge hoardings of mobile apps that line the landscape of Indian metros, the new dream is to avail and enjoy services with minimal effort.

Written by Noopur Raval | Updated: September 2, 2015 3:19:17 pm
Apps, Digital labour, Technology, Home Delivery, free Delivery apps, Cab apps, Uber, Ola, Meru Cabs, Flipkart, Amazon, SnapDeal, App based delivery, DOminos Pizza, Food delivery apps, In a country where labour is relatively cheap and expendable, such reorganisation of labour carries huge implications for those making the technology behind your app work. Express Photo

An article published on August 15 in The New York Times shed light on Amazon’s already much maligned and strenuous work culture and its impact on the company’s white collar workers.

As former employees at the e-commerce giant’s American offices narrated, nearly every person they had worked with had cried at their desk. A flurry of posts followed, with individual accounts of how Amazon had affected employees’ personal lives and health, something that further found validation in the Twittersphere.

In the past, articles have also appeared on Amazon’s exploitation of its blue collared employees, stringent work timings and its infamous refusal to pay warehouse workers for the time they spent in being frisked between shifts. Yep.

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Closer home, over 400 members of the logistics staff at eKart, the portal that manages shipping and delivery for Flipkart and its subsidiaries, went on strike in Mumbai demanding better wages and working conditions (toilets at storage facilities, regular holidays, uniforms, maintenance and laundry allowance). In a widely-shared Quora thread that was later reported by news websites, both, Amazon and Flipkart, don’t deliver goods worth more than Rs 5,000 to Noida and Ghaziabad because these areas have a high occurrence of fraudulent orders, instances of delivery personnel being beaten up, locked up for late orders and disputed payment among other reasons. While India catches up and latches on to the on-demand app-based economy, where everything from ordering food to gadgets to cabs and apartments is facilitated by small pieces of mediating technologies run by giant corporations (and smaller aspiring ones) that are redefining logistics in the country, this post invites readers to spare a thought for the workers whose roles, perceptions and expectations are being redefined as we speak.

Right from the promise of the 30-minute pizza delivery to huge hoardings of mobile apps that line the landscape of Indian metros, the new dream is to avail and enjoy services with minimal effort. Geared towards young, busy and tech savvy professionals in tier I cities to begin with, the app economy seeks to empower its users by liberating them from the hassles of dealing with brokers or making phone calls and inquiries for trusted house help, mechanics, cooks and so on. They are also a boon, especially for those new to the city, who might not know the local language (crucial to deal with ‘workers’ who serve our personal and domestic requirements). However, in a conversation that largely focuses on your ease as a consumer, what is glossed over is the fact that technology does not do away with brokers, drivers, cooks and others. Instead, it replaces the older ways of sourcing help and reorganises such workers into a different set of rules – not laws of the land but the terms, conditions and rating systems of the app.

Mobile_NEW_1 The magic of disruption that you witness and use everyday through your mobile phones is made tangible and real by a dedicated army of human agents. Express Photo

In a country where labour (even skilled to a certain extent) is relatively cheap and expendable, such reorganisation of labour carries huge implications for those embedded within actually making the technology behind your app work. Merely placing an order on Flipkart, does not magically transport goods to you. Similarly, when you drop a pin on Uber and your (or your driver’s) mobile connection gives way, the onus is on the driver to make frantic calls, locate you, listen to you complain, sometimes even deal with abusive and drunk passengers to ensure that they not only get rated highly but also that the company doesn’t get bad press.

Given the ruthless competition among companies to acquire a loyal user base and retain it, app based systems are designed to give much more power to a user than the contract worker (driver, cook, plumber, delivery boy) being aggregated at the other end. Not only this, the fact that most blue-collared professionals are not “hired” but merely contracted as partners deprives them of most benefits that employees are entitled to. This adds to the fact that those who make our apps work are already exposed to physical and emotional risks (getting beaten up, abused, insulted, haggled with) on a daily basis from customers, warehouse managers, the police and so on. Dozens of taxi unions and driver collectives in the United States are already rallying to be recognised as employees. Imagine if Uber had to reclassify at least a million contractors worldwide as employees and pay them a salary, would their cutting edge prices still hold?

The point of this post is not to defend traditional models of work and compensation against the new onslaught of digitally empowered app based services. Rather, the aim is to point out that the magic of disruption that you witness and use everyday through your mobile phones is made tangible and real by a dedicated army of human agents who are already being poorly treated and whose jobs are expendable, making us akin to feudal masters at whose mercy (and ratings) several jobs are gained and lost.

One solution to deal with such drastic imbalance of power is to design technology that is more equitable – technology that not only considers the needs and comforts of its users but also that which thinks about the invisible labourer at the other end. A quicker and enduring solution is for us who use these apps, to be kind to our digital labourers. The next time you tap on 1 star in your taxi app, think about it.

The author is a PhD student at University of California, Irvine. She studies digital labour platforms and tweets @tetisheri

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