Updated: March 24, 2021 11:19:04 am
One evening in September 2019, a delivery partner of a popular food app saw a message on his smartphone every time he entered his partner log-in ID: “User not authorised”. His ID had been suspended by the company and he could no longer use the application to work as a delivery partner in Bengaluru. The app did not justify the suspension. However, several other partners whose IDs had been similarly suspended had taken part in city-wide protests challenging the app’s decision to slash their monetary incentives. When a digital news platform enquired about the suspensions, the platform admitted to suspending accounts of partners. Unfortunately, with digital labour platforms lacking the systemic safeguards for “partners” to contest or dispute such decisions, many workers had to simply accept their suspensions. During the course of my field research in Bengaluru, I found that unilaterally suspending IDs was a common tool which platforms like Zomato, Swiggy, Ola and Uber deploy to discipline and punish their partners.
Recently, Kamaraj, a Zomato delivery partner was suspended from the app and arrested by the police (and later released on bail) for allegedly assaulting a woman customer in Bengaluru. But unlike many others, Kamaraj was given the chance to share his side of the story. Noticing the media attention this case had attracted, Zomato agreed to pay for Kamaraj’s legal expenses as well as compensate him for his lost earnings during his suspension.
Worryingly for Zomato and other app-based businesses in India, this particular case and the ensuing debates have laid bare some of the inherent power asymmetries in platform/gig work. App-based businesses like Zomato, Swiggy, Ola and Uber identify themselves as “marketplaces” or “technology platforms”, while labelling workers as “partners” or “self-employed persons”. This framing enables them to evade legislative frameworks which ensure labour safeguards and state-regulated rates for services (e.g. taxi fares as set by the government), while simultaneously allowing them to transfer costs of owning and maintaining assets like cars and motorbikes on to platform workers.
However, far from being mere facilitators of work, these app-based businesses control all aspects of a partner’s work and impose numerous conditions which directly affect earning capacity. Some of these conditions are measured in terms of performance metrics such as order acceptance rate, cancellation rate and customer ratings.
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For instance, Zomato currently classifies its partners into blue, bronze, silver and diamond categories based on the performance of partners. Each of these “badges” come attached with certain perks. For example, diamond badge holders are assured 50 per cent more work allocations than other partners and priority support from Zomato’s call centre in case of problems.
Customer ratings is a key measure to decide a worker’s “badge”. One of my research participants was recently downgraded based on bad ratings from a customer. The customer had asked to buy him alcohol, which my participant refused to do. His request to review the customer’s unfair rating did not receive a response.
Far from bringing positive transformations to the world of work, “technology platforms” exercise untrammelled power on partners. Their unilateral decisions are both enabled and obscured by the use of digital technologies. While Kamaraj has received support and sympathy from the general public, and, rightfully, a fair chance to defend himself, others continue to suffer platform excesses. The recent ILO report on digital platforms clearly spells out the long working hours that platform workers from developing countries such as India put in, together with the complete lack of grievance and dispute resolution mechanisms available to workers.
The Code on Social Security passed in India last year creates the possibility for “platform” and “gig” workers to be eligible for certain social security benefits, which is welcome. However, there is an equally urgent, if not more pressing need. Governments must evolve regulatory frameworks which uphold the rights of platform workers to collectively bargain, create clear and effective mechanisms for resolving disputes and grievances, make platforms accountable for workers’ income security and ensure workers access to their data. This is the least that can be done to better the lives of platform workers in India.
This column first appeared in the print edition on March 23, 2021 under the title ‘Labour wrongs’. Medappa is a doctoral researcher at University of Sussex, studying the work-life conditions of platform-based drivers and delivery workers in Bengaluru
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