The Race for Faster Delivery: Are Gig Workers Even in the Race?
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The Race for Faster Delivery: Are Gig Workers Even in the Race?

The modern world is engaged in a rat race and we are all supposedly the bait. The ever-increasing aspiration to become more technologically advanced, beating the rivals in the race, and to be the first one, is taking a toll. Recently, the online food delivery aggregator, Zomato, announced a 10-minute delivery system which appears to be the first in the prepared meal delivery sector. With Zepto, Instamart and Blinkit having kicked off 10-minute delivery services for groceries and essentials last year, the race for fast delivery seems to have been given a green flag in India. This, on the face of it, seems very user friendly, convenient and forward-thinking, keeping in mind the fast-paced world with increased scarcity of time and advancement in technology. Many concerns and red flags have been raised regarding the potential traffic violations by the delivery workers. Though the Zomato CEO explained the workings of his proposed system, the plan isn’t convincing enough. However, the announcement has brought attention to the many gig workers in the country. The gig workers first of all, don’t have any of the protections of labor laws in India and plans like this are likely to put their welfare at stake. Moreover, there is a bigger issue involved here haunting the whole idea of super-quick food delivery pertaining to the safety of the food delivery workers or the gig workers.

The Concerns Raised

The aforementioned problems are compounded when we find that the workers who are cogs in this big machine, or the big endeavor of quick delivery, are not even considered workers. They are gig-workers and are not entitled to the benefits which are available to regular workers. Karti Chidambaram, a Member of Parliament, also raised some concerns, alluding to the fact that gig workers have minimal bargaining power and they are at the mercy of big corporate giants.

The impracticality of preparing food in 10 minutes was highlighted by the President of the National Restaurant Association of India. The founder of Zomato, Deepinder Goyal, responded to this concern by stating that only certain items which can be comfortably prepared in the time slot will be available for delivery. This step can be seen as akin to the delivery system put in place by Blinkit, where grocery items are delivered within 10 minutes. Nevertheless, Zomato (freshness is quintessential) and Blinkit operate in two different spheres, though the announcement came just a few days after Zomato acquired Blinkit.

Are Gig Workers Really Independent?

Gig workers do not enjoy the same rights and benefits that their counterparts working as ‘regular’ workers or the traditional ‘employees’ do. This distinction is problematic, since in India and abroad gig workers, theoretically, are independent and able to work wherever they wish and howsoever they wish. However, in reality the contractual terms and conditions show that they are essentially bound by the company they choose to render their services to. In a study by NLSIU it was found that delivery workers have to work for numerous hours every day, throwing the question of independence or freedom out of the window. Also, the study revealed that in the terms and conditions, it is stated that the delivery agents are not bound to work for Zomato for a minimum threshold of time. Conversely, another clause states that once the agent logs in, they have to make themselves available as and when required. The major and very fundamental pillar of the Gig economy is its flexibility to work anywhere at any time but, due to these terms and conditions, it is increasingly difficult for the agents to work independently.

In Uber BV and Ors vs Aslam and Ors, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom ruled in favor of Uber drivers by considering them workers of Uber, basing its reasoning on the employment test. The Court found that since the drivers were allotted the ride and had no control over the terms of the service- even having a penalty mechanism in place- the driver was not free.

Zomato has a similar feature where the delivery is allotted to the agent and he has to fulfill it. Zomato exerts control over its delivery agents by requiring them to work for hours. A petition was filed (still pending) in the Indian Supreme Court to declare gig workers to be wage workers or unorganized workers under Section 2(m) of the Unorganized Workers’ Social Welfare Security Act, 2008 which will enable them to get the benefits of the statute.

Protecting the Interests of Gig Workers

The Government passed the four Labour Codes in 2019 and 2020 with the objective to consolidate, amalgamate, and rationalize the plethora of central legislations dealing with labour. The Code on Social Security, 2020 for the first time used the term gig workers and platform workers, extending social security to them. Also, Section 6 of the code obliges the Central Government to establish a National Social Security Board, which will help in making enactments relating to (but not limited to) gig workers. Further, the Code in Section 114 says that the aggregators who employ gig workers have to contribute 1-2 percent of their annual turnover for social security for the gig workers; although, there is an upper ceiling of 5 percent of the total amount paid to the gig workers, over which no aggregator can allocate to social security.

The other three codes, however, make no mention of either gig workers or platform workers. This is saddening because the Occupational Safety, Health, and Working Conditions Code, 2020 which deals with the safety of workers does not extend this protection to gig workers. Looking at the unsafe nature of the work, which is further exacerbated by the announcement of 10-minute delivery, it puts workers under more pressure to deliver quickly in the roaring streets of India. Accidents occurring with delivery agents are not uncommon in India. They often go unnoticed since the food delivery giants have virtually no obligation to take active steps in remedying the issue.

The Union cabinet Minister of Labour and Employment recently assured the public that the codes will be implemented soon by the states. It seems like the ambitious labour codes do not have the bare minimum, let alone enough, safeguards and benefits for gig workers.

Recommendations

Although the 10-minute delivery system is being started on a pilot basis in Gurugram, it calls for a relook at the gig workers in our country. The delivery workers (gig workers) are often guilty of traffic violations and hazardous driving to meet the unrealistic delivery targets like 10-minute delivery. Therefore, although the 10-minute delivery sounds like an excellent step, one must look behind the veil and find the genuine concerns and security issues. Nobody is going to lose anything without 10-minute delivery. However, because of it, the delivery workers are likely to be involved in road rash, traffic violations, and increased risk. Such concerns need to be resolved. The workers need to be provided with benefits and facilities and most of all, they need to be treated like employees and humans before forcing them into the corporate race. It is high time to bring gig workers into the net of  the traditional employer-employee relationship. Gig workers need to be given the protection of occupational safety, insurance covers, and all the other beneficial legislations so that the wheels of the economy and human nature do not get slowed down.

Conclusion

“If Zomato Instant works as envisioned, it will create significant impact on affordability (at least 50 percent reduction in cost to the end customer), accessibility (reduction of delivery time from 30 minutes average to under 10 minutes), and quality (with influence over the supply chain, we will be able to ensure highest grade ingredients and hygiene practices across the supply chain),” the Zomato CEO said. However, one needs to ask questions about the protection of the gig workers involved.

The 10-minute delivery promise by Zomato looks very impractical from the perspective of restaurants and food makers. It would also not augur well for the delivery agents, who would have to rush to deliver the package in time. This would put unnecessary pressure on the agents, who are already not kept at par with regular workers. It is essential to provide the same benefits to the gig workers that a similarly placed worker or employee in a traditional setup enjoys. Looking at the model on which Zomato works, it is crucial to understand that the Gig workers are contributing no less than a regular employee but still are unable to get classified as a regular employee. Further, the celebrated Labour Codes also ignore gig workers by not providing them the safety and benefits that they need. It is quintessential for the government to take steps to assuage the concerns of the gig workers. At the same time, the judiciary also has a duty to protect the rights of the gig workers from the mighty business giants. For the time being, it would be beneficial for the gig workers, if Zomato puts its ambitious yet misplaced plan of super quick delivery on hold. Though, this announcement has made it clear that the race for fast delivery has started and today, Zomato is leading it, tomorrow someone else will; so, the need to regulate the terms of this race so that human lives are not compromised is paramount.

 

Aarya Parihar and Vaibhav Gaur are students of Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India.

 

Suggested citation: Aarya Parihar and Vaibhav Gaur, The Race for Faster Delivery: Are Gig Workers Even in the Race?, JURIST – Student Commentary, May 13, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/05/aarya-parihar-vaibhav-gaur-gig-worker-rights/.


This article was prepared for publication by Rebekah Malkin, a JURIST staff editor. Please direct any questions or comments to she/her/hers at commentary@jurist.org


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