Business News/ Companies / Start-ups/  App alert: Did you scream at your gig worker?

Mohammad Farhan, a 30-year-old from Kolkata, left his embroidery business four years ago, to test a new way of working. He started to drive and registered himself on cab aggregator platforms such as Uber. In short, he became a gig worker, or a worker who is not an employee but an independent contractor.

Few months ago, he accepted a ride request from a lady customer. She had to be picked from Kolkata’s Central Avenue but his map showed the pickup location on a parallel lane, 70 meters away. “I could not move ahead because the road was dug up and I requested her to walk towards the car," Farhan recalls.

And then, all hell broke loose.

“She started yelling at me and threatened to complain. I still picked her up and drove her to the destination. She gave me a low rating, which brought down my overall grade from 4.88 to 4.75," Farhan says.

Most gig platforms work on a continuous feedback mechanism. In Uber, for instance, both riders and drivers rate each other after every ride. A consistently poor rating can impact the work a gig worker gets. On the other hand, badly behaved customers, with a low rating, may have difficulty using the platform.

An upset Farhan also rated the lady customer poorly. “We work on commission basis and poor performance will lead to fewer customers. I get five-10 customers who use foul language every month and every time, I have raised complaints against them," he says.

Being verbally abused is a common grouse these days for nearly every gig worker at the bottom of India’s labour pyramid. And although many industry watchers now hate to colour-code them, these workers are often classified as ‘blue-collared’. The ‘white-collared’, in comparison, do work that requires higher cognitive abilities.

Take the case of Firoz, who started out as a food delivery worker in Mumbai last year. Once, he went to deliver a healthy meal plan at a seven-storey building in the city’s Mahim neighbourhood. He didn’t use the lift but a resident screamed at him for leaving the lift door ajar. Then, there were customers who would get abusive for a five-minute delay in delivery. “Some have slammed the door on my face. I did not want to work like this anymore," Firoz says, hinting at the indignity he suffered. He left the delivery gig and now works in a human resources company, in an administrative role.

The Fairwork project, run out of the Oxford Internet Institute (University of Oxford), and the Berlin Social Science Center, evaluates the working conditions of digital labour platforms and rates them. The Indian chapter of Fairwork, in association with the International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore, released a report in December 2022. Gig workers, the report stated, faced several risks during the course of their work. Besides road accidents and adverse weather conditions, they faced theft, violence, and religious discrimination.

While some like Firoz have exited the gig worker space, there are thousands joining each month. The number of gig workers registered on Taskmo, a gig marketplace backed by staffing firm Quess Corp., totalled 250,000 in 2021; now, it is 500,000. Quess Corp estimates a 40% growth in workers this year. One estimate pegs gig jobs in India to total 350 million by 2025. This huge workforce now forms the execution backbone of many businesses, from quick commerce and food delivery companies to cab aggregators and expert service providers.

It is an imperative for such businesses to treat them better. In fact, these companies now want you—the customer—to treat them better. Quite a task in a country where there is little dignity of labour. In any case, this is refreshing. The fight for better rights and respect is often spearheaded by employee unions. Startups, perhaps for the first time, have now taken up the cause. At least, they have made a good start.

Book a worker through expert services platform Urban Company, and the app nudges you to “provide washroom access, if possible" and “offer drinking water". Food delivery company Zomato would like you to tip the delivery worker. Occasionally, the company emails customers life stories of delivery workers to “meet the human behind the delivery partner". Swiggy, another food delivery company, came up with ads urging customers to acknowledge the delivery worker using her/his name. That makes a difference. The company has also worked on videos to sensitize customers against spewing anger on delivery workers. That’s hardly the best way to deal with order issues, the videos argue.

How many stars?

Let’s look at the first level of checks and balances—the rating mechanism—how they work, and if they work.

In Uber’s case, after every trip, drivers and riders rate each other on a five-star scale. This two-way rating system helps inform drivers and passengers on what to expect when they are matched. A rider’s rating is the average of the last 500 trips.

“Uber drivers rate a rider based on safety, courtesy, and timeliness. A rider’s rating could be affected if the driver felt unsafe or if they made the driver wait too long at a pick-up location," says Manasi Chadha, director, Community Operations, Uber India.

Uber has 600,000 drivers on its platform in India today.

Each city has a minimum average rating for both drivers and riders. “If your average rating is below the city minimum after multiple notifications, your Uber account may be deactivated. As a rider, if your Uber account is deactivated or suspended, you will not be able to access the Uber app," Chadha adds.

When drivers face harassment, the company’s agents are empowered to escalate and report these instances to its internal security teams for investigation.

Plumbers, electricians, and beauticians from Urban Company rate customers on a scale of five as well. An aggregate rating is calculated after a customer has received ratings in at least three services. Similarly, a consumer’s rating on Zomato is calculated as an average of all the past ratings. Most apps, however, avoid stating the punitive measure of removing an ill-behaved or poorly rated customer from the platform in the ratings policies they publish.

Some gig workers Mint spoke to weren’t sure if the rating mechanism works.

Last month, Abdul, who works for both Uber and its rival Ola Cabs, lost his mobile phone—he thinks it was stolen by a customer. He was driving from Kandivalli to central Mumbai with four riders. “I keep my phone on a stand near the dashboard. I had turned to receive the cash after the ride from one of the passengers. When they left, and I restarted the car, I realized the theft," Abdul explains.

It was late into the night and he tried all the help lines of the cab aggregator he was working for. When no help came, he went to the Mahim police station to file a complaint. “They (the cab platforms) say they block customers. But, how many of them are blocked is a question," says Abdul.

At times, companies do clarify, or are forced to clarify, more publicly. In 2019, there was a furore about a customer refusing to accept food from a delivery agent since he was from a different community. Zomato’s chief executive officer (CEO) Deepinder Goyal responded in a tweet: “We are proud of the idea of India – and the diversity of our esteemed customers and partners. We aren’t sorry to lose any business that comes in the way of our values".

Rival Swiggy, in an email response to Mint, states that the company takes strict action against discrimination based on religion, caste, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, sex, marital status, gender identity, age. “Any credible proof of such discrimination, including any refusal to provide or receive goods or services based on the above metrics, whether alone or in conjunction with any other metric, shall render you liable to lose access to the platform immediately," it states.

Rest points & stocks

Fairwork, in India, examined the measures taken by different gig platforms, drawing on worker interviews. “The first point was awarded to platforms that mitigated occupational risks and had a policy for data protection," it stated in its report cited earlier.

BigBasket, Flipkart, Swiggy, Urban Company and Zomato were awarded the first point, taking into account their accident insurance policies, the steps taken to improve claims processes, and the presence of emergency helplines, it added.

Some of these companies mentioned are doing far more.

Recently, Zomato said that it has started building public infrastructure (called rest points) “to support the entire gig economy and delivery partners of various companies". In these rest points, piloted in Gurugram, delivery workers will be offered clean drinking water, phone-charging stations, access to washrooms, high-speed internet, a 24×7 helpdesk, and first-aid support.

“We believe that by providing a space for all delivery partners to rest, recharge, and take a moment for themselves, we can create a better environment that promotes their physical and mental health," Goyal wrote in a blog dated 16 February.

In addition to its anti-discrimination policy, Urban Company says it will mine worker reviews and ratings provided by consumers to check for patterns of bias. There is police and legal assistance provided to the service providers for severe escalations.

Urban Company, in fact, has gone a step ahead—it treats blue-collar workers much like other firms would treat their white-collared professionals. Gig workers on its platform have stock options and healthcare facilities. “We have created an industry-first ‘partner stock ownership plan’ initiative for our top service partners where we award company stocks to further enable them to create wealth. In 2022, we have awarded stocks worth 5.2 crore to more than 500 service professionals, of which 30% are women," says Nikhil Shanker, vice president of customer and partner experience at Urban Company.

The firm’s health insurance offers a cover of up to 2 lakh; there are up to 12 free medical consultations per year for the workers and family, along with a group life and accidental insurance cover of 6 lakh. The workers also have access to loans, Shanker informs.

The SOS calls

Of late, there is a higher influx of women gig workers, in services ranging from delivery to beauty. Not all of them feel safe going into unknown homes.

Take the case of Rani Sarkar from Kolkata, a beauty professional with over 10 years of experience. She has worked with aggregator platforms in the past but now refuses to work for any of them. “I would rather go to homes which are known to me because I do not want to get into payment hassles and safety issues," the 30-year-old says. For her, unpleasant instances have been few but vivid. In one incident, the customer gave her only half the amount on completion of her services. “In online platforms, this tension is more," she believes. “Customers refuse to pay by citing poor work done."

Companies, therefore, operate helplines to resolve such disputes.

“We have SOPs (standard operating procedures) on delivery and advise our delivery executives to always keep the GPS and mobile data on. In the event of a behaviour challenge with a customer, they are advised to stay disengaged, to leave the bag of shipment with the customer, reach a public area, and immediately call the concerned team or nearby police," says a Flipkart spokesperson.

The firm has a 24X7 security command centre to handle SOS calls. The women delivery partners are taught to be vigilant while on duty. “For women in customer-facing roles, we have advisory and training on self-defense," the company adds.

These efforts are encouraging. Nonetheless, India has some distance to go before the country can make her gig workers feel more comfortable in their roles—and respected.

Devina Sengupta
Devina Sengupta reports on the shifts in India Inc’s workplaces, HR policies and writes about the developments at India’s biggest conglomerates. Her stories over the last decade have been picked up and followed by Indian and international news outlets. She joined Mint in 2022 and previously worked with The Economic Times and DNA-Money.
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Updated: 31 Mar 2023, 10:22 AM IST
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