The city was fast falling asleep. In home after home, bright porch lights were being turned off behind closed gates. Down an empty street, the light from pole lamps kept flickering over a small gathering of people waiting outside a restaurant. Suddenly, one of their smart phones made a loud factory siren-like sound. It was time to get to work.
As the person reached for a packet of food and drove away on his bike to deliver it to a corner of the city, he waved bye to his co-worker, Sidheek Shahudeen.
Shahudeen does not exactly know how the online food delivery system comes together, but he is hungry for work. He raises his phone to the sky every now and then, hoping for better reception from the cell tower, hoping to land a task faster.
Shahudeen is among thousands of others who found new opportunities in the gig economy and were quick to grab them. But they are fast realizing that this is not exactly what they expected. They are told they are their own bosses, but in reality, little distinguishes them from being a slave to their apps. Their days keep getting longer, the earnings fluctuate and the going gets harder.
The gig industry is defined as “a labour market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs".
In an increasingly service-oriented job market, the delivery executives for startups such as Uber, Ola, Swiggy and Zomato have been the most visible segment where jobs were created. In fact, NITI Aayog chief executive Amitabh Kant said so in a recent press meet, while countering a leaked government report that stated unemployment in India in 2017-18 touched the highest mark in 45 years. Ola and Uber alone created 2.2 million jobs, Kant said.
Actually, a chunk of these gig economy jobs may not qualify as fresh employment, but what urban affairs expert V. Ravichandar terms “rotating attrition".
“If you look at the profile of people who are getting into Ola, Uber, Swiggy or even startups that offer elder care— these are reasonably educated people in a rotating attrition. People are coming and going from one job to another. People are desperate for jobs, so they take this up and work with some IT company (even if) it is not something they want to do. But they need the income. So they are forced to take that till they can get out of this and do what they want to do," says Ravichandar, also the chairman of Feedback Business Consulting, a business advisory firm.
“They thought life is going to be easy with education. They are finding it’s not; therefore, there is a lot of underlying tension and stress that is building up there," he adds.
For Shahudeen, it worked initially. He returned from Dubai some months back, like many fellow Keralites, after he lost his job to increased nationalization there. He then read in the papers that an online food delivery startup was hiring executives 140km away from his village, in Kochi. “I was earning ₹10,000 per week earlier, now just about ₹800 per week. But these days, I don’t get that many orders. Maybe because a large number of people are joining—each month I think they are adding 500 more men," he says.
But this has not meant a lighter workload. “Most of us work from 12pm to 12am every day. Look at this," he says, pulling up his phone. The screen shows his work log for the last three days of the week. Each day, he clocked between 16-21 hours of work, but his income for three days was below ₹1,000.
In Kerala, where the unemployment rate is 12.5%, double the national average of 5% according to the 2015 employment survey by India’s labour bureau, the online economy taps into a labour pool willing to take up transient jobs due to lack of better opportunities. In other words, they are all searching for a dream job.
“I am happy with this job. This guy (Shahudeen) may have switched on the app and it did not work for him," chips in Ashkar C.A., who joined an online food startup after its competitor terminated his contract for failing to deliver a falooda to a far end of the city without melting, a humanly impossible task. “This company has been really good to me, they even gave ₹35,000 as medical help during my wife’s pregnancy."
Many are yet to come to terms with the fact that they are not employees of the startups they work for. Though they claim to be largely treated well by their employers, all of them agree that they usually labour in difficult conditions. Lack of decent wages, an absence of predefined hours and benefits; the physical strain associated with the work, with all the dust and the heat on the roads; abuse and harassment are among the issues they regularly face. Like many others, they are hit by rising petrol prices. In their case, the rising prices directly eat into their earnings.
This is apart from the usual violence on the streets. Roshin R., who is standing next to Shahudeen, recounts a story. He had an order to deliver to a suburb of the city at night last month, and when he reached the spot he was beaten up by a bunch of goons. They simply did not want to pay for the order. Roshin said he tried to complain to the company, but nobody listened.
Some like Jawahir, a food delivery executive whose ordeal was reported in the local media recently, are trying to channelize the pent-up anger and frustration by unionizing workers.
Some months back, Jawahir arrived at a restaurant to pick up an order and found the owner beating up an employee. He tried to intervene and the owner thrashed him too.
“This whole system depends on how longer and faster you can work, and I am naturally disadvantaged," adds Mukesh V., who is recovering from a stroke that left him unemployed two years ago and could not find a job. His biggest discomfort is the lack of toilets or provision to drink water, something as common as pen and paper for any employee in an office.
Rajesh E., another delivery executive, is struggling to find a balance. He lived a life of comfort until recently, when he moved out of Malaysia. He had lost his job and returned home.
“There is pressure from the family to earn a salary. And I have to repay loans of about ₹20 lakh, which I took to migrate to Malaysia. What else to do," he asks, before setting out to deliver an order.
Post midnight, around 1am, one by one, they begin to switch off their apps and leave for home. Like it happens after a factory shift ends, the workforce vanishes within minutes, only to regroup at the same spot the next day.
“All I want to do is to lead an honest life, earn enough so that I don’t have to worry about money, bills, food..." Shahudeen says. “I am going to take a week off, I know it will cut short my income. But otherwise, my body will not be able to cope up. I’m not a superman."