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The latest innovation in food and groceries delivery such as by Swiggy and Zomato is ten-minute delivery. Zomato promises it for food, Zepto and Zomato-backed Blinkit for groceries. Swiggy Instamart talks about a delivery time of 15 to 30 minutes. Last year, Dunzo announced a 19-minute delivery target for its ‘Daily’ essentials service. Of course, these offers are not available in every city and every locality, but the effort clearly is to scale up this ‘zippy’ delivery system to more areas.

In the precarious world of delivery work, these targets are raising the alarm about aggressively-promoted gig economy firms fixing unrealistic and, to many, pointless targets that put pressure on the delivery agents who already have a litany of complaints about work. Police forces are worried that an already chaotic urban traffic environment is bound to get worse, as desperate workers try to meet the expectations of the companies and fall victim to or cause accidents. Chennai police, which recently issued a flurry of fines for violations by delivery personnel, has issued notice to the firms.

There is now anecdotal evidence from India and China, that as the food delivery companies expand, worker numbers rise while earnings fall, creating a spiral that fuels the desperation to make more hurried trips.

Gig economy promoters contend that the shorter delivery times are an innovation produced by technology and shrewd aggregation practices. The large volume of doorstep deliveries in food and groceries spurred by COVID-19 has made it possible to determine what people buy most often, put them in quick-ship packages and locate them in godowns in a radius of 2 – 3 km in high demand areas, to reach customers in the shortest possible time.

Serving local orders increasingly involves “dark stores” in congested urban areas, which are not open to walk-in shoppers but provide supplies to be door delivered. In some cities abroad, including New York, these dark stores are often those that lost business during the pandemic but are centrally located, and now find a different purpose.

Even before the ten-minute delivery idea was floated, delivery agents of Swiggy, Zomato and other firms had to meet performance targets in order to qualify for incentives, leading to sharp driving practices and accident risk to the agent and other road users.

Reality of urban congestion
While this has a lot of appeal in theory, in practice, the last mile set by Swiggy, Zomato and others must be navigated in Indian conditions of chaos and congestion in dense areas with high demand, where the target audience of the delivery apps lives. Often, this must be done in a burst of traffic coinciding with evening dining hours.

Even before the ten-minute delivery idea was floated, delivery agents of Swiggy, Zomato and other firms had to meet performance targets in order to qualify for incentives, leading to sharp driving practices and accident risk to the agent and other road users. What is more, since the peak of the COVID-era growth, the compensation for agents has been declining.

Among the cases that got some media attention was that of Salil Tripathi, who worked for Zomato in Delhi as an agent besides being a restaurant manager, and was killed in January 2022 in a traffic accident involving an SUV driven by a policeman. His family had lost its breadwinner, after Salil’s father succumbed to COVID earlier. Zomato promised to help with life insurance cover and pay for the funeral, the media reports said.

Commenting on the 10-minute “instant” offer of Zomato, Telangana Gig and Platform Workers Union (TGPWU) president Shaik Salauddin was quoted by The Hindu as saying, “In the competition to become the fastest in providing groceries and meals and acquire more customers, the lives of delivery partners are being put at stake.”

A study by the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) in April 2021 involving numerous interviews with, among others, delivery agents of Zomato and Swiggy concluded that the precariousness of the agents’ work arises from lack of access to remedies if there are physical barriers to executing an order, threat of suspension if an order is declined, imposition of a failed order’s cost on the agent, absence of minimum wage protection and no compensation for rising fuel and other costs. For instance, the order fee for the agent is calculated on the shortest possible distance, without taking into account actual road conditions and re-routing required by traffic police. If there is a vehicle breakdown, agents who spoke for the DEF study said, the cost of the order would invariably have to be borne by them.

As evidence of shrinking wages of food delivery agents, DEF cited Swiggy’s announcement on a jobs portal in 2018 promising agents up to Rs.40,000 per month, but in 2021, it was down to Rs.18,000 per month. Gig economy companies do not publish their full compensation mechanism, producing information asymmetry. There are 13 million workers in India’s gig economy, according to Tamil Nadu MP Karti Chidambaram, who has publicly raised the disempowering nature of contracts offered by such companies, including food delivery firms.

A realistic way
Many question the need for a ten-minute delivery time at all. A predictable and realistic system of delivering food or groceries with fair work terms for the personnel would be acceptable to all. The All India Gig Workers’ Union (which paradoxically has only 1,511 followers on Twitter at present) has been demanding that the work hours for the firms be fixed by law, rather than keep overtime open-ended beyond even 12 hours.

The food delivery firms have responded to police concerns and calls for regulation by assuring that they do not convey any time deadlines to the agents, nor do they penalise them for failure. This, however, flies in the face of their offer to customers, which involves ratings for the agents. In 2021, the survey of agents found that they wanted a minimum delivery charge of Rs.30-35. They also want legal protection for minimum wages, provident fund, paid leave, weekly day off and legal forums for remedies, which no State government is coming forward to give, under the weak new Labour Codes. In January 2022, Swiggy was valued at $ 10.7 billion and it raised $700 million, edging past listed company Zomato, which fell below that valuation figure.

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