Food for Thought: From long working hours to dismal pay – the life of a food delivery man

Online food startups may have created many jobs for the unemployed, but what’s also true is that faceless, nameless food delivery men whom we take for granted work under immense duress.

Food for Thought: From long working hours to dismal pay – the life of a food delivery man
The job of a food delivery boy, especially, is quite lucrative, as one doesn’t need any major qualifications. (Illustrations: Shyam Kumar Prasad)

A common sight on Indian roads these days are men on motorcycles, with a food box attached at the end, delivering orders to offices and residences. Cutting though traffic, swerving and manouvering jams, these delivery boys are more often than not pressed for time, ensuring a customer’s order reaches them on time.

India’s rising unemployment woes over the past few years have steered these young men towards finding such jobs in the gig economy (short-term contracts and/or freelance work). Recently, while countering a leaked government report that mentioned that unemployment in India in 2017-18 touched the highest mark in 45 years, Niti Aayog chief executive Amitabh Kant claimed that Ola and Uber alone have created 2.2 million jobs since 2014 in India.

Having no earnings while preparing for competitive exams like the IAS or burdened with the responsibility of providing for their family, unemployed youth are making a beeline for online startups such as Ola, Uber, Swiggy, Foodpanda and Zomato, which have made it possible for them to earn quick bucks. The job of a food delivery boy, especially, is quite lucrative, as one doesn’t need any major qualifications. All you need is a driving licence.
Recently, however, news of a delivery man eating from a customer’s food parcel before delivering it brought to light a whole new dynamic of the job. Shot on a mobile phone, the video that quickly went viral on social media showed a Zomato delivery man in Madurai taking bites from several food parcels, licking the spoons clean and then packing everything securely again for delivery.

Not surprisingly, many customers were outraged. Zomato, on its part, sacked the delivery man after an inquiry. “We have spoken to him at length… and while we understand that this was a human error in judgment, we have taken him off our platform,” Mohit Gupta, CEO, food delivery, Zomato, said at the time.

The incident, however, was a rude awakening to the realisation that faceless, nameless delivery boys we take for granted are also humans and that they face several rigours in their jobs, from extended working hours and job insecurity to dismal pay and inadequate facilities. It’s a known fact that delivery men, especially in metros like Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, are under constant pressure to deliver orders on time. Add to this massive jams and customers making incessant calls to know the “status” of their orders and the situation only gets worse. In such a time-crunched scenario, there’s hardly any time for delivery men, who sometimes work for more than 12 hours at a stretch, to stop for a decent meal lest an order gets delayed and a customer files a complaint against them.
The need of the hour, clearly, is for employers to take note of this and take appropriate steps.

Earnings & incentives
Talking about the importance of a healthy and supportive work environment, Deepinder Goyal, founder and CEO, Zomato, says, “We believe strong mental health plays a significant role in productivity and the overall quality of work-life across all levels and stakeholders within the organisation. We are making an attempt to build an environment that encourages professional help. Regardless of a given employee’s position or department, guidance from an accomplished professional will be an invaluable component in designing a sustainable ecosystem.”
The new initiative, however, is yet to reach all employees. Twenty-five-year-old, Noida-based delivery man Vardhan (name changed on request) who is employed with Zomato, told Financial Express that no professional has as yet spoken to him. When asked about his opinion on the delivery man in Madurai being fired, he says, “Theek hee kara, kaam hi galat kiya (They did right, what the delivery man did was wrong).”

Delivery men like Vardhan earn money in three ways. The first is, of course, their salary. The second are incentives, which are dependent on many factors. At Swiggy, for instance, there are three types of incentives—weekday, weekend and monthly—that delivery persons can earn through the orders they deliver. They also get incentives if they work beyond 11 pm and on rainy days. But in order to be entitled to these incentives, one needs to put in certain hours of work. For example, if a worker wants to qualify for the weekday incentive, his work time should collide with the peak hours (11 am-3 pm and 7-11 pm). Incentives grow higher with more earnings, which means one has to be on the road for more than 12 hours a day. Also, there is usually more demand in tony neighbourhoods like Bandra in Mumbai, Koramangala in Bengaluru and south Delhi localities, which means that delivery boys delivering in these areas earn more.

“If I accomplish Rs 6,000 worth of deliveries, I get Rs 1,200 more,” says Suresh (name changed on request), a Delhi-based delivery man employed with Swiggy. The 35-year-old, however, added that incentives have been reduced over time. “Ab itna faayda nahi hai. Mehnat zyaada hai, paise kam hai… incentive sab kam kar diye hai (Now, it’s not that profitable. Work is more, pay is less. Incentives have been reduced),” he says. It’s no surprise then that Suresh is now looking for a full-time job.

Another Swiggy delivery boy, 25-year-old, Delhi-based Robin (name changed on request), is, however, satisfied with his job. Robin, who works for six days from 12 am to 11 pm, says he is happy to work more than 12 hours as long as he gets incentives like Rs 250 for every Rs 1,000 worth of deliveries.

The third source of income for delivery men, also called delivery partners, is tipping by customers. In fact, when one orders from Zomato, the customer can see a brief profile about the delivery boy, listing their dreams and ambitions. Thirty-seven-year-old, Bengaluru-based software engineer Nishant Saxena (name changed on request) who often orders food online, however, finds it funny that information like “This boy dreams of owning a BMW” is displayed for customers. “I think employers should first take care of these boys’ salaries instead of subtly asking customers to fund their dreams,” he opines.

But then again, tipping is a personal matter. “Since the extra costs involved (packaging charges, delivery costs, etc) are fairly high for Zomato, I usually don’t tip. But if the food has been delivered before time and the delivery person was of great assistance, I tip Rs 20,” says 27-year-old, Delhi-based doctor Radhika Agarwal.

Benefits & comfort
Besides incentives, online startups like Foodpanda offer other benefits as well. One of these is weekly payments. Plus, knowing very well that not every delivery man is comfortable with English, Foodpanda has ensured that its app is available in eight regional languages besides English to help them navigate it easily. It also offers flexible work hours plus a dedicated support system in the form of a 24×7 helpline for its delivery partners. Not just that, these workers can log on and off the platform as per their convenience, allowing them to earn more in line with demand cycles. Besides this, they are provided with uniforms and food delivery bags, with reflectors attached to them, which help them stay safe at night while driving as reflectors improves their visibility in the dark.

Swiggy, too, provides various benefits. These include tie-ups with banks like Bank of Baroda to facilitate easy access to vehicle loans for its delivery partners at competent rates. It also ensures they get personal loans at a better rate, provides on-call doctors for them and their families, accident and medical insurance, educational scholarship programmes for them and/or their children, etc. A few weeks ago, it also updated its partner app to facilitate better earnings for its delivery partners. With an intuitive interface, the new ‘heatmap’ feature of the app directs partners to locations with a high density of orders, making it possible for them to increase their earnings. It also offers details about a delivery partner’s daily and delivery-wise fee, incentives, etc, upfront on the home screen.

Interestingly, Swiggy employs more than 200 women delivery partners across 18 cities, including Mumbai, Pune, Chennai, Kochi and Kolkata. These women work in shifts that end before 6 pm and operate in areas identified as safe zones, getting incentives and benefits consistent with the male delivery partners.

Zomato, too, has several reward programmes for its delivery men, and maintains that it keeps their safety first. “Zomato prioritises the safety of its delivery partners and the safety of those on the road. Delivery partners are never hard-pressed for time—we don’t commit unrealistic time slots to users… There is no direct monetary incentive related to the delivery time,” says a Zomato spokesperson.

Tough job
While on the job, a major issue that delivery men face is uncooperative customers. Twenty-nine-year-old, Delhi-based Vishal (name changed on request), who works part-time for Swiggy, says customers are often rude to him if he doesn’t reach their doorstep on time. He also doesn’t get any help from them if he needs directions to reach their place. “Agar location nahi mil rahi hai, toh customer ko phone karta hu. Par kuch customers turant phone kaat dete hai (If I can’t find a location, I call the customer. But some customers immediately disconnect),” he says, adding, “Some say, ‘We can’t help… we don’t care how, just bring our order’, and disconnect. In that case, I have to keep stopping and asking for directions from passers-by, which delays the order, reducing my earnings.”

In the past, there have also been incidents of physical violence against them. Recently, Kerala-based Roshan, a food delivery boy, reached a restaurant to collect an order only to find the owner thrashing an employee. When he tried to intervene, he was thrashed as well.

Customers, on their end, have their own complaints. Twenty-seven-year-old Mumbai-based journalist Roshni Banerjee (name changed on request) shares an anecdote about her delivery experience with Swiggy. “I live in a rented accommodation. Once I ordered French fries from Swiggy, but the order was handed over to my landlord. I got to know only when I received a notification from Swiggy, saying my order had been delivered!” she says, adding that she then called the customer care, which connected her to the delivery boy, but he insisted that he had delivered the order to the correct address.

In cases like these, Swiggy sometimes offers to refund the money, but this solution might not appeal to every customer. Take 30-year-old Delhi-based editor Archana Mishra, for instance. Mishra had once ordered biryani worth Rs 800 only to have her order cancelled by Swiggy. She had already made the payment by card and when she called customer care, she was told that her money would be refunded within seven-eight days. Mishra, however, needed the money immediately to place another order. Since then, she says, “I always choose ‘cash on delivery’… also because I forget to check if the money has been refunded after seven days.”

In the past, customers have also complained that some delivery boys call up in advance, saying they have reached the location in order to avoid having to wait for the customer. The customer rushes out only to find that there is no delivery boy.

Zomato, however, seems open to feedback. “We encourage our users, as well as restaurant partners to proactively share feedback through our multiple channels of communication. Whenever we receive a complaint from a user, a Zomato executive is assigned who verifies the complaint with the delivery partner (and if need be, with the restaurant partner as well). This process helps us in understanding the root cause of the issue, post which we conduct a thorough investigation. Basis strong evidence, we take appropriate action,” says the Zomato spokesperson.

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First published on: 24-03-2019 at 02:26 IST