Swiggy Workers on Warpath
K C Gopikumar
SWIGGY, is an Indian online food ordering and delivery platform and a subsidiary of Bundl Technologies of Bengaluru. It was floated in 2014 and currently operates in more than 500 cities in India, and has around 6,000 employees. About 1,100 workers are hired as office and restaurant staff, and the rest as delivery persons.
Besides food, the app provides grocery deliveries and a same-day package delivery service. The company's estimated turnover in 2022 was around a whopping Rs 5,705 crore.
APPALLING WORKING CONDITIONS
Swiggy does not provide the workers with an appointment letter, wage slip, minimum wage or any other statutory benefits that the workers in other firms get. Their work begins at 6 am and continues until 11 pm without a break. While during prime time (6 am to 11 am and 5 pm to 11 pm), they are expected to be utmost punctual, no rest is allowed for them during the lean time. Most workers, irrespective of the weather conditions, look for shade under trees or at the doorsteps of Instamart and await their next order. The workers complain that they are treated like a flock of sheep.
What adds to their anxiety is that the workers do not even know who their employer is and who manages them. The new technologically advanced apps are their bosses, and they are obligated to provide service as per the dictates of the apps.
As stressful are the working conditions, so is the wage pattern in such companies. It is not as per the law and the workers feel baffled and exploited with the system of daily earnings with weekly and monthly performance-based incentives. The workers have to put all their efforts into completing the orders at the end of the day; otherwise, they will not be given the weekly incentives, or in most cases, they will not be allotted the next day's work. In 2022, the gig workers independently conducted spontaneous agitations and strikes demanding wage hikes in various places. Most importantly, they demanded transparency in the ratings given by the customers, which is the basis for their incentives. For example, if the food is not tasty, the workers, instead of the restaurants, would be penalised for no fault of theirs, through the ratings.
The fleet managers who oversee the workers never meet them in person, and all grievances are to be posted with the complaint cell as prescribed in the app.
Adding to the complication is the restriction of the language of communication in the app to only Hindi and English. The workers find it difficult to understand and communicate through this channel.
In Tamil Nadu, Swiggy operates in more than 20 districts. In a move to mobilise and unionise the exploited workers, CITU formed the Tamil Nadu Unavu Matrum Ethara Porutkal Viniyokikum Uzhiyargal Sangam (Tamil Nadu Platform and App-based Workers Union) with the workers of Swiggy, Zomato, and Dunzho. The union has been registered as per the Indian Labour Act.
On behalf of the union, a detailed memorandum was submitted to the Tamil Nadu Labour Department seeking recognition of the gig workers as ‘workers’ as per Indian labour law and the provision of all the benefits of the law to them.
Regulation of working hours, ensuring safety, minimum wages etc., have also been demanded.
Based on the memorandum, preliminary bilateral discussions have been held between the government and union leaders, following which the government authorities assured that the workers would be brought under the ambit of trade union laws.
In a quick reaction, the Swiggy management took action against 41 union leaders and activists by blocking the IDs on the app.
The workers held protest demonstrations in front of the collector’s office in September 2022 and January 2023, demanding the restoration of their leaders' blocked IDs a change in the wage system.
Getting no response from the Swiggy management, the workers in their general body meeting unanimously passed a resolution to observe a strike from May 22, 2023.
In a historic move, around 600 gig workers led by the union took part in the strike in Chennai and Vellore districts, a first of its kind.
In a move to thwart the strike, even before it started, Swiggy management, in liaison with its officers who are ex-policemen of Tamil Nadu, threatened the union leaders. Braving the threat, the workers struck their work, and the food delivery service was partially paralysed in Chennai and completely halted in the Vellore district.
Protest demonstrations were held in front of the Instamarts, a grocery storage space.
The union registered a complaint with the labour authorities against Swiggy for blocking the IDs of the protesting workers. However, the government showed reluctance in calling for conciliation proceedings.
After the relentless persuasion of the leadership, a conciliation process and meeting is called for on June 8, 2023.
CHARTER OF DEMANDS
The workers put forth a charter of 30 demands, including recognition as workers under the Indian Labour Act, provision of appointment orders and social security benefits to all the workers as per the Indian labour laws.
The other demands include eight-hour working hours, overtime allowances, and minimum wages.
The union also demanded that Swiggy management change the present slot system and implement the old system and abolish the token system and introduce a waiting charge system in Instamart.
They also sought Swiggy not to give or divert the orders to third parties, pay the charges for the bulk orders for grocery items in Instamart orders as it is being paid for other food items, stop the present system of preparing ‘food ready’ message even before the food is prepared as it creates problems with the customers and the delivery person ends up taking the blame and penalty.
The union also demanded that Swiggy properly maintain and monitor the ‘food ready’ policy, pay the full amount to the First Mile Order, pay Rs 10 per km and a minimum of Rs 30 for order and Rs 20 for the batch order.
Communication in the local language, revoking the monthly incentive system for seniors, providing space at the parking lot for the delivery employees at the restaurants, and provision of basic amenities like bathrooms and mobile chargers in the Swiggy kitchens etc., have also been demanded.
It is to be noted that the NITI Ayog report recommended that measures be taken to provide social security, including paid leaves, occupational disease and work accident insurance, support during irregularity of work and pension plans for the gig workforce, which is going to swell to 2.35 crore by 2029-30.
In 2020-21. around 77 lakh workers were engaged in this gig economy. The report further says that “India requires a framework that balances the flexibility offered by platforms while also ensuring the social security of workers. The consequent platformisation of work has given rise to a new classification of labour – platform labour – falling outside the purview of the traditional dichotomy of formal and informal labour.”
It added that platform workers are termed as “independent contractors”, and as a result, they cannot access many aspects of workplace protection and entitlements.
While the assessment by the NITI Ayog and its classification of these workers as platform workers is debatable, the definition puts these workers out of the ambit of any laws, thus making them insecure.
However, it cannot be ignored that these workers work in an in-built organisation with a defined management structure under various company rules. The UK Supreme Court has recently pronounced the gig workers as ‘workers’, and even the Rajasthan government announced them as unorganised workers.
The recent Social Security Code includes them under the category of unorganised workers. The CITU demands that the government of Tamil Nadu treat them as regular workers and provide all the benefits entitled to all the sections of organised workers.
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