Kolkata: Shubhojit Bera (26) is an app-based delivery worker. He works for Flipkart, an online retail major, on fixed two months only employment conditions. His agreement with a third-party staffing service provider does not mention any remuneration details. Instead, it stresses the stringent requirement that he must follow as a Flipkart delivery executive. They call it a freelance agreement.
Talking with NewsClick Shubhojit detailed his ordeal whereby he has to work for 15-16 hours a day with no fixed pay, PF, ESI, gratuity, or other statutory benefits. “On a good day when Big Billion Days (an offer period by Flipkart) are happening, we get Rs 35 per delivery and about ten deliveries in one day. We have to pay for the expenses of the motorbike with this money. On a dull period, Flipkart only pays Rs 20 per delivery, and often there are four deliveries a day. In a good month, our earning potential is about Rs 12,000 while on the lean period it is a few thousand rupees. Our agreement is for two months only, and we are made idle in the lean periods."
He added that “What we want is an appointment letter from our right staffers, that is Ekart or Flipkart, and a basic sum assured per month. The government should immediately intervene as they did in the case of Ola and Uber to give us a minimum sum assured per day or month. Include us within the definition of workers so that we can be included within the social security net of the government and can get our right to unionise to do collective bargaining.”
During the hottest of months, one can find operating in the bylanes of north Kolkata Prasanta Roy (40), a delivery partner of food aggregator app Swiggy, working for over 12 to 14 hours to get 11 deliveries done that will provide him with a minimum guarantee of Rs 850. Such is his condition though he is passing the marriageable age; he cannot afford to marry with such a meagre income. He has his parents to feed at home as well.
A minimum guarantee is a scheme to lure the workers. If a worker does 11 deliveries under the scheme, they will get a lump sum of Rs 850 instead of charged Rs 15 per delivery. However, the minimum guarantee is not assured as the server, after initial orders take a longer time to give the later orders. Often, they have to wait for 15 hours to get these 11 orders.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, he gets Rs 15 per delivery, so the minimum guarantee is the only way to get handsomely paid, according to him. He regularly misses the minimum guarantee even after working for 12 hours a day as, after the ninth delivery, the server of the food aggregator slows down, and he is made to wait for hours to get the next two deliveries done.
Wiping the sweat from his face, Prasanta says that this ordeal is nothing new but is regularly faced by lakhs of delivery and gig workers in the state, mainly in the bigger cities like Kolkata, Siliguri, Asansol, Burdwan, Durgapur, etc.
Prasanta meticulously details his ordeal to NewsClick, sharing precise calculations of petrol prices done by gig workers and the fact that app-based delivery workers are paid while calculating petrol prices when they were at Rs 70 per litre. Prasanta is lucky to operate with a bicycle. According to him, the owners of motorbikes are more exploited as they continuously have the headache of paying up for their motorbike EMIs. After travelling for 120 to 150 km per day, their motorcycle is depreciated and does not work after three years. A basic good mobile phone need to do work with app-based delivery workers costs Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000, which is a luxury for most of these ‘muh-boli’ labourers (whose work and appointment is by word of mouth), and any form of dissent is marked blocking up of the ID. Then and there, the hope for these workers perishes as once blocked, an ID can never be opened again.
GIG WORKERS EXPLOITED
“Without mincing words, the apps decide the future of these lakhs of the uncertain workforce of the state who is a direct by-product of Laissez-faire neoliberal economy,” says Soumyajit Rajak, president of App-based Delivery and Temporary (Gig) Workers’ Union in Kolkata. The more the curtailment of the regular workforce is happening, more and more workers are being forced to work in the gig economy.”
Sagnik Sengupta, general secretary of the union, detailed his experience in building up the union. “We have met more than a thousand of these workers, and all they sought is the right to unionise. It is amazing that not for a single time did we have to explain to them why it was important to unionise. Rather they requested us urgently to unionise them and begin the fight out from their dreadful condition. To bypass the labour law, they are given the titles of delivery partner while in basic they are worse off than the most exploited section of the society.”
He went on to add that during the pandemic, these workers provided service not looking for their welfare, and the companies earned a huge profit. Still, the payout for the delivery workers per delivery has lessened from Rs 35 to Rs 15-20 per delivery. “Still they are called as delivery partners,” Sengupta added.
Debasish Roy, a national working committee member of Centre of Indian Trade Union (CITU) and general secretary of Kolkata district committee of CITU, said that the demands with which the Union is fighting are for getting the legitimate right to unionise as a worker, to have a social security network around them. To ascertain the nature of these need-based markets as a supervising platform, it is interesting to know that here app takes the place of human interference, and the auto-generated app presents the workforce with a high rate of exploitation. Here there they are saying that this process is free of labour while in practical the coming within this apps fold is done voluntarily while the owner of the apps does the severance by blocking the IDs of the app's users (partners).
HOPE FOR FUTURE
Interestingly, while in no court the rights of these workers have been established, the social security code (2020) has defined platform work means “a work arrangement outside of the traditional employer-employee relationship in which organisations or individuals use the online platform to access other organisations or individuals to solve specific problems or to provide specific services or any such other activities which the central government may notify in exchange for payment.” This is the first time a step has been taken in the country, accepting this invisible workforce as platform workers; however, the government has not yet taken it up to board formation-level even after gazette notification.