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‘They’re scared of us, we’re not scared of them’ — women workers after Urban Company sues them

Beauticians and hairdressers who are 'partners' of Urban Company are protesting against low wages and high commissions. Firm’s petition to Gurugram court seeks stop to agitation.

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New Delhi: Asia’s largest home services provider, Urban Company, has sued its own women workers for protesting against what they allege are “unfair labour practices”. 

The women, who have been protesting continuously outside the company’s Gurugram office for the past two nights and three days since Monday, told ThePrint that they are tired and angry — but not disheartened. 

“They’re scared of us, we’re not scared of them,” said Seema Singh, who works as a beautician for Urban Company. 

The home services marketplace is currently valued at $2.8 billion, and has already faced criticism from within. 

The workers, who are either beauticians or hairdressers, first went on strike in October, protesting low wages and high commissions. When the protest began to gain momentum Monday, the company filed a civil suit in the Gurugram District Court Tuesday to put an end to it. 

In its suit, Urban Company has asked for a permanent prohibitory injunction against “demonstration, dharna, rally, gherao, peace march, shouting slogans, entering or assembling on or near the office premises….”

“We’re prepared to fight this battle legally,” added Preethi, a beautician from Ghaziabad. “We’re ready for a lengthy battle.” 

While the company’s petition names four women protesters, the Gurugram District Court sent a notice to one of them to appear in court at 10 am Wednesday. 

ThePrint called and messaged Urban Company co-founder Abhiraj Singh Bahl, asking for a comment on the matter, but received no response. Emails and messages to Bhavya Sharma, associate director of PR and Communications, Urban Company, also did not elicit a response. 

Also read: Time to recognise Zomato delivery executives as ‘employees’, not just celebrate its IPO

‘Unfair policies’

The women are protesting against a new company policy for a “minimum guarantee plan” that requires workers to pay a monthly fee — which they would forfeit if they don’t complete a minimum number of jobs. Urban Company has also introduced a new category called Flexi that only assigns jobs to people with quick response rates. 

Under the new policy, workers will have to pay Rs 3,000 every month and complete a minimum of 40 jobs. The protesters want Urban Company to reduce the amount to Rs 2,000 and make it a minimum of 30 jobs a month, which is more manageable. 

They say that they met co-founder Bahl and voiced their demand, but to no avail. The group, which includes pregnant women, was denied access to office washrooms.  

Most of the protesters have been working for Urban Company for at least three to five years, but feel let down after a spate of unfair policies. 

One protester alleged that she was penalised during the lockdown for not taking up jobs, and that she hasn’t been refunded the cost of getting vaccinated, as was promised. 

She showed ThePrint that she was charged Rs 10 for every phone call she made to the company’s “partner helpline” to address the issue. 

Another protester said that while she used to earn Rs 40,000 a month, she earns less than Rs 5,000 now. 

Urban Company charges Rs 349 for hair removal and waxing services, but the workers allege they get roughly Rs 120. The salon rate for the same service is over Rs 1,000. 

“What they’re doing isn’t right,” Seema told ThePrint. “They told us we can stop working with them. They’re hiring new people and sidelining old workers. We feel replaceable.”

Dispersed by a legal notice

Wednesday morning, the staff working at Urban Company’s Gurugram office were tight-lipped, with some standing guard at the office gates. Just across the road, the protesters’ mattresses and blankets were neatly piled up. 

The women had moved from outside the office gate at 10 am, but had regrouped on the main road. 

The protesters aren’t sure if the legal action initiated against them is legitimate, because the 135-page petition was handed to them on the street and only names four workers. 

The petition says that since the number of protesters is “extremely large”, it isn’t possible to “sue each person individually”.  

“When they can send UrbanClap (the company’s old name) products home, why can’t they send the notice to our home? They have all our details,” said Seema, the primary person named in the suit. The protesters chose not to go to the hearing, but Seema says she will go to court if a second summons is issued. 

Senior advocate and labour lawyer Sanjay Ghose says it is common for companies to file civil suits against their workers, especially to break up “illegal protests”. 

Jobs, not gigs 

The women working at Urban Company’s beauty segment are the latest group of gig workers to demand better labour practices. 

The gig economy proved to be a catch-all for Indians who lost their jobs during the pandemic, and continues to be a preference for those who want workplace flexibility. Companies like Zomato, Swiggy, Amazon, Flipkart and Ola have contributed to the growth of India’s gig economy — but workers at some of these companies are now seeking government intervention to protect their rights. 

“It’s unfortunate that gig workers are the stepchildren of the formal economy,” Ghose told ThePrint. “They’re engaged by the formal economy, but are unable to transition and remain informal because they are denied the status as employees of the formal economy.”

Gig workers are hired by companies as independent contractors or freelancers instead of as full-time employees. Urban Company refers to their workers as “partners” and not workers. 

“We’re not their partners, even though they call us that,” said Seema. “If they considered us partners, they would listen to us and give us more respect.”

Companies like Uber have been trying to avoid labelling independent contractors as ‘workers’ for years. Workers across the world have been turning to the courts for help in defining labour practices to protect them in the gig economy.  

“World over, several courts have gone through and held that these arrangements are unfair,” Ghose said, citing the UK Supreme Court’s recent ruling on Uber drivers as workers and the California Supreme Court’s judgment requiring Uber and Lyft drivers to be considered full-time employees. 

He added that India’s new Code on Social Security offers a glimmer of hope, but the law still hasn’t come into effect. 

Labour reform on the horizon 

The Code on Social Security introduces various social security measures for gig and platform workers like life and accident insurance, maternity benefits, and old-age protection. The Code also provides for a social security fund, which aggregators have to contribute to. 

The Union Ministry of Labour and Employment told the Lok Sabha Monday that 7,27,921 gig workers have registered on the e-SHRAM database of unorganised workers. 

In response to a question on whether the government has social protection schemes in place for gig workers, the Minister of State for Labour and Employment Rameswar Teli said that no scheme has been finalised under the Code on Social Security, 2020, relating to gig workers. On whether the ministry received complaints, the minister said that gig workers haven’t been defined as such under existing labour laws. 

(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)

Also read: Giant tech platforms have reduced gig-economy workers to today’s proletariat  


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