There are days in the week when Obendra Yadav, 19, is so exhausted riding his bicycle delivering food for Zomato users in Ghaziabad’s summer heat that he falls asleep without eating dinner. His wiry legs give in and the heat kills his appetite.
A second-year undergraduate student from Etah, Uttar Pradesh, Yadav, who uses his brother’s second-hand bicycle, himself cannot afford any of these meals with his meagre income of Rs 20 per delivery. He cannot refuse an order and if he fails to deliver it, he is penalised. The penalty can be more than what he makes on a busy day, he says.
But Yadav is an important piece in Zomato’s quest for sustainable business. His working conditions are gruelling but Zomato gets to greenwash its image by hard selling the bicycles. Marketed as a part of ‘sustainable initiatives’, the cost of such initiatives is borne disproportionately by the gig workers and especially by those who are the poorest in the company’s food chain. They are not registered employees of Zomato and fall out of the ambit of any social security provisions of the absent state as well as the exploitative private corporations.
Despite no safety nets, the army of such men and women is swelling.
On 5 June, World Environment Day, Zomato proudly announced in its Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) report how it is aligning its business strategy with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals to positively contribute to society. One such sustainability initiative is “climate conscious deliveries”.
In FY2022, roughly 18 per cent of deliveries on Zomato happened on bicycles. It sounds woke, as do the photographs of muscular, smiling delivery persons with sports shoes and jeans on Mobycy bicycles in Zomato’s colourful ESG report.
The reality is far different.
Gig workers ThePrint spoke to explained that the bicycle deliveries happen not because of delivery persons’ consciousness towards the environment, but because they cannot afford a motorcycle. Zomato does not provide vehicles to its delivery ‘partners’.
Their burning need
Unlike finding work in factories or companies, the work of a delivery person is relatively easy. A phone with access to the internet, a two-wheeler, a driving license and a valid identification card is what one needs to join Zomato.
“Assured payment reaches every 10 days and one can stop work whenever they feel like,” says 30-year-old Durga Shankar, a BCom graduate who lost his school teaching job during the pandemic and needed money to enrol for his Masters degree.
Until two months ago, Shankar was pedalling over 10 hours a day in Bhilwara, Rajasthan’s blistering desert heat to clock maximum number of deliveries as fast as possible. More deliveries, including on time, mean more money. There are benefits if workers reach the top ‘diamond’ category in the Zomato app, which has four divisions — blue, bronze, silver, and diamond.
“I was the only bicycle rider in my area and I worked really hard to manage a spot in the diamond category,” says Shankar. To reach there, he rode his Atlas bike relentlessly, close to 100 kilometres every day. His stomach shrunk and his muscles have stiffened.
But Shankar needed the money. An orphan, he had to take out a loan to even buy daily supplies during the pandemic. The school where he taught didn’t pay for months.
Yadav was chasing the same goal — to make maximum money. He came to Ghaziabad to augment the insignificant income his family of six makes from farming potatoes. With this job, he felt he could at least cover his study expenses. He made up to Rs 10,000 a month if he didn’t take a break — this is below Delhi’s minimum wage of Rs 16,000. But even this income has fallen now under Zomato’s new slot system.
“Earlier, if we completed nine deliveries in eight hours, we used to get Rs 500 commission. Now, Zomato has changed the system. We now have to book hourly slots. If we log in first, we will get it, otherwise not. And the commission system is now over. We get paid per delivery,” says Yadav. If he is not quick, there can be days when he does not get a slot, which means, zero earning.
Their repeated exploitation
On 16-17 July weekend, the 250-odd delivery persons working for Zomato in Indirapuram, Ghaziabad logged in to their assigned slots, but did not deliver the orders. The phones kept pinging, but no bikes or bicycles moved from the parking spots.
“Our demand was to bring the commission system back,” says Chanderpal (he doesn’t use a second name), Obendra Yadav’s elder brother who also works part-time as a delivery person with Zomato. “Within a day, two team leaders reached the spot and promised us that they would take our grievances to the top bosses. We called off the strike, but nothing changed,” he adds. Their protest had no leader and no union or NGO had organised it.
ThePrint reached out to Zomato for comments, but they did not reply to our questions.
Shankar explains how the team leader, their only point of contact for any grievance, is never available. “We are blocked from sending messages to him and he never answers his phone. His job is to only pass on the company orders to the workers,” says Shankar.
Though Zomato claims that it covers health, medical and accident claims of its over three lakh delivery ‘partners’, the workers do not know of these benefits.
“The company should release this data of how many people have been provided with health insurance. The company doesn’t even provide raincoats. Even for bags and dresses, workers pay from their pocket,” says Shaikh Salauddin, national general secretary, the Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers.
Despite these drawbacks, delivery men like Yadav and Shankar do not drop out of these jobs. In fact, the number of people joining the gig industry is increasing.
A Niti Aayog’s report estimates that there were around 77 lakh gig workers in India in 2020-21. This number is projected to rise to 2.35 crore, or over four per cent of the total workforce, by 2029-30.
The Ministry of Labour and Employment, however, has covered the gig workers under the new Code on Social Security, 2020, where the Centre has to register and create welfare schemes for them. These codes are not implemented yet.
Zomato’s sustainability goals
Zomato, which started in 2008, created a stir when it floated its IPO last year. With its steep discounts and a vast network of order-in options, the company is a hit. But the glamour and success are hard to maintain. In May 2022, Zomato announced a loss of Rs 1,220 crore for FY2021-22.
To attract investors, globally, Zomato is making the right moves. It became a member of Climate Group EV100, a conglomerate of global companies committed to switching their owned and contracted fleets to electric vehicles. By 2030, Zomato says it will electrify its entire delivery ‘partner’ fleet of around 1,61,637 vehicles. Once it achieves this goal, it will be the largest two-wheeler EV100 member globally.
Delivering food on bicycles, then, takes the company closer to its goal, making it an attractive entity for foreign investors, explains Uday Walia, partner at the law firm Touchstone Partners.
“Some of these sustainability goals are to create a halo. The companies are trying to distinguish themselves from their competitors and to give the impression to the investor community that they are a responsible company,” says Walia.
The investors would also prefer to be associated with companies that promise environmentally sustainable businesses, adds Walia.
ESG is no longer a “fad or a feel-good exercise”, McKinsey, a management consulting firm, said in its 2019 report. People are willing to pay a premium to “go green” and ESG-oriented investing has seen a meteoric rise with sustainable investment seeing a 68 per cent jump since 2014. The focus of consumers on larger social and environmental impact of corporations is driving this push, it said, and the investors are also seeing ESG propositions as a way of ensuring a company’s long-term success.
Appearing to be environmentally conscious, then, may also help Zomato expand its current customer base of 16 million. ESG reports and bicycle fads are the way to go.
“Zomato doesn’t even own the cycles and bikes. If it is so concerned, it should provide delivery boys with e-scooters. But because of the level of unemployment in the country, there are those who are willing to become delivery boys and comply with whatever standards that are being given to them. That doesn’t mean that they are doing it because there is a choice,” says Walia.
One April afternoon, Shankar rode his bicycle to deliver cold coffee to one Aditya Sharma, 18. Shankar was drenched in sweat. Sharma was so moved by his condition that he posted Shankar’s photo on Twitter and started a fund collection drive to help him purchase a motorcycle. Within two hours, Rs 2 lakh was collected. The same evening, Sharma took Shankar to a showroom. Shankar has been delivering on the motorcycle since then.
Something similar happened with Yadav when he delivered a birthday cake to one Pratyaksha’s house. She posted Yadav’s profile on Milaap, although she could only raise Rs 10,000. With that money, Yadav paid his second-year college fee. But his deliveries still happen on a bicycle. And with almost no savings, his dream of riding a motorcycle one day seems far-fetched.
(Edited by Prashant)