Suraj Kumar, a Swiggy delivery agent, anxiously waited at the McDonald's outlet in PVR Saket for his order to be prepared. A sense of disappointment was visible on his face as he noticed that his app showed the order was ready, even though the restaurant had not yet handed it to him. It was already noon, Kumar had only completed five deliveries, earning a meager amount of approximately 190 rupees in his account.
For the 27 years old, any delay in orders means that Kumar had to extend his working hours, often stretching his shift from 10 to 14 hours in order to meet his expected earnings (a maximum 800 rupees). Failing to compensate for the delay would result in a meager income of only 600 rupees after a full 10-hour shift.
On May 17, in a rush to deliver more orders, Kumar made the decision to work extra hours until around 1:30 am. During his last delivery around 1:15 am, he was assaulted by criminals in the Chattarpur area of South Delhi.
“There were 3-4 men in a car parked by the roadside. I stopped my bike in front of their car and was waiting for the customer to confirm the exact location. Suddenly, two men got out of the car and hit me hard on my face. Then, another guy kicked me on my side. He kicked me so hard that I fell off my bike,” Kumar recalled.
Terrified and confused, Kumar couldn't comprehend why they were attacking him. When he mustered the courage to ask them, they didn't give him any explanation. Instead, directed him to leave the spot. Kumar speculates that they might have been engaged in some illicit activity, and his presence near their car disturbed them.
“My eye swelled up from the punch, and I felt pain until the next morning. My bike got damaged too,” he told Decode.
Despite being assaulted, Kumar decided against filing a police complaint, as he believed it would be futile and have no impact.
A week after Kumar witnessed the attack, Aditya*, an 18-year-old first-year college student who worked as a delivery agent for Zomato through a third-party vendor called ZYPP Electric, was stabbed by unknown criminals in the Khanpur area of Delhi.
During the attack, the criminals stole Aditya's phone and took his belongings. Despite sustaining injuries with blood oozing from his left abdomen, he managed to escape. He had to undergo a three-day hospitalisation, incurring a cost of around 3,000 rupees for his treatment, which was equivalent to at least four days' worth of his income.
Aditya worked as a delivery agent to support his education and personal expenses, given the limited income of his family. Unaware of the area's notorious reputation for incidents like the one he encountered, it was only his 10th day on the job when he faced the incident.
“After the incident, a fellow delivery agent told me that most of them avoid going to that area at night because such incidents are very common,” he said, adding that he had no idea about how to report such incidents to the helpline number provided in the app.
When the 18-year-old started this job, his friend who was already working with them provided him with some basic information about the app. “He showed me how to open it, create an account, pick up orders, and how the delivery process works,” he told Decode. “I had no prior knowledge about the availability of helpline support or any other protections related to the risks involved in this job,” Aditya said.
Takeout delivery drivers in India face the risk of harassment and violence. In recent months, there have been numerous incidents reported across the country, with some workers being harassed by customers and others while en route to make deliveries.
Among these incidents, a disturbing incident made headlines last month in Karnataka. A Flipkart delivery agent was allegedly killed by a customer who had ordered a second-hand iPhone from the online shopping platform. According to media reports, police had said that the customer kept his dead body with him for at least 3 days before disposing it of.
Last year, the Center for Internet and Society, a think tank, conducted a survey of 1,500 gig workers. The survey revealed that one in three workers expressed fear of theft or physical assault while on the job.
Decode spoke with 18 food delivery agents, 12 of them shared their experiences of facing attacks, both physical and verbal, accidents caused by reckless driving during night shifts, and feeling humiliated while carrying out their duties. Some agents faced customer mistreatment due to order delays, while others encountered harassment from criminals on the roadside.
Ghulam*, a 32-year-old Zomato delivery agent, shared his experience of facing mistreatment from customers over minor issues such as asking for exact locations. “Just two days ago, I was verbally abused by a customer due to a miscommunication about the recipient of the order,” Ghulam recounted. He expressed that as a Muslim, he feels vulnerable during late-night orders but often chooses to tolerate such behavior, fearing that any complaint against him could result in his ID being blocked immediately.
Even more distressing was an incident last Friday when Ghulam, wearing a Kutra Shalwar while picking up an order in Malviya Nagar, faced humiliation from a restaurant owner. “The owner canceled the order upon realizing that I, a Muslim, was collecting it from his restaurant,” Ghulam expressed sadly, adding that he encounters discrimination on a daily basis if customers perceive him as a Muslim delivery agent.
Suman Das Mohapatra, a Karnataka based Convenor of All India Gig Workers’ Union said that most of the gig workers lack proper training and awareness programs about their safety. He said many of them come from backgrounds with limited literacy.
“Even if some of the gig workers do attempt to reach out to the companies through call centers about their grievances, they often struggle to get them addressed,” Mohapatra explained.
Mohapatra highlights the crucial need for a redressal official appointed by the government, who can provide independent assistance to gig workers and take necessary actions at the city level. He believes that establishing a decentralized system that enables gig workers to submit complaints and receive timely redressal is essential for protecting them from vulnerabilities.
The convenor said, although the app has a call center where delivery agents can report their grievances, it does not function as an emergency or helpline service. In case of any emergencies, the delivery agents can only file a complaint and then wait for the company's response. However, the responses are often delayed, and sometimes no updates are provided at all.
“This entire business is customer-centric, and for that, they are willing to compromise the dignity of delivery agents,” said Mohapatra.
No accident cover
Kumar and Aditya are new to this field, but there are delivery agents who have been working for the past 5-6 years. Despite facing numerous challenges in their job, their income has not seen any significant increase.
Among them is Varender, a 32-year-old delivery agent. He has been working with Zomato for the past 5 years. In 2022, Varender had an accident near Pancheel Park while he was returning after a delivery. He fractured his right hand and suffered serious injury to his knee.
He claims that despite submitting his medical bills to the company, he was not provided with any medical insurance coverage. The cost of his treatment amounted to approximately 20,000 rupees, but the accident had a greater economic impact on him due to a three-month pause in work. This situation resulted in him accumulating a debt of 80,000 rupees to friends and relatives.
The father of two and the sole breadwinner at home expressed to Decode that he felt humiliated for being unable to earn for his family. On the other hand, he said that no financial support was offered by the company despite working there for years.
“There is no job or medical guarantee in this field. We lack identity and security in this line of work. The company prioritizes customers over us. Furthermore, due to the abundance of available workers, it doesn't matter to them whether we work for them for years or just a few days,” he said.
Decode reached out to Zomato for their comments in all these incidents, however, there was no reply to the email. The story will be updated if and when they respond.
Lacking labor laws
According to the government's estimates, there are approximately 7.7 million gig workers in India working with service platforms like Uber, Zomato, Swiggy, Blinkit etc. Researchers at NITI AAYOG (a policy think tank of the Indian government) predicted that this number will increase to 23.5 million by 2030.
Senior legal expert and founder of Human Rights Law Network Colin Gonsalves has raised concerns about the difficult situation faced by gig workers in India. He points out that they are often paid very little, have no social security benefits, and lack job security because there are no specific laws protecting them. “The companies want slavery,” he told Decode.
For him, the problem lies with the activists and trade unions of gig workers who are using the same arguments as the employers – that gig workers are self-employed and not covered by labor laws.
He points out an example of gig workers working in a warehouse. “Are they not being supervised and controlled by the employer? Why are they not then the workmen?” he argues. Under these circumstances when they are being monitored, controlled and even get blocked by the employer entitle them to every labor right given by the constitution.
“This contradicts the idea that they are self-employed,” he explained and questions why gig workers are not given basic rights. “Why are they not provided with benefits like provident funds, employee state insurance payments, gratuity, and compensation when they are terminated?”
There have been claims and orders by the Indian government about the minimum wages, welfare and security of the gig workers. However, they are currently not protected by any existing labor and employment laws. In 2020, the Indian government passed new labor codes for gig workers, but they have not yet been put into effect.
Mohapatra said that gig workers, particularly those working for companies like Swiggy and Zomato, face challenges as they do not have legal protection since they are considered partners rather than employees.
The lack of legal framework makes it difficult to provide long-term protection for gig workers. “Companies are taking advantage of this loophole in the existing laws and bypassing the rights and benefits that traditional employees were receiving,” he explained.
The convenor said that gig workers often encounter issues such as accidents during their travels or damage to products, for which they are held responsible by the companies. They also face challenges related to factors beyond their control, like traffic and weather conditions, wrong locations which can result in delays in deliveries.
“The labor court system is not well-established and primarily favors the employers rather than the employees or partners. It provides limited social security benefits and lacks clarity regarding the type of benefits gig workers will receive,” he told Decode.