Farheen*, a 27-year-old single mother with four children, is anxious about the car and personal loan she took for her children's education. Last month, she used up her small savings to make the monthly payment. Now, she's worried about not being able to pay this month because she has no income.
Her troubles started when Urban Company, her employer, blocked her work ID for failing to maintain a demanding rating of 4.8 out of 5. Farheen believes the new rules for maintaining this rating are unreasonable and beyond her control.
“I've been working at this job for three years, and my rating was usually around 4.5 or 4.6 out of 5. But the company's new rules to maintain a high rating are just too hard,” she said with a pessimistic tone.
For a while now, workers of Urban Company have been protesting an ongoing issue of frequent ID blocking for the past year, which has escalated in recent months. According to the protesting workers, the company has been temporarily or permanently blocking their IDs for reasons such as booking cancellations, declining ratings and for leaves. The change in policy is causing hardships for partners who are demanding to be allowed to work without unjustified penalties.
After Farheen's husband died in a train accident three years ago, she joined Urban Company to support her family. Her in-laws abandoned her, and going back to her parents' home was not an option. So, she rented a place, sold her gold earrings and wedding chain, and started a new life with her children.
In 2020, when the COVID lockdown was lifted, Farheen attended a two-month training program by Urban Company to learn beauty services. She could offer these services to customers at their homes.
“I paid around 5,000 rupees for the training program, and then the company offered me a loan of 30,000 rupees. As part of the loan, they provided a beauty kit worth 25,000 rupees, and the remaining amount was deducted for products. I was repaying it from my daily income,” she told Decode
Things were looking up for Farheen. She was able to give her children a good education, buy new appliances for her home, buy a pre-owned car, and even take vacations with her kids.
“I took out a loan for the car and bought electronics like a laptop for my children on installment payments, thinking I could pay it back from my earnings. But I didn't know that my dream of a better life wouldn't last long. I have no other way to support my family, and if I can't go back to work, we'll all suffer,” she said, feeling helpless.
The beauty expert had a loan of approximately 4.5 lakhs, with monthly installments totaling around 25,000 rupees.
Preferable employer with unfair rules
Farheen is among approximately 45,000 contract employees (referred to as partners), working for Urban Company, a gig work platform that launched in India in 2014, offering “home services, on demand.” Since then, it has managed to become the largest home services platform in Asia and one of India’s most well-funded organizations, achieving unicorn status with a value exceeding $2 billion in 2021.
The company operates in 54 cities across India and has expanded its services to the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia. Through its app, customers can easily book a wide range of in-home services, including cleaning, do-it-yourself tasks like painting or plumbing, and beauty treatments such as massages and manicures. The company has modernized the most underpaid and most informal sectors—domestic work—by bringing it into the gig economy era.
The platform has become the most preferable employer of women in India’s gig economy, which is mostly dominated by male-centric jobs like delivery drivers. The company claims that approximately one-third of contract workers are women, and there are plans to train at least 200,000 more women to join the service by 2030.
According to government estimates, there are approximately 7.7 million gig workers in India working with different service platforms like Urban Company, Uber, etc. Researchers at NITI AAYOG, a policy think tank of the Indian government, have predicted that this number will increase to 23.5 million by 2030.
For many women, the platform provides an opportunity they might not have otherwise had: the chances to earn better, have freedom to make decisions, and enter the work culture in a society where the participation of women in formal employment is low. However, the working conditions and challenges are too common.
Unlike gig workers of the other platforms, UC workers are concerned about safety, high commissions, training expenses, and the pressure to meet ratings.
In 2021, the company faced two protests within three months as female workers raised issues related to safety and working conditions. The company faced a backfire when they responded to the second protest by threatening the participants for taking legal action against them.
For Sheema*, a 31-year-old partner, the penalties imposed by the company even when clients cancel bookings from their end is unfair. She questions why their IDs are blocked for 2 or sometimes 3 days if there are four client cancellations in a month. She wonders why they are being punished for something that is beyond their control.
The blocking of IDs by the company denies partners access to job opportunities.
Decode spoke to 14 female gig partners, all of them expressed that they have different forms of loans taken over the years. The blocking of IDs and job security has led to a sense of uncertainty and anxiety about their future.
Before joining the company, these women have to undergo a 2-3 month training period, which can be costly. The training fees vary based on the specific category chosen by the partners. For instance, in the women's salon category, there are three subcategories: Classic, Prime, and Luxe, each with different training costs ranging from 5,000 to one lakh rupees, including equipment expenses.
“We not only have to pay for the training fees, but we also have to buy perishable products for our services and meet other essential requirements like uniforms. All these expenses have to be covered by us,” Sheema explained.
Sheema says that her ID was blocked without any warning. She said the company did it after she failed to meet the target of attending 45 clients in a month. The block has caused a lot of financial problems for her family. This has been even more difficult because she already had debts from her salon, which had to be closed during the pandemic because there was no work for several months.
Last month, the partners staged protests in Delhi-NCR, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Bengaluru, demanding the company to reinstate their IDs.
Despite their efforts, a significant number of workers continue to be denied access to work. “On June 4, around 2500 female workers contacted us regarding their IDs blocking and the numbers are growing each day since we started an online protest,” said Shaik Salauddin, general secretary of the Indian Federation of App-Based Transport Workers (IFAT), told Decode. For him, the numbers are distressing.
He explained that the company has implemented stringent policies due to a surge in new joinings, particularly from unemployed women, in recent months. According to him, the company is taking advantage of the high availability of partners by exploiting this demand and disadvantage existing workers in the “Prime or Luxe segments” where earnings are higher than for beginners.
As a result, partners across different cities have been on an online campaign against the ID blocking system from July 3 to 11. They have garnered support from the All Indian Gig Workers’ Union and activists as well. During a meeting held in Bengaluru on July 6, a 15-member committee was formed to discuss future plans of action.
The committee’s key demands include the unblocking of all partner IDs and the removal of the permanent ID blocking system. Furthermore, they are advocating for UC to involve workers in any platform changes, ensuring their consent and participation.
To amplify their cause, the committee intends to present a comprehensive representation of their demands to the government. Additionally, they plan to arrange meetings with government officials and company representatives. A member of the union shared these details.
The Karnataka government on July 7, introduced an insurance scheme in the state's budget that provides coverage of Rs 4 lakh for gig workers throughout the state.
Under this scheme, the state government will bear the entire premium cost. Gig workers will receive a life insurance cover of Rs 2 lakh and an accidental cover of Rs 2 lakh. This initiative aims to provide financial security and support for gig workers in Karnataka.
Urban Company, in its statement, shared with Decode, said that their primary focus is on maintaining quality and enhancing the customer experience. In contrast to the concerns raised by partners with Decode, the statement read, "Our investments in training, technology, tooling, products, as well as providing free life, accidental, and health insurance, have a significant impact on the marketplace. These investments ensure a controlled experience and empower service partners to deliver exceptional quality, ultimately enabling them to earn a decent middle-class livelihood. The training is provided to partners free of cost, without any financial burden on their part."
The statement further stated that the company recently had to part ways with a few partners who consistently failed to meet the marketplace standards, despite receiving multiple prior notices and re-training opportunities. "We continue to maintain an open-door policy and encourage dialogue with our partners. We remain committed to building a safe, high-quality home services platform," it read.
According to Suman Das Mohapatra, Convenor of the All India Gig Workers’ Union in Karnataka, many of these workers face educational limitations and personal challenges such as being single mothers or abandoned by their families.
“As a result, when Urban Company introduces unjust rules or mandates, these partners, lacking better job opportunities, are compelled to bear the expenses of obtaining new IDs and undergoing additional training,” he said, adding that the lack of government’s regulatory measures for gig workers exacerbates these issues.
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