I suddenly recalled, that during my schooldays, my Father would corner me when I was at home, and apart from making me read Tolstoy’s stories, and those of Dickens, also the novel Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, especially the chapter in the beginning, of Jean Valjean, who stole silverware from the house of a Catholic Bishop, and when apprehended by the French Genderamerie, and taken to the Bishop’s house, the venerable Bishop lies that he actually gifted all that silverware to the thief, thereby earning him a reprieve, which marks the turning point in the character of Jean Valjean.
In December 2015, the floods caught my city Chennai on the wrong foot. More than 500 people perished, some in the most gruesome manner, by being overcome by flood waters.
I am lucky to live in the first floor of an apartment and the water level did not quite get up there; the ground floor people vacated a few days earlier fearing the worst, and departed from the city on a brief holiday, and I could observe from my first floor perch during the day, their household goods floating in the floodwaters outside, including kitchenware, pillows and mattresses. I inhabited my apartment as a lonesome human, with my best friend, my dog, since departed as the way of all flesh. For three days, there was no power supply, and no telephone, net, or mobile connectivity, absolute pitch darkness through the nights, let alone any form of transportation, with boats plying on what was supposed to be the roadway.
And food became hard to get. In chest deep water, I did wade to the market, but all supplies including bread and milk,whatever available, had all but vanished from the shelves, which themselves appeared to be getting submerged. Finally, in one shop, I espied Maggi noodles, a product of Nestle. Back in 2015, Maggi noodles had fallen on hard times, indeed, labs in India had tested the same and reported very high proportions of monosodium glutamate, and lead. All especially dangerous for child consumption. Maggi was on a comeback though, and was selling it at heavily discounted rates, and an advertising blitz. Be that as it may, I had no option, pangs of hunger had to be quelled, for my dog, as well as myself, and I recall I purchased whatever of Maggi was available in that store. Both my dog and I, survived to tell the tale. I did want to write to the big honchos in Nestle, that both my dog and I had managed to keep body and soul together, thanks solely to their Maggi. Nestle’s shares had fallen down to one of its record lows, and alas, I did not get into buying the shares, as Nestle made a smart recovery, and Maggi is doing oh-so-well again in the market. Superb marketing strategy there by Nestle, and one that should get into the textbooks for MBA aspirants.
And so much for my own tale. My feelings lead me to another story altogether. Luckily, the Internet of Things ( IoT ) was not so pervasive, at that time almost precisely three years ago. There certainly were no food delivery apps around, as there are today, where plenty of souls order their dinners, often lunches too, through one of these apps, obviating both the chore of cooking at home, and the time and effort in getting to a restaurant. So much so, that restaurants are known to be reducing their seating capacity these days, and concentrating only on food preparation and delivery. Had the IoT been as overwhelming then, as it is today, though barely three years ago, the front-line performers of the food-delivery apps would have faced the thickest end of the boot, or the stick, you name it. I dare say some may have even perished, simply trying to do their jobs, which is, to deliver food in time to those who want to gorge the same.
What nudged me to recall that story of Jean Valjean, however, was what went “viral”, in today’s parlance, a couple of weeks ago, about a man performing the food-delivery chores,after a customer had ordered through the app. He was, in the video, seen to be opening a couple of the food packets, gobbling up several portions of it with a spoon, and then resealing the packets to deliver it to the customers at the addresses provided. This no doubt is legally untenable. Morally ? Would the fella been able to afford a square meal ? I went through hundreds of comments about what this fellow, who of course, lost his job pronto, and while the majority of comments blamed this delivery-man for his fault, there were, what I would rate as about 10 percent, those whose views tilted towards sympathy.
The following report in the leading newspaper in Chennai, analysing what I would describe as a malaise, is worth sharing:
The rise of app-based aggregators has been a boon for consumers but not necessarily for the workers By Akriti Bhatia
Recently, a video of a Zomato delivery agent caught eating the food he was supposed to deliver went viral. This led to criticism, especially from middle- and upper-class consumers who questioned the accountability and monitoring mechanisms of food delivery apps and websites, which are important features of the platform or the gig economy. However, the working conditions of app-based employees are hardly discussed. In this case, given the pressure to fulfil never-ending targets to avail of certain incentives, the worker might not have found time to rest between deliveries or to have his own meal.
The rise of app-based aggregators has been a boon for consumers to access at their doorstep and with the touch of a phone a range of services including cabs, food, and retail. It also purportedly creates decently paid employment opportunities for millions of literate people. But what is the nature of employment arrangements, contracts, quality of work, security, grievance redress mechanisms and accountability in such cases?
The first “person” that app-based workers — whom the companies ironically label “partners” — must report to is the app itself, which is effectively their digital boss. This “boss” gives instructions, sets targets and provides incentives such as boosts, bonuses, star ratings and badges for the workers. It also provides disincentives in the form of fines and penalties. This “gamification” system, seen in apps such as Uber, puts insurmountable pressure on the app-driven worker, who tends to overwork even at lower pay to earn higher scores. And even if the driver or delivery “partner” aspires to be a self-employed mini-entrepreneur, it is the app companies that decide what commission rates to deduct from their earnings and what monetary incentives to give. Even the fares, prices and surges, including the locations and frequency of duty requests, are not determined by these workers. Thus, we may meaningfully ask whether this is a model of self-employment or self-exploitation.
Further, cases of technical glitches in the app, or incorrect payment or deductions from their earnings are no less than a crisis for these workers, since getting justice from these apps or from tedious helplines and zonal offices that get hundreds of complaints each day is often not feasible. Most importantly, we must ask why, in cases of accidents, to which these delivery persons and drivers are highly prone given the rush they are in, shouldn’t there be accountability and compensation, as well as job security, provided by these companies. Finally, why shouldn’t these workers be allowed to organise and unionise to exercise their right to collective bargaining? It appears that app-based companies have realised that there is a simple strategy to avoid these outcomes — keep workers busy with their next duty and block their app IDs in case of any aberration.
The writer is a Ph.D. Scholar at the University of Delhi, and Founding Partner, Jan Ki Baat
Meantime, over the past few days, I could see adverts on various billboards, offering straight discounts
of 50 percent plus, till December 31, put forth by this particular food-delivery app, after obviously facing the flak from customers,
and having their sales practically hit rock bottom. Yes, it is over Christmas and New Year that
food-delivery apps and chains would seek to maximise their turnover. I wish them all the Best. And especially
best wishes to you ruddy delivery-boys, though you guys have often nearly knocked me over while I cross the street, in your hurry to get your food to the palate and tongue of the customer. I don’t doubt that the apps will get back with a bang,
as Nestle did in 2015, before the IoT got going. More than that, I wish that people forgive these delivery fellas even if they have a bite or two, and repack it for our consumption. What the hell, it’s not silverware, but food. That Catholic Bishop would have agreed; so also the Mother of Calcutta, latterly and posthumously anointed a Saint by the Pope, who remarkably insisted that the august gathering at the Nobel Award ceremonies, skip the lavish Gala Dinner and donate the proceeds to the poor and underfed.