How Swiggy threatened to “suspend” protesting Delhi workers after second pay cut in seven months

27 August 2020
The All India Gig Workers' Union was formed in August 2020, to help workers in the gig economy as the novel coronavirus pandemic takes a heavy toll on the economy across sectors. On 9 August, Swiggy, the food delivery app, slashed payments to delivery executives across four cities, including Delhi. For the workers in Delhi, this was the second roll-back in seven months. The AIGWU has helped the app’s workers in Delhi to mobilise and protest, and spread awareness about their cause. Courtesy the All India Gig Workers' Union

On 9 August, Swiggy, an online food-ordering and delivery platform, issued an internal communiqué that announced a pay cut for its delivery executives across at least four cities—Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkata. Apart from the fact that the pay cut came in the middle of the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has led to severe economic distress across all sectors, for the workers in Delhi, this was the second roll-back by the food-delivery aggregator this year. The first pay cut for Swiggy’s Delhi workers had been implemented around the third week of February. Within days of the August announcement, Swiggy’s delivery personnel in the four cities rose in protest, revealing an outburst of collective frustration. As the delivery personnel tried to strike to object to the pay cuts and planned to refuse work, the platform resorted to pre-emptive threats of lay-offs.

The company’s first round of pay cuts in Delhi, too, had sparked protests and a two-day strike. According to the workers I spoke to, this strike had fizzled out once Swiggy started suspending IDs of workers who were trying to mobilise and organise the strike. 

A few days after the internal communiqué that announced the August pay cut, the platform threatened to “suspend their IDs” if workers strike and refuse to take deliveries. I have screenshots of the app’s internal communication platform for delivery executives which displayed a message that read, “Whichever DE does not complete minimum of two shifts in the next three days (14th to 16th August), we will assume that they are not interested in working with us, and we will suspend their IDs.”

Suspending IDs is Swiggy’s version of firing workers. The company provides no clarity, however, on whether the suspensions are temporary or permanent. According to a report by the website The News Minute, the company has a precedence of suspending IDs of workers who participate in strikes against the company—in June 2019, workers in Kochi were forced to resign for striking against a pay cut. As per the report, Swiggy suspended the IDs of striking workers and refused to clear their dues unless they resigned.

Since 10 August, Swiggy workers across the four cities have either been holding demonstrations or are on strike in response to the recent pay cut. A video from a Swiggy protest in Chennai, where massive demonstrations were held, recently went viral. In the video, a delivery worker said, “Our bodies feel like we were beat up. During the lockdown, we delivered food to corona patients. We’ve risked our lives doing that. We thought Swiggy would take care of us. If they do this, how will we live? We trusted them.” 

For the past few months, Swiggy’s delivery workers have been a frustrated lot. Since the COVID-19 lockdown began, they have been lathi-charged, had their phones snatched and been manhandled by the police.

At around 4.30 pm on 6 April, Md Danish, a delivery worker, yelled at his fellow workers in the parking lot of PVR Anupam, in Delhi’s Saket locality. “Everybody get your orders cancelled. Don’t go out to deliver. Do you have the guts to do that?”  It was the thirteenth day of the lockdown and Danish had just been slapped by a police official while waiting to be assigned an order.

Danish told me that around 4 pm, he was lying down on a public bench in PVR Anupam and a policeman came up to him, and asked him why he was there. Danish said he told the police personnel that he was waiting for an order. He said that out of the blue, the policeman slapped his left cheek, and told him he was not supposed to be sitting there. “He threatened to take me further inside the isolated market and give me a solid beating. I pleaded that there was no need for that, I would go away. The policeman then left.” 

I met Danish and a dozen other Swiggy delivery people at PVR after the incident. They were deciding what to do next. “Does anybody have the guts? If you ask anyone to strike, they’ll say there’s only Rs 10 left in completing their target,” Danish said, talking to no-one in particular. Swiggy gives monetary rewards to workers who complete a target amount of earnings from deliveries, in order to incentivise delivery executives to commit to a certain number of hours. The incentives keep varying, and raising targets or reducing incentive rewards are usually components of the pay cuts.

“I’ll do it right now,” said Sunil Kumar, another delivery worker, in response to Danish’s monologue. Two other delivery personnel with Sunil got to the task—they accepted orders with no intention to go out and deliver them. Sunil then called the manager for the area and narrated the incident to the manager, who replied, “It’s up to the mood of the policemen, Sunil. What can we do?” Sunil told him, “Sir, they can’t just beat us like this. You have to give us some protection.” The manager said, “You guys also must have started arguing with the policeman. They won’t beat you without reason.”  

Sunil told the manager that Swiggy’s delivery personnel know not to argue with the police, as they are scared of being beaten up. The manager responded, “Now it has happened, Sunil. What can we do?” All the delivery personnel standing there told me that the management was apathetic towards their troubles.

The protests of last week are a culmination of this pent-up anger against the Swiggy management. According to Kabeer, a delivery executive in Delhi, until recently, Swiggy delivery workers were being paid Rs 35 per order, for orders within four kilometres. He told me that with the latest pay cut, that amount has now been reduced to a mere Rs 15. Kabeer said this does not even cover their petrol cost. “It would be better to do labour. At least we will earn Rs 300 to 400 a day without burning petrol and paying for bike maintenance.” 

A screenshot of the app’s internal communication platform shows a pay structure with several components. The rates of payments are based on one of at least two parameters—time and distance. For instance, as per the new rates effective from 10 August, a delivery executive will be paid either “Rs 1/min” or “Rs 4/km” for heading to the location from where he has to pick up an order. Once at the pickup location, the worker is paid “Wait Time Pay” at the rate of “Rs 1/min,” which is applicable only after a wait of five minutes. The worker is then entitled to “Rs 1/min” or “Rs 5/km” for going to the customer’s location. There is also a long-distance bonus. As per the app’s own estimate, this means that a worker’s “Total Order Earning Will Be Rs 15 Or More.”

When I reached out to Swiggy, a representative wrote back saying, “A delivery partner’s service fee comprises of seven components which consider factors such as distance travelled, waiting time, customer experience, shift completion to name a few. Reports quoting Swiggy’s delivery partners in Chennai earning Rs 15 per order are inaccurate. This Rs. 15 component is ONLY ONE of the seven components of the service fee.” In fact, the representative wrote that since these “revisions” were only applicable for one component and not the total, “Hence this cannot be referred to as pay cuts.”

According to the workers in Delhi that I spoke to, the first round of pay cuts in February had a complicated structure and several details which made it seem that the pay cuts were minimal. But most of the workers believed that the new pay structure would slash their earnings. Sunil said that before the first round of cuts, sometimes he would earn about Rs 10,000 per week. “I now make barely Rs 300 to Rs 400 per day, a major chunk of which goes into petrol costs,” he told me.

Manoj Kumar and Virendar Singh, both delivery executives in Delhi, have been with Swiggy for more than three years. They found out about the February pay cut through the grapevine. They told me that they wanted to protest against the pay cut but there were too many issues. Swiggy has no shared workspace for its over 2.1 lakh delivery personnel, spread over hundreds of cities, where the workers can meet regularly. Most of them do not know more than a couple of other workers, and in some cases, not even that. 

Manoj and a few others created a Whatsapp group to solve this problem. Every person they added to the group would add others that he knew. They managed to create a shared space in this manner, and organised a strike on 19 and 20 February. More than five hundred delivery workers assembled outside the Swiggy office in Malviya Nagar, in South Delhi, to protest the pay cut, Manoj said. 

Manoj said that most Swiggy workers of South Delhi participated in this strike—they would accept orders and then inform customers that they would not deliver. Still, the unique challenges of protest in the gig economy weakened their efforts. In a collective strike where most participants were strangers, trust remained scarce. In addition, with no centralised decision making among the workers, there were no channels of communication between the management and the delivery executives. 

Manoj told me that a few workers defied the strike, and hesitantly admitted that in some instances, he had to coerce participation. “We said we will provide you food for the day. I even told them that if they needed 200-300 rupees for the day, I would give them that. Still some of them were delivering. There is no unity in Swiggy.”

Then, Manoj told me—and a few other workers confirmed this— that those who were actively involved in the groups had their IDs suspended. Mohammad Akeel, a student of Delhi University, told me that his ID was cancelled after he participated in the strike. He used to earn Rs 10,000 a month working part-time for Swiggy. But since his ID got suspended, he has not been able to find work. 

Manoj said that the moment workers realised that IDs were being suspended, most delivery workers panicked and left the WhatsApp group. After two days of demonstrations, Swiggy refused to budge and the workers had to call off the strike. “Their response is the same,” Manoj told me. “Either do it at these rates, or don’t do it.” He told me that none of them have attempted to form a WhatsApp group again because they are scared, and the shared space they all inhabited briefly is now a thing of the past.

Virendar told me that when the August pay cut was announced, the workers he knew in Delhi planned to simply not log in to their accounts. “This time, there was no WhatsApp group, the strike relied solely on a shared understanding and hearsay.” Virendar and Manoj had not logged in for an entire week when I spoke to them. 

This time around though, the workers have found support in the form of a recently created union—the All India Gig Workers Union. The AIGWU was formed this month in the wake of the protests against Swiggy. It is not an officially registered union yet, but the AIGWU is working with state-level labour unions to try and organise gig workers across the country.  A member of the union’s coordination committee told me that they were drafting a formal set of demands to present to the union ministry of labour and employment. The member said that the union has been helping Swiggy’s workers by raising awareness on social media and assisting with on-ground coordination efforts.

Meanwhile, on 18 August, Swiggy released a statement which emphasised that “delivery workers are the backbones of our organization.” The statement claimed that even with the new pay structure, Swiggy’s delivery workers receive “an industry-best service fee,” with most workers earning above Rs 45 per order, and the “highest performing partners” made Rs 100 per order. In addition, the company did not disclose any data regarding the overall earnings of its delivery staff. Questions regarding Swiggy’s practice of suspending IDs of workers on strike also went unanswered.

When I asked Virendar about Swiggy’s assertion that workers made Rs 45 per order, he rejected it outright. “These people are lying. With the new pay structure, we make hardly Rs 300 per day, Rs 200 out of which goes into petrol.” 

Manoj added, “We regularly work ten to twelve hours a day throughout the week. How will we run our houses if we earn only Rs 100 to 150? We are helpless, that is why we keep doing this work.”

Nishant Kauntia is a writer and freelance journalist based in Delhi.