Decoding the Labour & Precarious Lives: Delivery Workers and Online Shopping in India



Introduction

One of the prime factors driving shoppers to shop online apart from the huge discounts, is the attribute of convenience entailed in online shopping-in the form of goods getting delivered at the very doorstep of the customer. Essentially then, the entire edifice of e-retail is brought to its realization by the section of workers who work in the courier companies as the ‘delivery workers’--the men (there are hardly any women[i]) who deliver the goods that we order online at our very doorsteps. We see these delivery workers on the roads: riding motorbike with extremely heavy backpacks irrespective of the extreme weather conditions –extreme heat or extreme cold or rain, racing against time and traffic so as to ensure timely and as fast as possible delivery of our online ordered goods. It is therefore important to decode the form of labour that characterizes the delivery of our online ordered goods, from the point of picking up the parcels from the office of the courier company for which the delivery workers work to the customer’s doorstep. What follows then is an account of the form of labour entailed in the delivery of online ordered goods. This account is based on the in-depth interviews conducted with thirty such delivery workers who are located in New Delhi, India.


Before moving on to the findings from the said survey, the following set up of the e-retail companies for ensuring timely doorstep delivery to their customers must be taken note of. The e-retail companies such as Flipkart and Amazon India etc have tied up with external courier companies such as Aramax, Delhivery, BlueDart, FedEx etc to ensure the timely delivery of the goods ordered from their respective platforms/ e-portals. Some of these e-retail companies such as Amazon India and Flipkart have also set up their in-house courier service in addition to partnering with the outside courier companies.[ii] Doing so gives these e-retail companies greater control over the delivery process of the goods ordered from their online platforms, which thereby enables the e-retail companies to shorten the delivery time and hence ensure quickest possible delivery of goods to their customers.[iii]


Contract Labour and the Various Forms of Flexibility of Labour Entailed

Whether it’s the case of the delivery workers working in the in-house courier service of the e-retailing companies such as Flipkart and Amazon India or the case of the delivery workers working in the external/ third party courier companies with which the e-retail companies have tied up for the delivery of the goods bought from their respective e-portal,the predominant route of hiring these delivery workers is through the staffing agency/ the labour contractor (whom these delivery workers call as their ‘third party vendor’). That is though these delivery workers deliver parcels of say Amazon and Flipkart, neither of these eretail companies directly employ these workers; and when these e-retail companies outsource the delivery of their parcels to external courier companies like say Delhivery, these external courier companies too in many cases contract out the employment of these delivery workers to a labour contractor. Basically then these delivery workers are on the pay roll of the staffing company.


Though Flipkart still employs a few delivery workers directly, Amazon India completely outsources the hiring of the delivery personnel for its in-house courier service to the third party vendor. This is so because outsourcing the employment of these delivery workers to a labour contractor entails several advantages for the courier company. One major advantage is that in case of any theft or damage of the parcels by the delivery workers, the entire responsibility of compensation falls on the labour contractor. In this light, the courier company insures itself completely against such risks and thereby is able to minimize its potential costs.


The other major advantage to the courier company stems from employment flexibility which the contract labour entails. That is, contract labour gives the courier company the freedom to hire and fire at will. From the point of view of the delivery worker, being a contract worker is basically being in a totally precarious and insecure position as the contract worker is deprived of any employment security. This complete lack of employment security then acts as a disciplinary device with regard to creating a docile workforce.


Furthermore, whether it is the courier company which decides the size of the load that will make up the backpack of a delivery worker or whether it is the delivery worker himself who decides the size of his backpack, the working hours remain flexible. That is, the length of the working day-the number of working hours- is not fixed. Furthermore, through my survey I have also found that courier companies make the delivery workers do many other tasks apart from making deliveries for which these delivery workers don’t get paid. In this light, the delivery worker named Manjeet told me that there were seven delivery workers who worked along with him in the courier company Elastic Run and every day one of them after making all the deliveries for that day had to stay back in the courier company’s office in the night in order to unload, count and assort (according to pin codes) the fresh set of parcels which came for getting delivered the next day. Ranjit further told me that they were not paid a single penny for this extra work. Ranjeet gets paid just Rs 10000 a month as a delivery worker at Elastic Run and he has to labour for 10-12 hours a day to fetch the said monthly salary.


The courier companies in this manner further extract unpaid/ surplus labour from the delivery workers and thereby reduce their labour cost as they don’t have to employ more people -who shall do this work of unloading, counting and assorting the parcels-and pay them. Therefore, the flexibility entailed in the nature of labour performed by these delivery workers includes not just the above highlighted flexibility in terms of the employment and working hours but also in terms of functional flexibility wherein these delivery workers are made to do a lot of other work- apart from making delivery- and this extra work as pointed out above is completely unpaid. This is one of the facets of the exploitation of the delivery workers.


Furthermore, I have also found that the minimum weight of their backpack is 25kg-30kg and the backpacks of some of the delivery workers whom I interviewed weighed between 55kg- 70kg. In this light, I have also found that despite such extremely heavy backpacks, most customers who live on the higher floors of a building vehemently assert on getting their order delivered at their doorstep. Also, most of the delivery workers whom I have interviewed complained of severe back pain problems resulting from the very high weight of the load they have to carry on their back.


The Wage Structure

These delivery workers are paid in either of the two ways: one is on monthly salary basis and the other is on per packet or piece rate basis. The amount of the monthly salary as well as the piece rate differs from one courier company to another courier company. As already pointed out above that these delivery workers are mostly on the payroll of the labour contractor/ the staffing company (who is called as the third party vendor by these delivery workers) and so it is the labour contractor who decides the amount of the monthly salary and the piece rate which is to be paid to these delivery workers. Basically, the e-retail company for example Amazon India pays a certain amount to the labour contractor for the delivery worker and the labour contractor deducts a certain proportion of that amount for himself and then pays to the delivery worker. The labour contractors therefore, earns purely through the labour of these delivery workers.


The delivery workers get to choose the type of pay structure they want to labour for. Furthermore, the monthly salary based pay structure differs from the piece rate based pay structure not just in terms of the former entailing a fixed monthly payment while the latter being devoid of it but also in terms of reimbursement of fuel expenditure, social security benefits in the form of Provident Fund and Employees State Insurance and in terms of the number of holidays being given in the former form of pay and not in the latter. That is, the delivery workers who work on monthly salary basis get a fixed monthly salary which ranges between - (inclusive of all benefits)- Rs 8000 to Rs 16,000 and are reimbursed for their fuel expenditure and also get social security benefits in the form of Provident Fund and Employees State Insurance (which is a pittance; see the table below), while those delivery workers who work on the piece rate basis, neither get reimbursed for their fuel expenditure nor are provided with social security benefits in the form of Provident Fund and Employees State Insurance. In other words, the delivery workers working on the piece rate basis totally lack ‘work security’[iv].


These delivery workers in my view fall under the unskilled category of workers because what a man- (considering it’s predominantly a male dominated job) -needs to be equipped with to become a delivery worker is a bike, ability to ride the bike and a working, robust body. Furthermore, some of the delivery workers whom I interviewed even told me that many a times a newly hired delivery worker- via the labour contractor- is paid between Rs 8,200 to Rs 8,800 per month. Considering that the current minimum monthly pay as decided by the Govt. of Delhi for an unskilled worker is Rs14000,[v] the said survey brings out that many of these delivery workers are not even paid a minimum monthly salary. On the aspect of the number of holidays, those delivery workers who work on monthly salary basis get four holidays in a month but the delivery workers who work on the piece rate basis, get no formal holidays.




Piece Rate Form of Wage, are these delivery workers the modern mules?

Further, the delivery workers, who work on per packet basis, are never employed directly by the courier company, that is, those delivery workers who chose to work for a courier company on the piece rate basis are always employed through the staffing company. The per packet rate that these delivery workers work for, varies from one courier company to another depending upon what the labour contractor decides to pay these delivery workers after deducting his share from the per packet amount received by him from the courier company. In this light, the delivery worker named Suneel whom I interviewed told me: “the courier company pays a certain per packet rate to the third party vendor and the third party vendor cuts his share and gives us, say the courier company gives Rs18 for a packet, then the labour contractor cuts his share from Rs 18 and gives us Rs 12 or Rs 13 as per his will”. What must be noted is that the per packet rate received by the delivery workers who deliver the online ordered goods is abysmally low- it predominantly lies between Rs 11 to Rs 19. And per packet rate above Rs 18 for these delivery workers is an exception.


Moreover, the number of deliveries that the delivery workers, who work on monthly salary basis need to make in a day, is decided by the courier company, depending upon the load of e-retail parcels received by that courier company for every pin code. In this light, the delivery workers who work on monthly salary basis may then get to deliver 10 parcels or 50 or 70 parcels in a day, as given to it by the courier company. During the online festive sales, the load that delivery workers who work on monthly salary basis have to pick up and deliver rises remarkably. While those delivery workers who work on the piece rate basis themselves decide the amount of load that they want to pick up- (and hence the size of their backpack) - and deliver.


Under the piece rate form of wage, the delivery worker is paid on per packet basis- for every parcel delivered- and which implies that the daily wage of a delivery worker is positively correlated with the number of deliveries made by him in a day- higher the number of deliveries made, higher are the earnings.[vi] Therefore, it is naturally in the personal interest of the delivery worker to make as many deliveries as possible. This implies elongation of the working hours by the delivery worker himself. Therefore, the logic which structures the labour that is performed on the piece rate form of wages is that this form of wage payment incentivizes the worker to overwork him. And this is exactly what I have found in the case of the delivery workers who deliver online ordered goods on the piece rate basis.


At a given, fixed piece rate, the more the deliveries made by a delivery worker the greater shall be the earnings not just of the delivery worker who is toiling to make these deliveries on that given piece rate but it would also imply more earnings for the labour contractor-who earns purely from the labour performed by the workers. Therefore, the above elucidated logic of the piece rate form of wage payment which structures the labour of the delivery workers working on piece rate basis coupled with the fact that these delivery workers are not reimbursed for their fuel expenditure – which means more deliveries have to be made so as to earn the amount spent on the fuel expenditure - directly benefits the labour contractor. Furthermore, the piece rate form of wage is flexible more often than not in the downward direction and which further leads to more work (to maintain the previous level of earnings). What must be noted in this light is the fact that the exploitation of the delivery worker, who works for the piece rate form of pay, is affected by the delivery worker himself- that is piece rate form of wage drives the delivery worker to self exploit.


Consider the case of the delivery worker named Mukul who works on piece rate basis for Blue Dart and is on the payroll of a labour contractor. Mukul gets Rs 15.50 per delivery till he reaches 35 deliveries in a day and after 35 deliveries the piece rate falls straight to Rs 10. That is after making 35 deliveries in a day, for every additional delivery made, Mukul will get Rs 10 only. The delivery worker named Varun[vii] told me that Amazon India went on to constantly reduce the piece rate from Rs 20 for every delivery made to Rs17 and then further reduced this piece rate to Rs 16 and then to Rs 15 and then to Rs14 per packet. This Rs 14 per packet is only till 400 deliveries a month and if Varun makes more than 400 deliveries in a month, then on every delivery made after he has made 400 deliveries, he would get Rs 13 per packet and this piece rate falls further to Rs 12 per packet if he makes over 700 deliveries in a month. The piece rate already entails extreme form of underpayment as they are set so abysmally low and furthermore, this exploitation gets intensified as the piece rates are constantly brought down- which essentially implies even more work for earning the previous level of earnings


Age Structure, Educational Qualification and Social Background

As far as the education level of these delivery workers is concerned, these delivery workers have mostly studied till class 10th or class 12th . The age group of people undertaking the said delivery work is predominantly that of the young adults who lie between 18-35 years of age. With regard to the social location of these delivery workers in terms of the class position, these delivery workers come from a very low-class position/ poor family background. All the 30 delivery workers whom I have interviewed told me that they are working as a delivery worker out of lack of choice wherein this lack of choice stemmed from three material factors: their low-class position, lack of quality education/higher educational degree along with the inability to find any other job.


For instance, the delivery worker named Bikram told me that his father who was the sole earning member in his family of four, worked in a welding shop and earned Rs10000 and so in order to financially support his family, he dropped his studies and decided to become a delivery worker. Each delivery worker whom I interviewed is working as a delivery worker to financially support himself or his family- against the backdrop of extreme economic hardship-so as to somehow make a living. The Delivery worker named Dipesh earns a monthly salary of Rs 12,300 and he has a two months old baby girl. Dipesh’s mother has a Below Poverty Line (BPL) ration card. In this light Dipesh told me that his family procures ration through his mother’s BPL ration card every alternate month as he shares the said BPL card with his brother who is also married. Dipesh’s wife is a home-maker and Dipesh told me that he has to manage all the expenses within Rs12,300 that he earns every month. On asking him how he does that, Dipesh replied “We cut down on our basic necessities…but I don’t know how I will manage as now I have a child”.


High Employee Turnover, No Job promotional Opportunity and No Labour Unity

The turnover rate of these delivery workers is quite high. For instance, the delivery worker named Sahil who works as a delivery worker for Fed Ex has previously worked as a delivery worker in E-com express, Flipkart, Swiggy and FoodPanda. Another delivery worker named Vicky who currently works as a delivery worker for Aramax has previously worked as a delivery worker in Novox, FoodPanda and BlueDart. Further with respect to promotional opportunities in this field, I have found through my survey that there hardly exists any such opportunity, for example, the delivery worker named Rakesh got employed directly by the courier company Fed Ex in 2006 and since then Rakesh continues to work in FedEx as a delivery worker.


None of the delivery workers whom I have interviewed have ever got any job promotion and these delivery workers in this light further told me, that they have neither seen any delivery worker who works or worked with them getting promoted. These delivery jobs therefore offer no scope of upward social mobility to these delivery workers in terms of their job status. Furthermore, none of the delivery workers, whom I have interviewed, is associated with any labour organization which stands for labour rights.


The delivery worker named Sahil whom I have interviewed told me that “I don’t speak much with other delivery workers. I just want to make a living for myself and for my family. I mind my business”. Another delivery worker named Nipesh who works as a delivery worker in Amazon’s in-house courier company told me “if any delivery worker tries to raise his voice against low pay or against the weight of the load, four other delivery workers will shut his mouth”. Nipesh further told me “many delivery workers do buttering of their supervisors and managers. I don’t blame them, people who enter this field are very poor, they fear losing their job. But no delivery worker thinks for his fellow workers and that’s okay, we don’t have time for anything except to somehow make a living for our families”.


This lack of class consciousness or this lack of the spirit of solidarity for fellow delivery workers essentially stems from the objective conditions which structure their labour. For instance, I have found through my survey that once these delivery workers reach their courier company’s office to pick up their share of the load of parcels, their supervisors or managers ensure that they don’t interact with each other and just pick up their load and leave for making deliveries within the shortest possible time. In this light Nipesh further told me “once we reach the office to pick up the load, we are supposed to leave in fifteen minutes”. Furthermore, the absence of unity among delivery workers also stems from the nature of their labour itself which is temporary/ contract labour and coupled with the fact that these delivery workers come from very poor families and have no sound (formal) educational background, these workers fear losing their jobs.


In fact, some of the delivery workers whom I have interviewed narrated to me several incidents of how, when they or their fellow delivery workers tried to raise their voices against low pay or low fuel reimbursement allowance, the managers of their courier companies simply asked them to leave! These delivery workers clearly are yet not a 'class for itself'.


Conclusion

Therefore, the form of labour that has emerged at the delivery stage of the e-retail based goods -from the point of picking up the parcels from the office of the courier company for which the delivery workers work to the very point of delivery is predominantly contract labour. That is these delivery workers are hired predominantly via a labour contractor and hence are not employed directly by the courier company. The flexibility entailed in the contract labour thus achieved has various dimensions – employment flexibility (the freedom with the courier company to hire and fire these delivery workers at its will wherein firing can be done with minimal costs), working day flexibility (in terms of there being no limit to the length of the working day), functional flexibility (wherein these delivery workers are made to do a lot of other work- apart from making delivery- and this extra work is completely unpaid) and Wage flexibility (which is more often than not downwards as far as the piece rate form of wage payment is concerned). All these four forms of flexibility which emanate from contract labor entail exploitation of these delivery workers. The said flexible relation with labour allows courier companies to cut their labour costs as far as possible. These workers are predominantly young adults who mostly school and college dropouts, devoid of any occupational identity and are part of career-less jobs. These workers endure a precarious existence and are arguably part of the world's ‘Precariat’.


Well, the parties who gain from this exploitation are firstly the courier companies and the e-retail companies as their labour costs get minimized and they also insure themselves against the possible risk of theft or misplacement of the parcels, secondly the labour contractor who is a parasite and eats from the hard labour performed by these delivery workers and lastly the customers like you and me who benefit from their exploitation in the form of paying subsidized delivery charges on our online ordered goods.