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Grief, loss, despair: Gig workers in India shaken by COVID-19’s second coming

Dhirendra Singh remembers May 1 vividly. After an unsuccessful and harrowing search for a hospital bed in the national capital region, it was the day when Singh (name changed on request) lost his mother to COVID-19. 

But he remembers May 3 even more vividly. 

“I was back on the road just a day after performing my mother’s last rites, delivering orders for Swiggy,” he told Entrackr. Singh has been a delivery person with Swiggy for around two years. 

He stays in a rented accommodation in Gurugram with his wife and a son and said that taking a long break from work was something he could not afford. 

“You know what’s funny, sir?” Singh asked. “Their employees are allowed to work for four days in a week. You close your eyes, look at my life and think, can I afford to do that? I could barely take a break after my mother died,” he said, answering his own question. 

Singh was referring to Swiggy’s introduction of a four day work week for its employees for the month of May. 

“No matter what, I can’t stop working. If something happens to me or my family, the company is least bothered. Someone else will take my place quickly. I’m highly replaceable and as a result disposable. We are all on our own,” Singh said. 

When asked about the specific steps the company has taken to protect its delivery persons from the severity of the second wave of the pandemic, a Swiggy spokesperson told Entrackr that it has launched a round the clock emergency helpline to provide support & information on beds, oxygen support, medical support, and plasma support for its delivery persons. 

Singh, however, wasn’t aware of Swiggy’s helpline. 

Then there are issues with work safety and COVID appropriate gear that is the need of the moment. The last mile delivery executive is facing a risk far greater during this immensely ravaging wave and as unrecognised frontline warriors. 

“We often go to houses of people who have been affected by COVID to deliver food and while we make sure to not come in contact, you can never be sure,” Ranjan Sinha (name changed on request), a delivery person with Zomato told Entrackr. “I really feel the company should be offering us PPE kits”. 

When asked whether the company was covering any costs for its delivery persons for essential items they may need to be safe from the pandemic, a Zomato spokesperson told Entrackr that the company provides “regular reimbursements for reusable masks” to its delivery persons. 

Sinha said that unlike in 2020 when food delivery services were restricted for some time, 2021 has been a very different challenge. While the number of people that have been affected by the virus in just the last few months has skyrocketed, food delivery services have largely been allowed across the country despite lockdown or curfew restrictions in several states.

Both Swiggy and Zomato said that they cover a loss of pay for 14 days for their delivery person if they test positive for COVID-19 and offer medical cover for hospitalisation costs. Neither companies specified the amount of medical cover they offer to their delivery persons. 

Many frontline workers like Singh and Sinha have been hard at work in the middle of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic which has ravaged India and has resulted in a collapsing of the country’s healthcare system. 

They often work for extremely long hours and with little to no social security benefits, as is the case with gig workers worldwide.

Hundreds of kilometres away from Singh and Sinha, in the city of Hyderabad, Murali Mohan, a driver for Ola, is currently admitted to a hospital in critical condition after contracting the virus.

But no help has come from Ola, according to people closely following Mohan’s condition.

“When we tweeted about Murali’s condition, Ola’s team was very prompt in responding to it and asked us for his contact so that they could help him. This was on May 6, and they said they would help him at the earliest. It’s May 12 today and they are yet to help in any way,” Shaik Salauddin, state president of the Telangana Gig and Platform Workers Union told Entrackr.

“I wish these companies went even a little beyond social media theatrics,” Salauddin said. 

Mohan has two daughters, aged six and nine, a paralysed father, and he is the only earning member in this family. According to Salauddin, the family has had to sell the jewellery they owned to pay for Mohan’s treatment. 

Our queries to Ola where we asked about the steps the company has taken to protect its drivers from the wrath of the second wave of the pandemic did not elicit a response until publication. 

Laxmi, an Uber driver in Hyderabad, has taken to selling vegetables after she couldn’t afford running her cab owing to the lockdown restrictions in Telangana and rising fuel costs. She had lost her husband to COVID-19 last year and was finding it immensely difficult to pay the monthly instalments for her cab. 

Laxmi hasn’t logged into her Uber driver account for more than a month but in that time, the company hasn’t bothered enquiring why she has been away for such a long period of time, Salauddin said.

“When your employees don’t show up to work without letting you know, you make sure you know why they were away from work and if they’re doing okay,” Salauddin said.

“But in Laxmi’s case a driver has been away for so long and no one from Uber has wondered what happened. Otherwise they will flaunt their algorithms and tech so much,” Salauddin said. 

Salauddin said that in his workers union more than 600 drivers attached with Ola and Uber, and over 300 delivery persons attached with Zomato, Swiggy and Dunzo have tested positive for the virus in the last two months.

“Of these, six people have died but none of these companies have come forward to help,” Salauddin said. “And these are statistics only for people in the Telangana region. I don’t know the scale across the country but it won’t be good,” he added. 

Uber did not send specific responses to our queries but said it was going to cover the vaccination cost of its drivers. Uber drivers who show a valid vaccine digital certificate will be eligible for Rs 400 for each of their two vaccine shots.

Zomato and Swiggy have also announced to cover the vaccination costs for their delivery people. 

While the gig workers we spoke to were happy that the companies will cover their vaccination costs, they felt that at this stage, it was virtually impossible for them to get vaccinated given the reported non availability of vaccines in the country. 

“We are frontline workers. We are out on the road for most of the day. It’s good that Swiggy has announced this vaccination drive for people like me, but what if I catch the virus before I actually have a chance of being vaccinated?” Singh asked. “We need to be vaccinated as soon as possible”. 

Salauddin said that these companies “could very well have spoken to the central government and state governments to get their frontline workers vaccinated on priority”. 

A Swiggy spokesperson said that the company is requesting the government to prioritise vaccination for its delivery fleet and is also looking for tie-ups to fast-track the process. 

Uber and Zomato did not specify whether they were looking into any tie-ups or have had any dialogue with the government to get their gig workers vaccinated. 

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