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When algorithms dictate your work: Life as a food delivery ‘partner’

Zomato delivery executive Sumit Kumar completed his twelfth drop off at around midnight last Sunday. He had to complete twelve orders that day to make an additional Rs 200 incentive. 

Earlier in the day, Kumar had gone home for a couple of hours to spend time with his sons while it was raining. And while being with his children in the middle of the day is a luxury that Kumar rarely enjoys owing to the demanding nature of his job, he chose to give up the Rs 30 surge price per order he could have made delivering food while it poured, for some family time.

But those 200 rupees seemed too much to let go of — this, he said, would be enough to get vegetables for a week for his family, his wife and two sons. So, when the rain finally stopped at around 4 pm, he was back on the road, determined to meet the target.

“Once I am with the kids and my wife, I don’t feel like coming back to work. But, I have to, because the whole house is dependent on me,” says Kumar, 31, a delivery executive with Zomato for over four years. With his permission, Entrackr accompanied Kumar all of last Sunday to understand his day as he rode around delivering food orders.  

Delivery executives in India, for long, have silently been fighting many battles. Against uncertain income, a low base pay, and an algorithm that they say pushes them to ride for hundreds of kilometres a day in return for disproportionately low cash. And amid rising fuel costs, a raging pandemic, and no social security benefits, the money left in their hand at the end of each month is on a steady decline. 

For a company like Zomato, the only way to have a high number of orders (and more revenue) is to ensure that their 310,000 delivery ‘partners’ are continuously available. They are prompted to stay logged in for several hours a day in multiple ways — but it doesn’t necessarily translate into high earnings. 

How delivery executives are nudged to work longer hours

Kumar explains that Zomato has both direct and indirect ways to encourage its delivery executives to work longer hours. The most direct way — for the longest time — has been to offer target-based incentives. 

Zomato’s payment to its delivery ‘partners’ has two components: a fixed base pay that they are guaranteed to make on every completed order and extra bucks after attaining delivery milestones on a given day.

The base pay currently stands at Rs 20-25 from a high of Rs 40 a few years ago. And in Kumar’s own words: “If you just work for the base pay, you won’t be able to afford an undergarment for yourself.” 

That makes incentives important for delivery executives. And Zomato knows it. So the incentives are structured to lure delivery executives into delivering more orders everyday. 


Currently, every order that a Zomato delivery executive fulfils counts as two ‘touchpoints.’ To make an additional Rs 200, which Kumar was trying to make on this Sunday, they have to reach 24 touchpoints, i.e., complete twelve deliveries. This incentive can go as high as Rs 800 for Kumar if he makes 22 deliveries or 44 touchpoints in one day.

Poori raat ghisna padta hai, Sir [You will have to toil throughout the night],” said Kumar talking about the effort it takes to deliver 22 orders in a day. 

Moreover, these incentives seem lucrative only on paper — riddled with a bunch of terms and conditions. This 200 rupees is subject to the delivery person not cancelling a single order and completing every delivery. They also have to mandatorily be logged into the Zomato app between 7 pm and 11:59 pm.

A more indirect way Zomato employs to push them to stay online is to show them rankings of other delivery workers when compared to them in a given location over a week. Kumar said that this feature brings in this sense of competitiveness but doesn’t bring in any financial benefits. 

“When you see this list of top performers, you also want to be on the top of that list,” he said. “There are no incentives if you are the top performer in a week, but it feels nice to see your photo there because the other riders can also see it.”

Last Sunday, Kumar was ranked in the low sixties in a given location in Gurugram for that week. Entrackr is not revealing his exact ranking and location to protect his identity.

Apart from this, Zomato has employed a way that potentially favours workers who are willing to spend more money out of their pocket. For instance, Kumar had to pay  Zomato Rs 4,000 — one-sixth of his monthly earnings — to receive a big Zomato-branded plastic box attachment for his bike.

He believes that Zomato’s algorithm prioritises delivery executives who have purchased this box from the company. “Before I purchased the box in February, I used to get orders after 10-15 minutes of delivering the last order. Now I get new orders within 2-3 minutes,” Kumar said. Entrackr could not verify this claim independently.

Zomato repays the amount for the plastic box in weekly instalments of Rs 400 each — but only if the delivery person has worked a minimum of 20 hours in that given week between 7 pm and 11:59 pm. And Kumar has diligently followed this rule to recover Rs 3,200 so far. 

Zomato also charges Rs 2,000 from delivery people when they sign up for the first time and for that money gives them the Zomato-branded red t-shirt and a big bag made of cloth that they can attach to their bikes to carry food. 

The bright red t-shirts that have today become so omnipresent across Indian cities are paid for by the very men who have to wear them as part of their job of delivering food for a company that was recently listed on the stock market and commanded a market cap of well over Rs 100,000 crore at the time of publishing. 

10 hours, 107 kilometres, and Rs 787: Kumar’s Sunday

When the day finally came to a close, Kumar had traveled well over 100 kilometres and earned Rs 587.30 along with the extra Rs 200 as incentive for completing the twelve deliveries.


Kumar says that is not enough for his family.

As the infographic above depicts, Kumar, who works six days a week is typically left with Rs 11,000-12,000 at the end of each month after accounting for expenses like petrol, bike’s maintenance, and rent. This leftover cash is used for other household expenses, leaving no room for any kind of savings. 


Zomato, however, disagrees. “We believe we pay our delivery partners fairly for the work that they put in,” a Zomato spokesperson said in response to Entrackr’s detailed questionnaire. It said fuel costs are factored in monthly in the payments made to delivery workers. 

The company also said that its remuneration to delivery workers accounts for certain variable components such as wait time, and distance travelled among others. 

A breakdown of all the twelve orders Kumar delivered on Sunday, the kilometres he drove, and the money he made per delivery.

The illusion of guaranteed income 

Dr. Noopur Raval who is a researcher at the AI Now Institute at New York University and has done extensive research on the gig economy said that psychologically, the base pay of around Rs 25 gives the illusion of guaranteed income while the variable incentives seem attractive initially because they offer a limitless opportunity to earn. 

“It’s only when workers realise the physical and mental costs of driving to complete those targets, that they realise the incentives are actually like sales targets,” said Dr. Raval.

And because this is a job that demands a large amount of time, Dr. Raval says its impact on delivery executives’ livelihoods could potentially be long term. 

“It’s not just that gig work is exploitative in the present. Given how it exhausts and forces workers to only think about daily earnings, it prevents any free time or energy for workers to up skill or think about their futures. Having some free time is crucial to upward mobility in life,” she said. 

While Zomato, in its latest financial disclosures said that the average pay of delivery persons has gone up by 20% in the last year, Kumar said his earnings have decreased roughly by 10-15% in the last two years. Kumar fondly remembers that one time in 2018 when he earned Rs 36,000, but hasn’t been able to match that number since — making it seem like a distant dream. 

At 11:20 pm, after more than 10 hours of being on the road, Kumar completed his twelfth and last delivery of the day. It was now time to go home. And as the night came to a close, his seeming hesitancy about letting Entrackr tail him in the morning had faded away. 

Before leaving for home, he video called his wife to let her know that he was on his way back. “Haan, 12 order poore kar liye aaj. 200 mil jaenge ab, bijli aur kooda ka ho jaega usme [I completed the 12 orders for today, so we will get that extra Rs 200. It will help in paying for electricity and garbage disposal for last month],” he told her. 

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