Distraction Free Reading

Power Chronography of Food-Delivery Work

*A note from Co-PI Noopur Raval: The arrival and rise of gig-work globally has ushered in a new wave of conversations around the casualization of labor and the precarious nature of digitally-mediated “gigs,” ranging from online crowdwork gigs to digitally-mediated physical work such as Ubering. Gradually, scholarship has extended beyond North America and Europe to map the landscape of digital labor in the global south. These posts that make up “India’s Gig-Work Economy” are the result of one such project titled ‘Mapping Digital Labour in India,’ where four research fellows and a program manager, me,  have been studying the dynamics of app-based ridehailing and food-delivery work in two Indian cities (Mumbai and New Delhi). This project is supported by the Azim Premji University’s Research Grants program. In this series of posts, the research fellows and I offer reflections on pleasure, surveillance, morality and other aspects woven into the sociality of gig-work and consumption in India. Each post also has an accompanying audio piece in an Indian language, in a bid to reach out to non-academic and non-English speaking audiences. The series ends with a roundtable discussion post on the challenges, gender and class dynamics, and ethics of researching gig-work(ers) in India.*

**A note from the editor: This post was co-written with Rajendra Jadhav.


Download a transcript of the audio in Devanagari.

This post presents the observations around the design of temporality within app-based food-delivery platforms in India. It draws on semi-structured interviews by field-researcher Rajendra and his time spent “hanging out” with food-delivery workers who are also often referred to as “hunger saviors” and “partners” in the platform ecosystem in India. Like in the earlier post by Simiran on food-delivery workers in Mumbai, we also observed that app-based work was structured and monitored along similar lines. However, in this post, we go into a detailed description of how work-time and temporality of work are configured in order to fulfill the promises that app companies make to customers in urban India. Before such app-based services came into existence, there were some popular claims around delivery-time (“30 minutes or free pizza” by Domino’s) but the entire process of food preparation, travel and delivery had not been made as transparent and quantified in a granular way as they are now through popular apps such as Swiggy, Zomato and UberEats. While such companies exist in the other parts of the world and make the promise of “anytime work” to potential workers, as we observed during fieldwork, app-based food delivery-work is anything but flexible. People could indeed start working at any time of the day, but it had real consequences to earn a living wage. While they were free to logout or switch off their app also at their convenience, they would be constantly nudged in the form of calls by warehouse managers as well as through text messages telling them how they were missing out on earnings. It is also important to note that, in India especially, food-delivery as a standardized form of work, exists in a regulatory grey space. In that sense, there is not a lot of clarity on the maximum limit of working hours in a day and in a week. In the following sections, I provide details about how work is structured temporally in this system.

Shift-based Work

When Rajendra spoke to workers in the Delhi-NCR region, they reported that they could choose to work different kinds of shifts like part-time (8 AM – 3 PM or 7 PM – 12 AM), full-time (11 AM -11 PM) or ultra full-time (7 AM -11 PM). While workers could pick their timings or slots on weekdays, it was mandatory to work on the weekends. As mentioned earlier, while companies claimed that riders could log in and out at any time of the day, their pay depended on the number of deliveries they make and the hours they worked. But it’s not that simple. It is not just the wholly quantified units (an hour, a day) that become exigent and overbearing; it was in fact how these rules demanded high levels of alertness and care from the workers. Any kind of carelessness, not paying attention (to time, text message announcements) could be detrimental to claiming pay for the work they had done already. For instance, like a worker described, if he even logged out a minute before the end of the shift, he would lose out on his incentive. Another worker added,

“If you log off even five minutes before eleven (pm), a call comes from the company and they ask you to log back in immediately.”

In such cases, those managing the backend systems even make these calls to shield workers from the eventuality of losing pay and the hassle of resolving disputed payments later by simply urging and pushing workers to stay on-time and online. In that sense, there is not only an expectation of punctuality and always being-on as a desirable thing, but it is also imperative for the workers to meet these expectations while they interact with the app itself.

Sticker provided by a food-delivery platform to promote its brand. Source: Noopur Raval, author.

Time of Eating, Time of Sleeping

Typically, restaurants and food businesses in Indian cities are heavily regulated, especially in terms of closing times. While these rules differ for each city, in and around Delhi, restaurants are expected to close down by 10 pm, and those that seek to remain open for longer need special permissions. With the arrival of app-based delivery companies, the time of food production and consumption has stretched. Also, with the right kinds of permits, cloud kitchens and home-based producers are also allowed to operate through these platforms, thus making multiple food choices and cuisines available until as late as 4 am in the morning. Whose consumption needs are being serviced at these late hours is a question beyond the scope of this post, but it also means that there is opportunity/compulsion for workers to stay up late at night, making deliveries. Not surprisingly, it is also often these late-night shifts that are better incentivized, not just money-wise but also because there is less traffic at night (a constant source of stress in day-time shifts). As other studies have also noted, platform companies, especially food-delivery services that mostly engage bike and scooter riders (Lee et al. 2016) globally, enforce this cruel temporal inversion where being a service-worker in this economy also means working on others’ (customers’) time of leisure and/or comfort. Especially in Delhi, where the winters get brutally cold, ironically, the profitability of delivering hot food increases. However, it is not that straightforward. One worker Rajendra spoke to in March (springtime) explained,

“I am not going to work with any of the food delivery company from April onwards because of the hot summer in Delhi, it is very difficult to ride in a day time of summer.”

Temporary Work

Temporariness is the dominant temporal fate of gig-work at-large—workers in our study (food-delivery as well as ride-hailing) often insisted how gig-work was only temporary until they could become business-owners, find a better job, or fund their education and so on. However, as we observed in food-delivery work, there was also a lot of seasonal movement of workers, a reminder of the contextual, ecological and urban migration continuities that inform, support and shape who comes to the reserve force/waiting zone of gig-work. In classic labour terms, the push and pull factors that move people out of agricultural labour or other kinds of work must be studied with an eye to new forms of easy-entry jobs such as gig-work. On the other hand, there were also other considerations on time such as responsibilities and social obligations to family that made food-delivery work (fast paced, inhering a certain amount of recklessness and the willingness to put oneself at risk) less attractive to some (older men and women with a family) and more to some others (younger single men). This made us think of the way in which Sarah Sharma (2011) emphasizes temporal power over speed discourses (she offers the term ‘power-chronography’) where, the ways in which food-delivery work is temporally arranged, distributed and rewarded, privileges certain actors (the customers but also some kinds of workers) over others in the city’s labour market.

*The ethnographic research was conducted by Rajendra and this short essay/post was collaboratively produced by the field researcher and co-PI (Noopur). The accompanying audio recording has been produced by Noopur.


References

Lee, Do J., et al. “Delivering (in) justice: Food delivery cyclists in New York City.” Bicycle Justice and Urban Transformation. Routledge, 2016. 114-129.

Sharma, Sarah. “It changes space and time: introducing power-chronography.” Communication Matters: Materialist Approaches to Media, Mobility and Networks (2011): 66-77.

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