Distraction Free Reading

Workers’ fictive kinship relations in Mumbai app-based food delivery

*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.*

Download a transcript of the audio in Devanagari.

Anthropologists have studied the role of kinship relations at the workplace in terms of how employers (De Neve, 2008) and workers use them (Parry, 2001). By contrast, digital labour scholars focus more on economic wellbeing and questions of fair work. But we know from the work of Mauss, Hart (Hart, 2000; Mauss, 2002) and others that all economic exchanges are also social relations. Additionally, economic and moral logics are different manifestations of the same ‘kernel of human relationships’ (Kofti, 2016). In the context of app-based food delivery work in Mumbai, workers’ actions and decisions were guided by them putting themselves in another’s shoes. Such moral acts of understanding and having understood were, as I will demonstrate, instances of Max Weber’s conception of verstehen or interpretative understanding which was important to understanding individuals’ participation in social relationships. This led me to explore gig-workers’ kinship relations at work, and their role in the existence and reproduction of these workers and this ‘new’ work.

This essay unpacks the values and expectations from the kinship term bhai (brother) in order to understand the morality invoked through its usage by app-based food delivery workers in Mumbai. In doing so, it considers the implications of such kinship sedimentations on the experience of workers in the gig economy, their negotiation with the discipline imposed by the employer and the experience of women workers who operate out of these kinship ties. I was compelled to notice the figure of the bhai – a male friend or acquaintance who would not only recruit but also provide various kinds of support on the job, helping app-based platforms maintain their workforce. I also interviewed female delivery workers in Mumbai and noticed that this brotherhood did not extend to them in the same way.

Bhai is a Hindi word for ‘brother’ but in Bambaiyya Hindi (a non-canonical form of Hindi spoken in Mumbai) it signifies an influential or respected male figure who offers support and is trustworthy due to relatedness. Bhai and variations like bhaiyya lubricate daily transactions between auto-rickshaw drivers, grocers, watchmen or any unrelated man and woman with a sociality of kinship.

The role and functions of understanding by bhais in gig work:

Acts of brotherly help and disciplining reveal that material actions are intertwined with an ethic of care, thereby illustrating the role of kinship as central to the economic work in the gig economy. Historically, the informal work of food delivery in Mumbai has been organised along the lines of caste, region (Quien, 1997) and familial networks. Within gig work, belonging to the city is a requirement as bhais recruit, advice and protect new joinees from their neighbourhood or communities as older brothers. Team leaders who occupy a position between the worker and the middle management at these companies are bhais that discipline, control and maintain the workforce for the company.

Prior to joining, newbies would ask friends about their experience and even make deliveries with their friends to understand the work. Bhais offer support by riding pillion, arriving at ‘unsafe’ delivery locations at night or assisting a worker if the customer was drunk or unwilling to pay for their order.

Like other gig work communities that network to produce tacit knowledge about work (Gray, Suri, Ali, & Kulkarni, 2016) the relationships of brotherhood in food delivery help workers gain knowledge about the rules of the company, while also helping them find a way around the rules. A bhai might offer to make an ID on behalf of those who were unable to do so due to lack of documents or offer an existing ID to those who may have been disabled or blocked by the company.

Bhais, on the basis of relatedness due to experience of gig work, understand the needs of other gig workers. I suggest that this is verstehen and not simply a reflexive understanding since they, much like sociologists, also understood the nature of the situation (Tucker, 1965) that creates this relationship of relatedness and the importance of such a relationship in sustaining their future in this work as well as the future of this work.

Leaning on brotherhood to ‘safely’ deliver food as gig workers

A sign written in Hindi reads "please leave your shoes outside."

In India, leaving one’s footwear outside before entering ‘sacred’ spaces like homes and temples is considered respectful. A notice outside an Uber Dost office in suburban Mumbai reads jootey-chhapal baahar nikaley or please leave your footwear outside – revealing an extension of the sacredness associated with familial spaces to the work place.

Companies push a narrative of how working-class, male food delivery workers are safe to interact with because this work leads to working class men now arriving at the doorstep of the protected middle-class domestic sphere. Discourses of safety and trustworthiness are crucial to companies due to the middle-class, Indian anxiety around the separation of working-class men, considered dangerous and potential perpetrators of crime, from middle-class women, the victims of such crimes (Phadke, 2007).

Since working class men are considered dangerous occupants of public space, how do workers feel safe and carefree in the everyday? The bhai who understands offers material support, protects and guides workers but is also understood as enabling a carefreeness in workers that makes this work and working-class men’s navigation of the public possible. Consider the case of Adarsh, an 18-year-old app-based worker who makes deliveries using a bicycle. Workers started helping him by offering to drop him to the delivery location on their motorcycles if they were headed in the same direction. As he described to me, he felt at ease knowing someone had his back: Abhi ye log support ke liye rehte hai toh apne ko tension nahi rehta hai chalo bhai support ke liye apne peeche khada hai. (One does not feel tense if one knows that there is a brother backing one up).

Exclusions from brotherhood in the gig economy

App-based food delivery has opened up the historically male-dominated line of work to women in India but that has not insulated it from patriarchal norms.

A banner outside a Domino's pizza franchise in India seeking delivery personel reads: VACANCY: (Only for boyys)

Food delivery work in Mumbai has historically been male dominated work – be it the ubiquitous dabbawallas (carriers of home-cooked meals) or those working as delivery ‘boys’ in udupis, restaurants, fast food companies and with hawkers.

One married woman worker expressed her discomfort with male riders referring to women workers as bacchi (Bambaiyya slang for younger brother) since it collapsed a sense of formality and familiarity that could be acceptable to young, unmarried girls. Women workers were aware that women have a high attrition in food delivery. They cannot afford to reject kinship constructions because such relations make work possible and tolerable in the everyday so they modulate the correct amount of kinship ties with a ‘respectable distance.’

The brotherhood of workers is not uniform or homogeneous since men’s ability to participate in this fictive kinship can be constrained either due to their identities or inability to support strikes.

Brotherhood absorbs risks for workers and allows workers to be bindaas, presenting an opportunity for tactical resistance. Leveraging brotherhood as a platform (Gillespie Tarleton, 2010), workers would strike and companies having understood the role of brotherhood too, would offer the position of “team leader” to leaders of such strikes. Most bhais chose moral and affective bonds of brotherhood over such a ‘promotion.’

Working in the gig-economy has been associated with economic vulnerabilities, however there are also moral and affective vulnerabilities as workers find their worth measured everyday by their performance of—and at—work and in every interaction and movement. Such a display of verstehen by the delivery workers is a response to engaging with a world of work that continuously measures one’s credibility and ties it to material rewards. It can be read as an attempt to secure an income and guard one’s sense of self.

Acknowledgements: This blogpost is produced as a part of a series on gig-work in India based on the ‘Mapping the landscape of Digital Labor’ project at the Center for Internet & Society, Bangalore funded by the Azim Premji University Research Grants Program.


De Neve, G. (2008). ‘We are all sondukarar (relatives)!’: Kinship and its morality in an urban industry of Tamilnadu, South India. Modern Asian Studies, 42(1), 211–246. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0026749X0700282X

Gillespie Tarleton. (2010). Politics of Platforms. New Media and Society, 12(3). https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444809342738

Gray, M. L., Suri, S., Ali, S. S., & Kulkarni, D. (2016). The Crowd is a Collaborative Network. Proceedings of the 19th ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing – CSCW ’16, 134–147. https://doi.org/10.1145/2818048.2819942

Hart, K. (2000). Kinship, Contract and Trust: The Economic Organization of Migrants in an African City Slum. In D. Gambetta (Ed.), Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations (pp. 176–193). University of Oxford.

Kofti, D. (2016). Moral economy of flexible production: Fabricating precarity between the conveyor belt and the household. Anthropological Theory, 16(4), 433–453. https://doi.org/10.1177/1463499616679538

Mauss, M. (2002). The gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. London: Routledge.

Parry, J. P. (2001). Ankalu’s Errant Wife: Sex, Marriage and Industry in Contemporary Chhattisgarh. Modern Asian Studies, 35(4), 783–820. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0026749X01004024

Phadke, S. (2007). Dangerous Liaisons: Women and Men: Risk and Reputation in Mumbai. Economic and Political Weekly, 42(17), 1510–1518.

Quien, A. (1997). Mumbai’s Dabbawalla: Omnipresent Worker and Absent City-Dweller. Economic and Political Weekly, 32(13), 637–640.

Tucker, W. T. (1965). Max Weber’s Verstehen. The Sociological Quarterly, 6(2), 157–165. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1533-8525.1965.tb01649.x

1 Comment

  • Kamraan says:

    You have studied them so properly and it’s apparent that you have invested good time in this…keep up the good work!

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