On September 30, around 60 delivery riders wearing the red uniform of Zomato gathered on the sidewalk in Jeevan Bima Nagar, one of central Bengaluru’s busiest streets. As traffic whizzed by, riders formed a human chain and chanted: “Zomato haye haye!” — roughly: “Down with Zomato!”
On the night of September 26, without warning, the delivery platform had tweaked its algorithm to extend the riders’ delivery zones. Riders are usually assigned jobs within a prescribed area, normally around 10 kilometers. But all of a sudden, they found themselves being sent to pickups and drop-offs up to 40 kilometers away.
The change, riders told Rest of World, has meant that some found it impossible to meet their daily quotas for deliveries, meaning they lost out on the incentives they need to make a living wage on the platform. Several alleged that the new delivery radiuses mean they’ve had to travel to unfamiliar places on the outskirts of the city, resulting in a surge of thefts of their phones and vehicles.
Zomato did not respond to requests for comment.
The incident demonstrates how a small change to a platform company’s algorithm can cascade into real harms for the drivers who rely on it. Drivers say they increasingly feel beholden to unilateral decisions made by the platforms, which penalize them for not complying with policy changes, but offer them no opportunities for feedback or redress.
“Zomato said they are testing, and it’ll increase our earnings,” Ram, a rider who joined the protest, told Rest of World. He asked for his full name not to be published to avoid being penalized by the platform.“ What if someone loses their earnings, or gets into an accident, will they continue testing?”
Drivers weren’t notified in advance of the change to their delivery zones. Salman, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, has been riding for Zomato for more than three-and-a-half years. On September 26, he opened his rider app to find that his delivery radius had grown from a single, 10-kilometer area to encompass three additional zones.
Riders would normally be sent from one location to another for three or four orders, then the fifth order would bring them back to their home zone. With the new tweak, that no longer happens. As riders complete each order, they are progressively being sent further away from the main zone. “For the last 4-5 days, [the app] doesn’t bring us back. It’s taking us towards one side,” Salman said. Starting in the middle of Bengaluru, his day ends 20 kilometers away in the industrial suburbs of Peenya.
Salman said being sent outside the city limits for delivery has halved the number of orders he’s able to take. Riders are incentivized by the number of orders delivered in a day, rather than the distance covered per order. So traveling longer distances means completing fewer orders per day, reducing their earning potential. Several other riders at the protest told Rest of World they’d experienced a similar drop in order numbers.
Riders found that the only way to avoid regularly being sent progressively further away with each order is to turn off the app’s GPS after being sent to a distant zone, then to turn it back on when returning to their normal location. “Because if we keep it on, the algorithm will fetch me orders from that locality, which is even farther from my original zone,” Ram said.
But if they switch off the app, they have to work longer hours to make up for the time they lose in repositioning. Even after working 18 hours in a day, Ram said he’s still unable to meet an earning target of 1,050 rupees ($14) set by the company. “In this situation, even if we work 24 hours, we will not be able to meet our targets,” he said.
Riders using bicycles to deliver — who are known as cycle IDs — have suffered more than their colleagues using mopeds.
“When I joined Zomato, the notice said that I would have to deliver within a five to six kilometer radius for a cycle ID,” said Arun, a Zomato “delivery partner” — as riders are called by the company — who delivers food using an on-demand e-bike called Yulu and asked to be identified using a pseudonym. “But now what happens is I get 10 kilometers, 7 kilometers from my location. Sometimes, the charge on my [e-bike] is over, so I end up walking back 10 kilometers.” Most riders are frustrated because they are losing time and money, and are exhausted from pedaling long hours.
Riders said that traveling long distances to unfamiliar places has put them in danger. Platforms offer customers the ability to pay cash-on-delivery, which means that criminals know riders are carrying money. “After 7 p.m., any cash-on-delivery orders in isolated areas, people snatch phones, our vehicle. Those are all unsafe areas,” Ram said.
Even with the heightened risks and the worsening economics, riders don’t really have the choice to turn down gigs. If they turn down one order in 100, their rating in the app will fall from “diamond” to “silver.” Between two and five rejected orders moves them down to “bronze,” and six or more to “blue.” The lower a rider’s ranking, the fewer gigs they are offered. If they fall out of the top categories, they also lose access to priority support, meaning that if they have an issue, it can take up to 48 hours to get a response from the company. Zomato’s terms of service allow the company to disable a rider’s account if they turn down three orders in one day.
“You have as much choice as to show up to work maybe,” said Aditi Surie, a gig economy researcher based in Bengaluru. Beyond that, “there’s really no choice, because you’re working in a game and you don’t know the terms of the game.”
This powerlessness extends into how drivers’ complaints are handled. While Zomato and its competitors have well-oiled machinery for handling customer feedback, riders have to phone call center numbers that often offer little help, or deal with automated responses which are mostly programmed to respond to inquiries about issues with payments. This is generally, Surie said, because they’re trying to keep the headcount — and costs — to a minimum, using algorithmic management and automation to help them scale.
Without formal redressal mechanisms for resolving issues, riders have started to take matters into their own hands. A recent survey by Rest of World and data company Premise found that 69% of platform workers in India have joined some kind of organized labor group or trade union, and 67% had participated in strikes or walkouts. In late September, gig workers filed a petition in India’s Supreme Court demanding they be classified as “wage workers,” which would make platforms responsible for paying social security benefits.
“Neighborhood-level protests have been really an important way for people to actually communicate with the company,” Surie said, “And it’s a very unfortunate thing, because there’s no redressal mechanism.”
These grievances can spill over into more direct action. On September 30, the local Zomato team leader arrived to speak to drivers. He was harangued and pursued by the drivers, but there was little he could promise them. In the end, the police arrived. Protesters like Salman and the team leader were all escorted to the police station. There, after a brief attempt to mediate, the team leader was released.
After their protests fell on deaf ears, the riders’ frustrations boiled over. At around 6 p.m. on September 30, riders began snatching delivery packages being picked up from restaurants around Jeevan Bima Nagar. They caught hold of about 30 on-duty Zomato riders outside popular restaurants Empire and Leon Grill. Salman, who witnessed the seizures, said that the riders were told: “Call and inform support (team) that riders have taken the item, and until the issue is resolved, this will keep happening. We will take packages from riders.”
Two days after the incident, Zomato rolled back the changes, but only for those using the platforms for over three years. The newer riders without an awareness of how things were in the past still have to play the game by the new rules.