Syed Lateefuddin started his new job as an Uber driver in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad with much excitement. It began smoothly for the 36-year-old as he completed his first two rides. But, as he drove to the pickup location for his third ride, things took an unexpected turn.
Lateefuddin was accosted by six men who began trailing him on a motorbike and a scooter. They forced him to stop his car and coerced him to chant, “Jai Shri Ram,” praising Lord Ram, the Hindu god. They also pelted stones at his car windows.
“I left my car behind and ran,” Lateefuddin told Rest of World over a phone call, recalling the incident from two months ago. “Throughout this time, I kept calling the Uber emergency helpline, but to no avail … I am lucky I wasn’t seriously hurt, but my car suffered damages worth over 1.5 lakh rupees (over $1,800).” Lateefuddin suspects the men harassed him after noticing Islamic prayer beads hanging in his car.
Lateefuddin’s experience is not an isolated one. In recent years, there have been dozens of incidents of caste-based hate and discrimination against gig workers in India, where drivers and delivery persons from marginalized communities have been verbally and physically abused. Experts speaking to Rest of World warn that the trend could further entrench existing biases and divides. The country’s gig economy is expected to have 23.5 million workers by 2030, accounting for nearly 4.1% of India’s total workforce by then. The country currently has around 7.7 million gig workers.
“These kinds of incidents are as much a sign of the current political climate as much as they are about the utter failure of these platforms,” Kaveri Medappa, a researcher from the University of Sussex, told Rest of World. Medappa noted the irony in how companies would go to any lengths to protect the customer, but do little if something happens to their workers. “I recall a journalist tweeting about the suspension of three Uber drivers for anti-Muslim speech but if the same thing were done by a customer to a driver, then hardly anything happens,” she said.
In October, Sadam Kureshi, a gig worker for food delivery app Swiggy in the western city of Ahmedabad, found that a customer had posted an instruction on the app: “Please only allow Hindu delivery person.” The 31-year-old told Rest of World he was taken aback and “felt very bad.” When he proceeded with the delivery, the customer canceled the order, possibly after seeing his name, Kureshi suspects.
The incident took place just a month after a Swiggy customer in Hyderabad requested that they did not want “a Muslim delivery person.” The message was widely shared on social media, and even caught the attention of Indian parliamentarian Mahua Moitra, who tweeted that Swiggy must “blacklist” the customer, make their identity public, and file a police complaint.
This furor on social media has, however, not nudged delivery apps to take any actions so far. “When I tried to get in touch with Swiggy’s helpline, they didn’t offer any help except canceling the order,” Kureshi told Rest of World. “I have been working for two years, I have no hope from them because I know there is no action in these cases.”
A Swiggy spokesperson told Rest of World that customers who do not respect their terms and conditions run the risk of being deactivated. “We regularly monitor and validate the authenticity of complaints in this regard and take strict action,” the spokesperson said in an email.
Shaik Salauddin, founder of Telangana Gig and Platform Workers’ Union, told Rest of World that in many cases of religion- and caste-based hate, companies “at best” block the IDs of the customers involved. “But anyone can make a new ID through a different number, or bypass this with other hidden details,” he said.
Lateefuddin said he quit driving for Uber the day after he was attacked because he did not receive any support from the company. When Rest of World asked Uber for a comment, a spokesperson said the company has a zero-tolerance policy toward any form of discrimination.
“We’ve always encouraged drivers to express their views and concerns openly,” the spokesperson said. “In fact, earlier this year, we launched India’s first Driver Advisory Council to facilitate a stronger two-way dialogue between Uber and drivers to address critical issues and improve drivers’ platform experience.” The spokesperson added that drivers have “multiple touch-points” to reach Uber, including “walk-ins at our Greenlight hubs, connecting on phone, or using the dedicated driver safety toolkit within the app in case of safety issues.” Drivers also have the option to share their trip with “trusted contacts,” connect with law enforcement via the emergency button, and report safety through a helpline, the spokesperson said.
Lateefuddin told Rest of World his app only showed an emergency helpline to contact the company, which he called around 50 times on the night of the incident but got no support. He managed to connect with an Uber representative the next day and was told that someone from the company would get back to him, which hasn’t happened so far. He said he has no idea about Greenlight hubs, and was never told about the option to connect with “trusted contacts.”
What makes life harder for Indian gig workers is the fact that they have no legal status as employees, which means companies can get away with not offering any help or assistance to them.
In June 2022, Sonu, a former delivery rider with Zomato, went to court after he was slapped last September by a resident of a housing society in Gurugram, a cosmopolitan city bordering New Delhi. The 27-year-old, who requested to be identified only by his first name to protect his identity, told Rest of World that an argument had ensued between him and a security guard after he used a passenger elevator instead of the service elevator assigned for domestic workers, delivery agents, and drivers.
7.7 million The estimated number of gig workers in India.Source
“One of the residents passing by … just came and slapped me,” Sonu said. “It wasn’t even his order nor was I arguing with him. But he slapped me so hard, I had to go to a hospital because of pain in my eardrum.”
In September 2022, a year after the incident, a local court in Gurugram directed police to register a case of wrongful restraint, voluntarily causing hurt, and criminal intimidation against the person who had slapped Sonu. “None of this was done by the company I worked for,” Sonu said. “It was I alone who pushed for it and sought to file a complaint.” Sonu quit his job after the incident and is currently unemployed.
Medappa, who studies the work-life conditions of platform workers in Bengaluru, believes companies can take simple steps to make work safer for gig workers, including charging higher penalties for canceled orders and stopping delivery to locations that are unsafe. “It’s not at all difficult for companies to build in technical mechanisms to protect their workers,” she said.
Medappa also raised the issue of “fake orders,” where people make cash-on-delivery orders, but, on delivery, refuse to pay. “At times, in my research, I’ve seen workers deliver such orders where the customers are clearly drunk and they harass the worker,” she added. “Because there are penalties imposed if they cancel or decline orders, the workers are forced to go to deliver these even if they can tell from the address that it’s a fake order.”
In the U.S., researchers have repeatedly found the existence of racial and gender disparities in gig work. A 2016 study revealed that Black workers received more negative reviews than their white counterparts on platforms such as TaskRabbit and Fiverr. In 2020, a former driver in San Diego sued Uber for their “racially biased” star rating system. The lawsuit, which was dismissed in 2022, cited a survey of 20,000 terminated drivers which showed that non-white drivers were disproportionately fired.
In India, where labor protections and civil rights legislation are nearly non-existent for those employed in the gig and informal sector, the workers have nowhere to go. Under the existing framework, gig workers continue to be considered independently contracted workers or “freelancers,” and receive no social security cover or wage protections.
Lawyer and constitutional law expert Gautam Bhatia told Rest of World that beyond labor laws, India needs “a civil rights law that exists in countries like the U.S.,” which imposes severe penalties for such discrimination.
As for the workers, the promise of opportunity that once existed when joining gig work has now transformed into cynicism and disappointment. Disillusioned with the absence of support from companies, some workers have quit their jobs.
Former Zomato delivery agent Vineet Kumar Rawat is among them. In June 2022, the 26-year-old was out on duty in the northern city of Lucknow when he was beaten up, spat on, and had casteist slurs thrown at him by a customer and his family. According to a police complaint that Rawat later filed, the customer’s brother asked him his full name, and identified him as a Dalit based on his last name. The customer then refused to accept the delivery, and when Rawat insisted that they cancel the order on the app instead of simply telling him, he was attacked.
Even as a video of his assault went viral, Rawat told Rest of World, “[T]here was a call from our zone’s supervisor advising me not to highlight this or put it in the press anywhere.”
“No one from Zomato came to offer any help, even though I tried calling them multiple times,” said Rawat, who now works in an air-conditioning maintenance plant. “These people make us take deliveries even outside or on the outskirts of the city late at night. This is dangerous.” Zomato did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Rawat said that even prior to this incident, he was sent 15 to 20 kilometers away from his zone into semi-rural areas. “And if we cancel, then it would affect our rating on the app and we’d be penalized,” he said.
Medappa said the delivery platforms could at least have filters, and flag certain words used during delivery instructions or reviews. “It’s not rocket science to build this into their architecture, looking out for ‘no Muslim,’ ‘no Dalits,’ and other such words or phrases,” she said. “But this is about will, there is no will to make a change.”