Twenty-year-old Manikandan doesn’t have breakfast on most days. A cup of tea and some bread is as good as it gets. He showers, throws on a t-shirt that prominently displays the brand of the food-delivery app he runs deliveries for, the clock reads 10 minutes to 11:00 am and he’s on his way.
For a little over two years, since he turned 18, Manikandan has been running food deliveries. staying with an aunt since the death of both parents a few years ago, he uses his earnings to pay college fees and meet some household expenses. The money isn’t much though, despite working 12-hours shifts, six days a week.
"I earn an average of Rs 20 per order, and my earnings total to Rs 500 per day, of which Rs 300 goes to petrol," he tells us as we hitch a ride with him on the food-delivery trail. "What do I do with Rs 200?" he asks with a smile, rhetorically.
A little over 10 minutes later, we arrive at a nearby restaurant hub close to Manikandan’s house in West Chennai’s Mogappair neighbourhood. These hubs see many delivery agents gather around, hoping to secure lunch orders. "The closer you wait to restaurants, the likelier you are to get an order," Manikandan says, knowingly. "I didn’t know this back when I began running deliveries. I’d spend days waiting at random corners wondering why I don’t get orders at all," he adds, "Some friends I met on the delivery trail gave me this tip, and it has come in handy, ever since."
For weeks, social media has been abuzz over alleged hardships, exploitation and appalling working conditions faced by gig workers — food delivery agents, cab drivers and instant courier personnel. Complaints have ranged from poor fees, paltry incentives and extremely short delivery timelines.
For a start, the grind of running deliveries from 11:00 am to 11:00 pm is unforgiving at best. On shadowing Manikandan, we learn what it’s like to hustle for a few hundred rupees. Barely a few minutes after our stop, Manikandan’s phone beeps. An order comes through. Once in, the pressure to deliver is well and truly on, thanks to unrealistic deadlines being set by food delivery apps.
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"I’m given a maximum of 5 minutes to reach the restaurant, 5 minutes to pick up orders and 5 minutes to deliver orders to the customer’s location," he says, "Only then will I get long-distance orders in the future. "Why do food-delivery agents target long-distance orders, anyway? While a short-to-medium-range delivery fetches an agent about Rs 20 per order, longer trips bring in more money. If this money totals to Rs 475 per day or more, the agent gets an incentive of Rs 225. The only problem: this doesn’t always happen.
"If we get penalised, we don’t get the money we are promised per order, or we just get the penalty imposed and have money deducted from our weekly earnings," Manikandan says. Penalties are a deal-breaker for gig workers. They’re usually imposed for delays, spillage and poor customer ratings, and affect incentives, which in turn cut down weekly earnings.
Back on the delivery trail, Manikandan stops to have a cup of coffee. Snack breaks are rare, mostly because food-delivery agents, he claims, cannot reject orders. "The moment I sit to eat, my phone beeps, and I get an order," he says, "I’m not in a position to reject this order either, because that will have an impact on my ratings."
Despite the odds and a system whose interests aren’t necessarily aligned with those of its workers, Manikandan says he intends to continue running food deliveries at least till college ends. Other jobs are hard to come by in the pandemic, and unskilled labour is not an option. "Many others like me value our education, but we work these jobs to raise enough money to pay college fees," he says, "I am going to try and save as much as I can by running food deliveries."