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Out for delivery

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on December 11, 2020 Published on December 10, 2020

Making ends meet: The average monthly minimum wage for delivery workers in India is around ₹8,500   -  THE HINDU/G RAMAKRISHNA

While medical staff at hospitals nurse India back to health, an army of delivery agents continues to bring food, medicines, clothing and other goods to the consumer’s doorstep. The rewards for this surge in online business, however, hasn’t filtered down to the level of the delivery boys. They are still out in the open

* The e-commerce sector registered a growth of 17 per cent post lockdown despite the ongoing pandemic, according to Unicommerce, a leading e-commerce tracking platform

* Post lockdown, the India online grocery and essentials market is estimated to reach a sales volume of ₹22,500 crore, which is a significant jump of 76 per cent over that last year

* The customer’s safety is of paramount importance, but that of the delivery boys is seldom taken into consideration

***

It’s 11 am. Montu calls to say that the items I had ordered from Myntra a few days earlier are being delivered. “Please leave them with the guard,” I tell him. I get an app notification from the security downstairs to say that one of our residential complex guards has picked up the packet. The phone buzzes again. “Please click on the link where you get a message to share your feedback, ma’am,” delivery agent Montu — faceless to me, yet so essential — says. How much Montu earns from his delivery is dependent on the feedback he gets for the delivery, a fact that many of us fail to bother about when ordering online.

The phone beeps a couple of hours later: This time, it’s a delivery from BigBasket.

Our quarantined lives rest on the backbone of an army of delivery agents like Montu, who go from home to home, performing no-contact delivery, reaching out to those who need anything from groceries to medicines, and are willing to pay extra delivery charge to avert the risk of human contact that can spread the virus causing Covid-19. Doctors, nurses and government officials are often lauded as Covid-19 warriors, and rightly so, but the names of delivery agents, who also perform an essential task, are seldom recalled.

For middle-class Indians, home deliveries are a boon. From March to May, when migrants from the smaller towns and villages, who make up the bulk of delivery agents in most cities, left for their home towns, orders got cancelled en masse and even essentials were hard to come by. As someone who became a parent in the middle of lockdown, the worry of not getting birth essentials on time, as shops remained closed, stays with me, even as things have slowly crawled back into the new normal.

Demand, supply and gaps

The e-commerce sector registered a growth of 17 per cent post lockdown, despite the ongoing pandemic in 2020, as reported by Unicommerce, a leading e-commerce tracking platform. According to India Brand Equity Foundation, India is the fastest growing e-commerce market across the world, and is expected to reach US$84 billion by 2021 and US$99 billion by 2024. Post lockdown, the India online grocery and essentials market is estimated to reach a sales volume of ₹22,500 crore, which is a significant jump of 76 per cent over last year, according to its recently published report. The report notes how first-time buyers have increased in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, with phased out lockdowns stretching across most states, prompting changes in consumer behaviour.

The time has come to raise a toast to the thousands of delivery personnel who, while we live safely quarantined in our homes, are going from house to house with fresh vegetables, medicines and toiletries. If our lives have changed, the delivery boys have gone through an upheaval, too. Many had to leave the cities suddenly with no job and no money, no means to go back, and then return for work all over again.

Dushyant is one of the lucky ones and has few complaints. “I’m one of the rare ones. I have a full-time job and I get paid decently. I am glad to have retained my job through the pandemic,” says the New Delhi resident who delivers 30-40 packages in a day in an area of around 10 km.

Formerly a computer programmer, he has a Std XII certificate. “The company I work in has better working conditions than most, even though it is a smaller company,” he says. “I am paid more money in this job than in my former one, so I would like to stick onfor now,” he says.

Dushyant is part of the silent workforce for whom operating in isolation has become routine now. Regular temperature checks at entry and exit points at the workplace, and often at the delivery points, mandatory masks and adherence to social distancing are a part and parcel of the life of a delivery agent.

He notes the changes around him. With customers shifting to digital payments, not much cash exchange happens, and there is little contact between him and the buyers.

“People would offer us water earlier, but they hardly do so any more, and neither do we risk it. We prefer carrying our own bottles and filling them at known places, if ever we need to. I also carry my lunch from home on most days, to avoid getting infected,” he says.

If there is a sector that is expanding in the country today, it is that of delivery agents. According to placement firm Vahan, there is an additional demand for 2.5 lakh to 3 lakh blue-collar executives every month in the delivery sector. “A bike and a Std XII degree are the prerequisites to be a delivery executive. Some companies provide the vehicle to them,” says Saniya Kothari, who works in the hiring department for a logistics company delivering for a host of e-commerce platforms. “The average minimum wage (which differs from state to state) is around ₹8,500 in India. In New Delhi it’s ₹13,000 a month. Companies may follow minimum wage guidelines to pay their employees, while some follow a standard wage of around ₹10,000 around the country,” Kothari adds.

The delivery agents are mostly off the company rolls. Kothari states that the temporary employees are about 70 per cent of the total delivery workforce. The recruitment spikes in the festival season or during online sales, and ebbs in the off season — the summer months.

Sunil Kapil, the co-founder of Trunkpool, an aggregator app for delivery trucks across the country, says that while his business had completely fallen off the tracks in the initial months of the lockdown — which began in March — it picked up in the weeks preceding Diwali. Research firm Forrester puts sales volume growth at almost 100 per cent this year worth over US$ 4.8 billion in the festive sales.

“Business has definitely improved, and Diwali requirements for trucking have been better than before, hinting at more people shopping online during the pandemic,” Kapil says.

With most restaurants shut, the food delivery segment has been especially active. Salim, a 21-year-old delivery agent, has been working for a food delivery app for the past four months, and is happy that he has work.

Change in pace: The e-commerce sector registered a growth of 17 per cent post lockdown, despite the ongoing pandemic in 2020   -  BL

 

“It can be tiring, driving around for the whole day. We have become more particular about taking sick days post Covid-19; before that we did not get any sick days as there was no compensation offered. No one will pay you if you are sick in this profession. But we are glad to be holding on to our jobs,” he says. E-commerce giant Flipkart is among the few to have announced full pay and leave with benefits if a worker contracted Covid-19. Along with that, they could avail of both life and medical insurance.

Some protocols have been introduced to ensure safe deliveries. “We can’t work on the days we get sick. We are required to take three sick days if our temperature is above normal, but compensation is not provided to us for the loss of pay,” Salim says.

Front-line? Not quite

The customer’s safety is of paramount importance, but that of the delivery boys is seldom taken into consideration. Salim says he fears contracting the virus as he moves from one delivery spot to another. “I am not so scared for myself, for they say younger people are not so affected by it. But older people die of this disease and both my parents are getting old now. My father is sick off and on, and I must protect them,” he says.

Social distancing is not an option for most delivery boys. “We have a one-room kamra. How do we practise social distancing in this much of space,” Salim asks. “I don’t touch them, and wash up immediately after I reach home.” Dushyant stays away from his family, who are in their village in western UP.“I have a two-year-old daughter. My family stays in the village, as I don’t want to expose them as well.”

Most outlets provide their employees with hand sanitisers. Often customers offer them to the delivery agents. “But I also eat outside, and touch gates and other surfaces. It is just not possible to be that careful,” Salim rues.

He isn’t looking for a change in profession, however. “This is an up and coming line, as many companies are moving online. There will always be packages to be delivered. I am happy here. Plus I get to go outdoors, while the whole world is hiding behind doors.”

Safety first: Regular temperature checks at the workplace, and often at the delivery points, mandatory masks and adherence to social distancing are a part and parcel of the life of a delivery agent   -  THE HINDU/M MOORTHY

 

Kothari tells BLink that there are different models under which delivery executives are hired. Some follow a per-packet model, which is offered to employees who are off the roll or temporary. Companies such as Swiggy follow this model. The problem with this model is that there is no leave or off days, but, on the upside, the work hours are flexible and employees can take leave at will.

The period of Navratri to Diwali is when many e-commerce marketplaces (such as Flipkart and Amazon) offer sales, and this is whenthe higher volumes of people are hired.

“I get paid ₹10 per package delivered. While I’m not a permanent employee, I get paid about ₹15,000 in a month,” says Anil, who works for a fashion marketplace. He used to earlier work at a chemist’s in Gurugram but moved to the delivery sector after the lockdown. “I don’t think about the risks that I’m facing all the time, but I do fear contracting the virus. I have seen people die from it. Even if a vaccine arrives, when will the government provide us with it? Will we be considered front-line workers as well?”

The delivery men go through long periods of isolation, too, with hardly any human contact. The only conversations that Anil has are with guards at housing complexes. “Customers rarely meet us. Earlier, people would prefer cash on delivery, especially for items that they wanted to try out, such as clothes. But now orders are mostly paid online.”

He shares his room with two Myntra employees, and they pay ₹10,000 as rent. “There are other men around in the vicinity from other e-commerce regions,” he says. Anil doesn’t know of any formal unions in his company: “We aren’t formally employed so everything is dependent on our capability”. He doesn’t mind the gig economy that he works in. “I like the freedom it gives me to roam around on my own terms. I am not bound by any contract.”

He doesn’t give much thought to the future or the uncertainty around his temporary job. “I’m happy for this chance. Who knew the world would come to a standstill the way it did a few months back? I was lucky to have been home already and on leave for my sister’s marriage in Madhya Pradesh, so I didn’t have to face any of the hardships that my friends faced when they tried to return home from Delhi after the lockdown was announced.”

Employers still shudder at the thought of those days when there were hardly any delivery agents. Ram Singhi, owner of Sure Group, a trucking fleet company, says there was such a severe shortage of labour that accompanied the lockdown that he did not know if he would be able to start his business again.

“Things are much better than before — we weren’t even using our entire fleet of 100 trucks two months ago as it was not viable. Now, with the e-commerce sales and heavy dependence on online shopping, things are looking up. Drivers are also back from their villages, and we are operating at full volume,” he says.

He doesn’t foresee a lockdown in the future affecting logistics the way it did in March. “The industry now has better infrastructure and experience to adapt to an uncertain future. We weren’t prepared then, we would be better prepared now.” Companies are looking at local warehousing and the dependence on local manufacturers has increased, he says.

The indispensable link

Some are looking at women delivery agents, too, though Anil points out that women are a rarity in the profession. “I’m not sure if my company has any women riders,” he says. Most outlets prefer men — not many women ride scooters or motorcycles, and if they do, companies would rather not take on the added responsibility of ensuring the safety of their women employees.

New normal: Women are going up the ladder in the online delivery sector, too, and picking up jobs in the sector   -  THE HINDU/ S JAMES

 

But retail giants such as Amazon stress that they are hiring women. “We have been working towards making our workforce more diverse and being an equal opportunity enterprise that holds true for logistics as well,” says a spokesperson for Amazon.

Amazon cites the example of Indore-based Jayashree, owner of the Mahi Silai store, a single earning person in her family. “She managed to sustain her income from the tailoring business by performing deliveries on the side. During the lockdown, when her business remained shut, she was able to sustain her family from the income she received through other sources,” the spokesperson says.

Women are going up the ladder in the online delivery sector, too. Sunita Joshi, for instance, manages six delivery stations in Himachal Pradesh for Amazon. She has 60 delivery associates, who, under her leadership, have been navigating through tough terrains to deliver packages in hilly towns and villages.

Meanwhile, in bigger metropolises such as Gurugram, the dependence on delivery executives for every conceivable item has increased manifold since the lockdown. Manoj, who works for a furniture company, says that before the pandemic, there was no need for online sales, for the store was full of customers.

“However, in the first few months of the lockdown, the company had no revenues. We used this time to brainstorm, and that is how we came up with our model involving deliveries. We initially shipped to a few cities close by, and now we ship to around 12 cities.”

As manufacturing companies adjust to a digital marketplace, logistics companies also have had to reinvent themselves to keep afloat. “There were periods in the lockdown where we weren’t getting enough work volume to even keep the bare minimum staff that we have since only essentials were allowed to be shipped. We had to reinvent our business to do so,” says a furniture business owner. Companies such as Swiggy are selling groceries on their platform, and have sought help from customers — in the form of gratuity — to support their staff.

Dushyant, meanwhile, is getting ready for his next delivery. “Who knows what the future holds for us. We are too busy surviving today to spare a thought for tomorrow,” he says. “We are all Covid-19 warriors, aren’t we?” My six-month-old son, whose daily needs are largely met by this army of unknown men, would agree.

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Published on December 10, 2020
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