In the Gig Economy, Customers are Complicit in Labor Exploitation
“We dodge death, accidents to deliver their orders on time. We want respect,” says the worker behind the anonymous Twitter handle @SwiggyDEHyd.
In many respects, service aggregator applications like Swiggy, Zomato, Ola, and Uber turn smartphones into two-way mirrors. On one side is the customer, who watches their ride or delivery worker make their way to them, almost like a character icon in a game. In the pandemic edition of this, on display are the worker’s body temperature, usage of masks, and sanitization status.
For the worker, the only person who is visible on the screen is themselves.
Increasingly, these service apps on offer are designed to make users feel like the world revolves around their convenience, no matter the cost. Based on arbitrary metrics with no accountability, customers now have the power to wield their “rating” as a form of coercion and control over workers. In fact, many do.
“My life depends on ratings and they’ve understood that,” says Shaik Salauddin, president of the Telangana Gig and Platform Workers Union (TGPWU). Salauddin does union work by day and drives customers through Ola and Uber by night. Since the proliferation of gig platforms, he says, customers exploit workers more. The rating system acts like a tyrannical instrument of punitive control. Moreover, the rating system has also effectively replaced tips.
“I have to beg for each and every rating and the customer demands extra services. If I say I can’t do something, he says, ‘Don’t you want a rating?’ He doesn’t say tip, mind you; he is only talking about the ratings.”
The extra services that Salauddin is referring to include things like picking up alcohol and cigarettes outside of the order through the app, carrying luggage up several flights of stairs, and so on. But there is one incident that he recalls with particular aversion. A Vice-Chairperson at a large IT firm, who, after hailing Salauddin’s cab, making him wait for a long time, and hurling abuses, responded to Salauddin’s hurt feelings with: “What should I do? Should I say sorry?”
“Respect has absolutely gone down since Ola and Uber,” Salauddin opines. The rating system, often leveraged by customers as blackmail for doing extra labor, is primarily to blame.
“I want customers to know that we are underpaid, we go through a lot to deliver their orders,” says Twitter handle @SwiggyDEHyd.
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This exploitation is encoded into the very design of these apps. To attract more paying customers, apps are designed to give them more power and thus worsen the power dynamic. The hook used by designers of gig platforms is “convenience at any cost”.
“The use-cases that they are centering are all about problem-solving for the customer. In a conflict between a delivery person and customer, the customer is always sided with because the delivery worker is expendable,” explains Naveen Bagalkot, a faculty member at Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design, and Technology, Bengaluru. Further, the user profiles that form the basis for the product design are not neutral but are based on the typically privileged background that the designers share with the intended customers, which skews the design.
The only time workers are considered in the design is to provide an incentive framework to drive greater efficiency for the customer. In other words, the design model is “efficiency for the consumer” and “efficiency through the delivery worker.”
What this looks like on apps is information and tracking mechanisms for customers and, for workers, blaring alarms, buzzing sounds, and a look and feel that constantly drives productivity and motion.
Going further back into the very conceptualization of these service platforms makes it evident why this happens. The very premise is based on catering to consumers’ ever-growing demand for convenience and cheap service — even at the expense of those whose labor goes into providing it.
Platforms have optimized for a way of providing just that, through a grueling, gamified system of incentives and targets for workers. All the levels and “medals” that workers earn for their performance can be jeopardized by a single bad rating — keeping them on edge all the time and willing to take higher risks to maximize convenience.
Indeed, customers have an unprecedented level of surveillance power over workers that they will likely never meet again. But just that one interaction is a source of huge anxiety for workers who are rated on metrics like “politeness” and “minimal calling”.
This means that, at all times, there is “a waking army of workers at the beck and call of customers,” says Kaveri Medappa, a researcher on gig labor from the University of Sussex.
The rating system is the ultimate disciplining tool that determines a worker’s very right to exist on the gig platform. Even as entire livelihoods are tied to it, there is no accountability for customers on how they use the system. Workers are not aware of what ratings they receive and have no redressal system — very often, they are downgraded or kicked off a platform without notice or information about the rating’s source.
Behind the scenes of a bad rating
To understand what really happens when a worker gets a bad rating, we need to understand the intricate relationship between ratings and the data collected by service aggregators. An emerging critique says that data is the missing piece in conversations about platform labor. Bama Athreya, an expert on technology and labor from The Open Society Foundations, explains how the terms and conditions of work are being defined, ultimately, through platforms’ large-scale collection of data. The effects of this are manifold: worker-customer relationships are attenuated and customers are distanced from the consequences for their actions.
“A negative rating will get factored into an algorithm, and now here’s where this all gets abstracted,” she explains. Rather than the consequences for a bad rating being attributable to the customer, “the algorithm will be responsible for whatever punitive measures are taken against the worker… [customers don’t feel] responsible for the impact that [their] actions have had,” Athreya illustrates.
The final nail in the coffin of a worker’s autonomy, then, is that the algorithms don’t filter out the biases and discrimination of users. In an exceedingly casteist, classist social structure like India’s, discrimination and bias often work in quiet ways, and this gets magnified on gig platforms: customers have the power to get away with rating someone badly solely on the basis of prejudice. The effects of the discrimination don’t end there: “The worker in the marginalized group is more likely to get kicked out of the platform just because of the amplification of the discrimination.”
All this works to distance workers from labor protections that would otherwise normally be available. This was amplified during the pandemic, where workers were not entitled to the same safety information about customers that the platforms were providing about them. Gig platforms thus institutionalize informality and exploitation, with a gloss of the idea of going “digital” that Indian consumers are increasingly fawning over.
The cultural obsession with everything “tech” and the government’s pushing of the “digital India” narrative all converge into the proliferation of gig platforms and enthusiastic consumers who don’t ask questions about the social costs of what they participate in.
Furthermore, navigating uber-privileged spaces such as gated colonies has become especially difficult during the pandemic. Workers have to negotiate with added layers of security while simultaneously avoiding calling and trying to be on time — all this while trying to be careful of their own health and safety.
After all, when “hunger saviors” are the people who zip through traffic stops and flout road safety rules to deliver ice cream before it melts to a patron who simply craves a midnight snack, there is something very wrong with the very fabric of ideas about development that post-industrial developing societies are stitching together.
“In businesses, we’ve seen a shift: transferring costs and risks of work to the workers… and managerial responsibilities onto the customers,” Medappa notes.
Riyaj Shaikh, a researcher of gig work from the University of Stockholm, spoke about a delivery worker’s experience in one such gated community. A tussle over-delivering food to a Covid19 patient at their doorstep ended in the worker paying for the food after leaving it with the guard and facing accusations of having tampered with it. In another instance, a worker who Shaikh had seen wearing a mask was notified of a complaint saying he hadn’t worn one.
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Not all consumers set out to wield their power antagonistically — but “what is really dangerous is consumers not being aware that they have such a huge say in the worker’s livelihood,” muses Mounika Neerukonda from the Fair Work Foundation. While the rating scale appears to customers as a feedback spectrum, its effect on the worker’s profile is such that anything less than 5 stars is equivalent to a bad rating. “It’s very easy for a consumer to click these options and forget about it without knowing what it leads back to for the worker,” she adds.
An entire economy built around consumer convenience, therefore, creates a bigger, more exploited underclass of workers who risk their lives trying to meet unrealistic targets because their livelihoods depend on it. And therein lies the next dimension of the problem: the false labeling of this work as “gigs.”
In an ideal scenario, gig work complements steadier forms of livelihood as an extra source of income, where individuals have the flexibility to choose their own hours and clients for the short term. In India, however, most “gig” workers are beholden to a platform as their main source of livelihood. Moreover, these platforms are not formally employers, but nevertheless, exert control and punishing standards of discipline on workers through customers.
Remedying the exploitation
On the question of what to do about this, all stakeholders and experts are clear on one point: abolish the rating system.
The TGPWU includes this as one of their fundamental demands. “You don’t have the right to rate us on the basis of our characters,” Shaik Salauddin says. “Don’t define labor by ratings.”
On questioning whether the apps would even exist if we took worker concerns seriously and questioned the convenience-centric model, interesting alternatives emerge. Platforms owned and operated by workers’ cooperatives are one, according to Naveen Bagalkot. But there’s a very thin line between platform cooperatives and service aggregators, based solely on whom the designer privileges.
Consumers being more aware of how they engage with the apps is another important piece of the puzzle, Mounika Neerukonda says. Understanding how this engagement is tethered to so much exploitation may induce many well-meaning customers to lobby alongside workers for abolishing ratings — or at the very least, use it responsibly.
We may never be able to extricate ourselves from the system anytime soon. But consumers, however, do still have the agency to decide what their convenience is worth, and weigh the costs of complete surrender to it that service apps offer. “We need to be looking at how platforms are using us [consumers] as instruments of control and manipulation of workers,” Bama Athreya adds.
The power of rating, after all, is the power that some people have over others — and using it comes at a great price. It may fuel an inexorable rush towards an economy that runs on the heads of people being alienated from one another beyond repair — all for the profit of a few.
“Who are they to decide my life? Why did they [platforms] put that power in their hands?” Shaik Salauddin demands.
And that, when all is said and done, is what customers must perhaps ask themselves, before deciding how many stars to tap on their screens.