the gig lane

A WEEK IN THE LIFE OF

A FOOD DELIVERY worker IN BANGALORE

The Gig Lane is a visual narrative/gamebook depicting the struggles of platform workers in India. This website was entered as a digital object at the EAAST4S Prague 2020 conference. The Gig Lane works on desktops/laptops only.
 

The Plot

Over the last decade, “platform” or “gig” workers have rapidly become a fixture across metropolises in India [1]. Location-based platform work includes ride-hailing, hyperlocal delivery including food delivery, e-commerce delivery and home services. Platform workers [2] perform tasks they receive through a smartphone application and are paid per task. Labelled as independent contractors or partners, platform workers do not have fixed income nor access to social security benefits. Workers are responsible for their daily costs including upkeep of equipment such as bikes and cars.


With this as background, we wanted to explore a week in the life of a platform worker. The Gig Lane is a visual narrative or gamebook that players traverse. It is also an experiment in the dissemination of research findings. The game draws on two qualitative studies conducted between January and April of 2019 in the city of Bangalore in India. The studies included interviews, a diary study with platform workers, as well as participatory observation as a worker on the platform.

The Game

In his 1979 book Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labour Process Under Monopoly Capitalism, sociologist Michael Burawoy claims that uncertainty is the essence of the game of “making out.” “Making out” refers to a game that workers play as they work towards reaching their incentives in their jobs in a manufacturing plant in the US in the 1970s. We use this game analogy here in gig work to convey an even more intense uncertainty that a food delivery worker explained thus: “This is like a game, you don't know if you will win, what comes next.”  We draw on this game analogy through a gamebook or visual narrative in The Gig Lane.

Using games to disseminate academic research is not new. Take for instance Bertell Ollman's Class Struggle Board Game that lets players work their way through a worker revolution. Tonight We Riot is a modern take on worker revolution games, where workers band together in a dystopian future. Games that highlight the unfairness at play specifically in platform work include The Financial Time's  The Uber Game and The New York Times simulation of demand and supply on Uber. Researchers and worker-activists have also come together at game jams to build games. Our gamebook attempts to depict conditions in play for workers in the platform economy in Bangalore. Many of us are probably intimately familiar with platform-based services as customers; however, far fewer among us know what it takes for these services to be brought to us. While a game can never fully capture reality, this gamebook is a limited attempt to understand these conditions.

The Gig Lane takes the player through a week as a worker for Munch Xpress, a (fictional) food delivery platform in Bangalore. Kiran, a 23 year old male, is the character you will play. Kiran's experiences are a composite of findings from our research. As you progress through the game, you learn about the hours, costs and risks that delivery workers deal with on a daily basis, and the extent of control they have at work.

You have now played The Gig Lane. Please take a moment to read the Game Synopsis where we link back scenes from the game to research findings from our work and others’. We would also appreciate it if you could leave your feedback on the game and your experience playing it here.

A Synopsis of the Game

Kiran moved to delivery work from his stable job as a store clerk at the mall because he was told he would earn more with Munch Xpress, a food delivery platform. Kiran is not an exception: our research found that the three major drivers to become platform workers were the higher pay, flexible hours and lower barriers to entry offered by platform work compared to other available jobs. Throughout the game, we attempted to unpack the nature of platform work by highlighting the following points:

  • Working hours

    • With incentives making up to 50% of earnings, workers have little choice but to work full shifts (and longer) until they reach their targets. Our research suggests that most full-time riders and drivers work nearly twice the legally mandated Indian workweek of 48 hours. As Kiran, you probably clocked such hours yourself!

  • Costs 

    • You had it easy because this game lays out workers’ costs. In reality, these numbers are harder to calculate and need to take into account various other expenses including motorcycle loan repayments, maintenance and unexpected costs (remember the time you bribed a cop!).

  • Working conditions and risk

    • You experienced the nightmare that is parking in Bangalore while trying to keep to your targets. That’s not all: our research found that just like ride-hailing drivers sleeping rough in their cars, delivery workers also do not have access to facilities to rest. 

    • You spent time hunting down an apartment for delivering an order without anything to show for that time! We found that the measurement of work is similarly flawed  in other ways: workers are unpaid for the first mile (riding to a restaurant in this case), for riding to a wrong address, or for time spent waiting for work. 

    • You had an accident in pursuit of a target! While platforms claim to provide accident insurance for injuries and death when logged in on the application, the modalities of insurance claims remain unclear to workers.

    • You met Swara, a female delivery worker whose hours were limited by the platform. Similarly, Parameshwar, a male delivery worker with two children found it difficult to work through the night due to his family obligations. Your experience of work varies based on who you are. In the past, workers have experienced religious discrimination.

  • Control and flexibility

    • You might recall from your conversation with your fellow workers that it is not entirely clear how you are allocated work. In general, platform workers appear to have little control (or understanding) over how algorithms track, monitor and allocate work.

    • You might not always have made your daily incentives targets in your week on the platform. In several cases, platforms have even been accused of manipulating the allocation of orders making it harder for workers to reach their targets.

    • You had to work full shifts (and often overtime) to reach your targets. You also  didn't have the ability to reject orders. With this and other such examples, we found that the “Be your own boss” catchline of platform work didn’t always hold in practice.

While Kiran’s character was based in Bangalore, India, the concerns highlighted by this game are now associated with platform or gig workers across occupations and countries [3]. At the core of these concerns is the labeling of platform workers as ‘independent contractors’ or ‘partners’ rather than as employees. Platforms describe themselves as ‘technology companies’ that merely create marketplaces to bring together demand and supply. In taking this position, companies deflect obligations to their workers. While regulatory bodies, courts, state and central governments have passed guidelines and directives to regulate select aspects of platforms operations [4], there are currently no active laws in place that provide labour rights to platform workers. In India, the regulatory vacuum in which platform companies and workers operate is also taking place against the backdrop of a dilution in labor laws, which makes it an even more pressing concern. 

Beyond the Game:

What's Changed Since 2019?

This game is based on fieldwork conducted in mid-2019. Since then, leading food delivery platforms in India have reduced incentives and fares as a means to reduce 'cash burn'. This isn't a new phenomenon as we witnessed a similar cautionary tale in 2018 with the ride-hailing sector in India. 

 

The Covid-19 pandemic and what was described as the world's biggest lockdown has created fear and uncertainty for workers. Millions of  migrant workers fled cities unsure of earning enough to pay rent, or of support from platforms. While food delivery companies have diversified to hyperlocal delivery, orders have decreased and platforms have reduced rates across the board. However, several facets of the organization of platform work remain: the shift timings, the incentives and the black-boxed algorithmic management. 

Since 2019, workers have increased their collective voice and state governments have acknowledged the need to ensure labour rights for platform workers, as is the case in some other parts of the world. A parallel approach towards better working conditions is to put the spotlight on platforms themselves since they can affect immediate change. Our work at Fairwork through the Fairwork ratings is one such approach that throws light on the working conditions on platforms and strives to bring positive change [5].

 

[1] Across the world, platform workers are in the tens of millions. Estimates on the size of platform workers in India are difficult to come by. A government think tank has pegged the number of Ola and Uber drivers alone at 2.2 Million. Leading food delivery platforms Zomato and Swiggy claim to have over 200,000 ‘partners’ each, while e-commerce platforms like Flipkart have over 100,000 workers some of whom are classified as employees.

[2] Workers on platforms are often full-time workers who depend on platform work for their livelihood. They are drawn to platform work primarily due to the higher pay on offer as compared to other forms of work that are available to them.

[3] Further reading: a> De Stefano, V. (2016). The Rise of the “Just-in-Time Workforce”: On-Demand Work, Crowd Work and Labour Protection in the “Gig-Economy.” 

b> Rosenblat, A., & Stark, L. (2016). Algorithmic Labor and Information Asymmetries: A Case Study of Uber’s Drivers 

c> Veen, A., Barratt, T., & Goods, C. (2019). Platform-Capital’s ‘App-etite’ for Control: A Labour Process Analysis of Food-Delivery Work in Australia.

[4] For instance, the Karnataka Government has passed the Karnataka On-Demand Transportation Technology Aggregators Rules, 2016 where ride-hailing platforms are expected to obtain and license. The government had also temporarily banned Ola for violating the terms of its aggregator license. 

[5] Another example is a charter of recommendations for Covid-19 relief measures that was drafted by a group of researchers in India and sent to platform companies. 

Note

This game does not work on mobile phones or tablets

If you are unable to play the game on your laptop/desktop browser, please try the following steps to enable WebGL

Credits

The Gig Lane was developed by Pradyumna Taduri and Janaki Srinivasan of Fairwork's India Team at the International Institute of Information Technology Bangalore

 

Fairwork