Food apps fuel India’s hungry gig economy

A surge in the popularity of food delivery apps such as Uber Eats, Swiggy and Zomato has led to questions about workers’ rights in India’s growing gig economy. (AFP)
Updated 21 February 2019
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Food apps fuel India’s hungry gig economy

  • A surge in the popularity of food-ordering apps, such as Uber Eats and Swiggy, provides a welcome source of income for many
  • The app-based food delivery industry is worth an estimated $7 billion to Asia’s third-largest economy, according to market research firm Statista

MUMBAI: Suraj Nachre works long hours and often misses meals, but he treasures his job as a driver for a food delivery startup — working in a booming industry that highlights India’s expanding apps-based gig economy.
The 26-year-old is one of hundreds of thousands of young Indians who, armed with their smartphones and motorcycles, courier dinners to offices and homes ordered at the swipe of a finger.
A surge in the popularity of food-ordering apps, such as Uber Eats and Swiggy, provides a welcome source of income for many as India’s unemployment rate sits at a reported 45-year high.
But they also shine a spotlight on the prevalence of short-term contracts in the economy, raising questions about workers’ rights and conditions and the long-term viability of the jobs.
“(These delivery workers) are treated as independent contractors, so labor laws governing employees are not applicable and they lack job security,” Gautam Ghosh, a human resources consultant, said.
“While jobs created by food delivery apps are crucial, they may not exist in 10 years, so for most youngsters they are a stopgap arrangement,” he added.
India’s army of food delivery drivers became a talking point on social media late last year when a rider for the Zomato platform was filmed sampling a customer’s order. The video, apparently shot on a mobile phone, showed the man taking bites from several food parcels before wrapping them again. It sparked anger online and he was promptly sacked.
Many Internet users rallied to his defense, however. They insisted that the two-minute clip showed he was hungry and desperate, and said Zomato had acted harshly in dismissing him.
“It is a challenging job,” said Nachre, expressing sympathy for the unnamed delivery man who was working in the southern city of Madurai before being fired.
“We work 12 hours straight in soaring heat and heavy rains. Sometimes I don’t even have time to eat,” he said.
Nachre drives for the Scootsy platform. He leaves home at 9 a.m. and does not return until after
1 a.m. Navigating Mumbai’s traffic-choked roads makes work stressful, he said.
“We’re always in a rush to deliver and customers keep calling us. We know we have to be on our toes all the time or customers might complain and we may lose our jobs,” he said.
India’s food delivery apps, backed by major international investment, are offering new avenues of employment for Indian youngsters who lack higher education but possess a driving license.
Their importance to the likes of Nachre was highlighted recently when a leaked government report said India’s unemployment rate was 6.1 percent in 2017-18, the highest since the 1970s.
“This job is lucrative,” said Nachre, who has no post-school qualifications and earns a minimum of 18,000 rupees ($253) a month.
In his previous job running errands at an office, he made only 8,000 rupees.
The app-based food delivery industry is worth an estimated $7 billion to Asia’s third-largest economy, according to market research firm Statista, and is expanding rapidly.
Swiggy announced at the end of last year that it had received $1 billion in funding from foreign backers, including South Africa’s Naspers and China’s Tencent.
That put the valuation of the five-year-old company, based in Bangalore, at more than $3 billion.
Zomato, Swiggy’s nearest challenger for market dominance, is being aggressively backed by Alibaba’s Ant Financial. The Chinese giant recently pumped in $210 million, valuing the Delhi-based startup at $2 billion.
The food delivery platforms are soaring as India’s growing middle classes take advantage of better smartphone connectivity and cheap data plans that are fueling a gig economy centered on technology.
Informal, casual labor has long been the bedrock of India’s economy, but now Indians can access a host of services on their phones, ranging from hiring a rickshaw to booking a plumber or yoga teacher.
FlexingIt, a global consulting agency, estimates the country’s gig economy has the potential to grow up to $30 billion by 2025.


Saudi energy minister recommends driving down oil inventories, says supply plentiful

Updated 19 May 2019
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Saudi energy minister recommends driving down oil inventories, says supply plentiful

  • Oil supplies were sufficient and stockpiles were still rising despite massive output drops from Iran and Venezuela
  • Producer nations discussed how to stabilise a volatile oil market amid rising US-Iran tensions in the Gulf, which threaten to disrupt global supply

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih said on Sunday he recommended “gently” driving oil inventories down at a time of plentiful global supplies and that OPEC would not make hasty decisions about output ahead of a June meeting.
“Overall, the market is in a delicate situation,” Falih told reporters before a ministerial panel meeting of top OPEC and non-OPEC oil producers, including Saudi Arabia and Russia.
While there is concern about supply disruptions, inventories are rising and the market should see a “comfortable supply situation in the weeks and months to come,” he said.
The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, of which Saudi Arabia is de facto leader, would have more data at its next meeting in late June to help it reach the best decision on output, Falih said.
“It is critical that we don’t make hasty decisions – given the conflicting data, the complexity involved, and the evolving situation,” he said, describing the outlook as “quite foggy” due in part to a trade dispute between the United States and China.
“But I want to assure you that our group has always done the right thing in the interests of both consumers and producers; and we will continue to do so,” he added.
OPEC, Russia and other non-OPEC producers, an alliance known as OPEC+, agreed to reduce output by 1.2 million barrels per day (bpd) from Jan. 1 for six months, a deal designed to stop inventories building up and weakening prices.
Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak told reporters that different options were available for the output deal, including a rise in production in the second half of the year.
The energy minister of the United Arab Emirates, Suhail Al-Mazrouei, said oil producers were capable of filling any gap in the oil market and that relaxing supply cuts was not “the right decision.”
Mazrouei said the UAE did not want to see a rise in inventories that could lead to a price collapse and that OPEC would act wisely to maintain sustainable market balance.
“As UAE we see that the job is not done yet, there is still a period of time to look at the supply and demand and we don’t see any need to alter the agreement in the meantime,” he said.
US crude inventories rose unexpectedly last week to their highest since September 2017, while gasoline stockpiles decreased more than forecast, data from the government’s Energy Information Administration showed on Wednesday.
DELICATE BALANCE
Saudi Arabia sees no need to boost production quickly now, with oil at around $70 a barrel, as it fears a price crash and a build-up in inventories, OPEC sources said, adding that Russia wants to increase supply after June.
The United States, not a member of OPEC+ but a close ally of Riyadh, wants the group to boost output to bring oil prices down.
Falih has to find a delicate balance between keeping the oil market well supplied and prices high enough for Riyadh’s budget needs, while pleasing Moscow to ensure Russia remains in the OPEC+ pact, and being responsive to the concerns of the United States and the rest of OPEC+, the sources said earlier.
Sunday’s meeting of the ministerial panel, known as the JMMC, comes amid concerns of a tight market. Iran’s oil exports are likely to drop further in May and shipments from Venezuela could fall again in coming weeks due to US sanctions.
Oil contamination also forced Russia to halt flows along the Druzhba pipeline — a key conduit for crude into Eastern Europe and Germany — in April. The suspension, as yet of unclear duration, left refiners scrambling to find supplies.
Russia’s Novak told reporters that oil supplies to Poland via the pipeline would start on Monday.
OPEC’s agreed share of the cuts is 800,000 bpd, but its actual reduction is far larger due to the production losses in Iran and Venezuela. Both are under US sanctions and exempt from the voluntary reductions under the OPEC-led deal.
REGIONAL TENSIONS
Oil prices edged lower on Friday due to demand fears amid a standoff in Sino-US trade talks, but both benchmarks ended the week higher on rising concerns over disruptions in Middle East shipments due to US-Iran political tensions.
Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are running high after last week’s attacks on two Saudi oil tankers off the UAE coast and another on Saudi oil facilities inside the Kingdom.
Riyadh accused Tehran of ordering the drone strikes on oil pumping stations, for which Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi militia claimed responsibility. 
Saudi Arabia’s minister of state for foreign affairs said on Sunday that the Kingdom wants to avert war in the region but stands ready to respond with “all strength” following the attacks.
“Although it has not affected our supplies, such acts of terrorism are deplorable,” Falih said. “They threaten uninterrupted supplies of energy to the world and put a global economy that is already facing headwinds at further risk.”
The attacks come as the United States and Iran spar over Washington’s tightening of sanctions aimed at cutting Iranian oil exports to zero, and an increased US military presence in the Gulf over perceived Iranian threats to US interests.