Between Digital Platforms and the Deep Sea

Social Justice implications of digital platforms on marginality in coastal south India

Project Lead

Yingqin Zheng
Senior Lecturer, School of Management
Royal Holloway, University of London

Supporting Partner(s) 

Shyam Krishna (RHUL), Indian Fishermen Association, Chennai–India (Community and Labour Organisation)


The Indian food delivery app market has grown 500% since its emergence in 2015, and many former fishermen have turned to delivery driver work. The project was a mix between interviews with delivery drivers and direct experience, as one of the researchers worked as a rider. 

They explored the details of food delivery work and the unfairness that are faced by the workers, to be used by labour and digital activists, unions and associations and the workers themselves. 

This report is a result of three months of research with 27 interviews done with riders within the south Indian city of Chennai. The primary researcher also worked as a rider for five weeks to experience directly the apps being studied and the daily work within this sector.

Pay and costs

The payment scheme for riders does not follow a standard across different food delivery companies, so some do not include pay or waiting time at restaurants and distance travelled by the riders. While riders are paid a fixed amount for pick-up and drop in all cases, pay for distance driven and waiting charge for time taken at restaurants is not a standard. Many times, peak hour or surge payment is not available to some of the riders, and abrupt changes are made to the variable payment structure for riders – sometimes daily.

Contract and partnerships

When joining directly at platforms’ recruiting office riders are refused a copy of the contract, therefore their contract terms are unknown or unclear. It can also be the case that the absence of a signed duplicate with the riders make it difficult for the riders to prove that they are in a contract with the platform, or even that the actual contract may not be legally binding.

Many riders also join through middle-men who do everything from creation of login with temporary emails ids to setting up bank details of riders with the platform. Here personal and financial details are shared easily over WhatsApp even without physically meeting become prone to misuse.

App and technology

Limited training is done to use the food delivery apps, it is mostly done during on-boarding using videos which are based only on the core functions such as navigating the maps, pick-up and delivery of orders. There is a lack of organised training for many important support features that benefit riders like raising dispute resolution requests or reporting technical issues using tickets.

Future Directions

Based on the explored unfair practices in the app-based food delivery sector, three issues are recommended for immediate collective action or intervention by community practitioners, union/association leaders, labour activists and the riders themselves.

Organised representation

There is a fundamental lack of representation that riders face when seeking to negotiate with platforms. Ongoing efforts of unionisation of app-based workers in cities across India mainly include cab drivers and food-delivery riders to only a lesser extent. So within the food-delivery sector protests and strikes are frequently organised informally without wider participation and usually only with one specific platform. This has reduced the bargaining power of the riders which needs collective involvement of and dialogue between workers across different digital platforms.

Data protection

There is an urgent need to train and inform riders on protection of their personal and financial details. As middle-men and platform are in a position to easily exploit data given by riders, there is a need for both organised and informal training for riders in a way to protect themselves and their information.

Defining wage

There is an absence of agreement on what a ‘good wage’ is for food-delivery work. Compared to app-based cab drivers who can formally define their needs based on fare per kilometre, food-delivery riders income is left to the platform’s own calculations. This needs to be challenged with a collective definition of work and wages emerging from workers themselves. This provides an opportunity to improve working conditions and reduce the level of uncertainty they face in their daily work due to unpaid efforts. 


Spatiotemporal (In) justice in Digital Platforms: An Analysis of Food-Delivery Platforms in South India. In IFIP Joint Working Conference on the Future of Digital Work: The Challenge of Inequality (pp. 132-147). Springer.