Thousands Of Gig Workers Can’t Make A Living Unless They Install A Controversial Contact Tracing App First

Workers say the platforms are exploiting them by making it mandatory to install the Indian government's contact tracing app.

Thousands of gig workers employed by app-based delivery or ride-hailing services in India want those platforms to stop forcing them to install a controversial government-backed coronavirus contact tracing app.

The app, called Aarogya Setu, requires constant access to GPS and Bluetooth data, and has drawn criticism from around the world for enabling state surveillance.

Although the Indian government hasn’t made the app legally mandatory, the country’s citizens have often found that they’ve had no choice but to install it for things like taking flights and trains, visiting pharmacies and malls, and accessing ATMs. Last month, Noida, a city on the outskirts of India’s capital, New Delhi, threatened people who didn’t have the app installed with jail time.

Despite this, private companies with millions of dollars in venture funding — including apps for food delivery, like Zomato and Swiggy, and ride-hailing, like Ola, which are powered by thousands of gig workers across the country — have made it mandatory for workers to install the app if they want to make a living off those platforms.

“Most gig workers in India who work for app-based tech platforms as delivery men in cities are semiliterate migrants from small towns around the country who do not understand the privacy concerns around contact tracing apps,” Shaik Salauddin, national general secretary of the Indian Federation of App-Based Transport Workers (IFAT), a union that represents more than 35,000 gig workers across 16 cities in the country, told BuzzFeed News. “The tech platforms that they work for are exploiting this by making it mandatory for them to install this app.”

“The tech platforms that they work for are exploiting this by making it mandatory for them to install this app.”

Earlier this month, the IFAT asked India’s largest services for food delivery and ride-hailing, including Zomato, Swiggy, Ola, and Dunzo, to allow gig workers to do their jobs without having the contact tracing app on their phones, a rule that the platforms imposed shortly after the national government launched Aarogya Setu in early April.

“Nobody in any company has listened to us so far,” said Salauddin.

An Uber spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that although the company has “advised” drivers to download the app, it was not mandatory yet. The spokesperson declined to comment on whether Uber would enforce it in the future.

“Apps like Aarogya Setu play a key role in keeping a check on the status of the zones affected by COVID within their vicinity. It also helps them to keep a daily check on their health status and guides them to proceed for work upon receiving a green status. Hence, we have made the use of the app mandatory for them,” a Swiggy spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.

Zomato and Ola did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment. Dunzo declined to comment.

Millions of Indians have spent the last few months locked indoors because of a strict nationwide coronavirus lockdown. Although orders are down compared to normal, people have been relying on thousands of gig workers for deliveries of food, groceries, medicines, and other essentials. Gig workers were deemed “essential” by most states during India’s nationwide lockdown and were one of the few people allowed to do their jobs during the last few months. Platforms have used them as a part of promotions and public relations, hailing them as “superheroes” who are providing critical services to a nation of 1.3 billion people. A Swiggy spokesperson called delivery people working for its platform “Hunger Saviours continuing to deliver food to those in need” in a statement to BuzzFeed News.

But in reality, many gig workers say they have been treated apathetically. They have demanded that their employers provide personal protective equipment like masks, gloves, and sanitizers, and they have complained about being forced to put in longer hours to make ends meet thanks to plummeting demand for food delivery from customers worried about getting infected through takeout containers. Some companies like Swiggy say that they provide gig workers with masks “on a regular basis” and reimburse them for sanitizers.

Now, they say that being asked to install a contact tracing app steeped in the controversy around privacy and surveillance is the final straw.

“Nine out of ten workers who work for delivery apps in the country are not very literate. They don’t understand English, and they don’t understand privacy concerns. They care about making a living,” Dharmendra Vaishnav, president of the Indian Delivery Lions Association, a union of more than 5,000 gig workers in the state of Rajasthan, told BuzzFeed News. “But there are some of us who are a little more aware of the controversies. We read newspapers, we’re on social media, and we know what people are saying about this app. That’s enough reason to push back.”

The IFAT’s recent statement against Aarogya Setu is a part of an ongoing pushback from gig workers in the country against what they see as a coercive step by the platforms. Last month, a group of 37 organizations in India including a handful of labor unions sent a letter to the prime minister’s office as well as to federal IT and labor ministries, urging them to consider the impact of the app on the “privacy, autonomy and dignity of workers.” Later that month, India’s government softened its stance on mandating that private employees have the app installed and said that workplaces should simply try their best to ensure employee compliance.

"Workers have to simply accept arbitrary conditions imposed by these platforms because there’s no choice.” 

But nothing changed for gig workers, whose companies continue to require them to have the app installed on their phones.

These workers, experts say, are particularly vulnerable.

“Platform workers haven’t been able to push back against being required to install this app because doing so would mean no work,” said Kaveri Medappa, a PhD scholar at the University of Sussex who is researching issues faced by blue-collar delivery workers of the tech platforms that power India’s modern gig economy. “There is an extremely unequal power relation at play here. Workers have to simply accept arbitrary conditions imposed by these platforms because there’s no choice.”

None of the platforms require customers to have Aarogya Setu installed to use their services. “It’s glaring how almost all of the ‘safety measures’ devised by these platforms keep only the customer in mind and not the workers,” Medappa said.

Other experts, like Vinay Sreenivasa, a researcher at the Alternative Law Forum, a legal organization in Bangalore that works on issues of social justice, think that making gig workers install the contact tracing app is about optics. Most food delivery apps in India, for instance, now prominently display a banner saying that the delivery worker who picked up an order has Aarogya Setu installed on their device. “Who are these companies trying to protect?” Sreenivasa asked. “Their workers or their customers? They just want to show customers that they have made all delivery workers install the app.”

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