Dhananjay Dutta Shrimali and Aditya Krishna
The online delivery companies are completely unmindful of the results of putting the deliverymen at unnecessary risk of infection during the times of the pandemic, while the state looks silently.
This is the 14th post of our COVID-19 series.
The Internet has become a marketplace for the Indian middle class, where it can purchase almost everything it needs. The invisible hand of the market facilitates it via another set of invisible hands- the delivery personnel. These workers are an essential instrument for the whole system of online shopping and food delivery. The employers, mostly large corporations, seldom keep them on payrolls and usually hire them on a contractual basis, which means lesser facilities than a regular employee, sometimes unsafe and uncertain working conditions. The instances of food delivery boys over speeding and meeting with accidents in order to deliver the food in time are not unheard of. There is a common refrain among the entrepreneur class that the strict adherence to labour rights protection laws would clog the growth of the economy.
In a recent incident, a delivery boy working for a popular pizza chain was tested positive for the COVID-19. This ruffled many feathers in the media and the administration. However, all that was talked about was how he may have possibly infected these customers, and is the online delivery of food safe. The question of how did the delivery boy contract the disease, and why did the company not arrange for the requisite safety equipment for its delivery personnel was never asked.
The unenumerated rights like the right to a safe and healthy workplace still don’t find explicit mention in part III of the Indian Constitution, but it is considered as a ‘fundamental right’ through judicial pronouncements because of the importance of this right for their living. A hazardous or unsafe workplace is detrimental to the well being of the worker. The safety of labourers at the workplace is interpreted as their right to healthy and safe livelihood under article 21, which requires sufficient safety measures to be taken by their employers. However, because of the increase in cost incurred by their employer, they are denied basic life-protecting measures.
In a democratic country like India, where the constitution gives voice for the protection of basic human rights, what is instead observed is that the rights of workers are compromised to benefit the companies. The unsafe environment at the workplace becomes detrimental to a safe and healthy life of the workers working there, which violate their fundamental right to life with liberty and dignity.
In the wake of the recent pandemic, the biggest precaution being suggested is the minimalisation of social contact, which would be effective in controlling the spread of the virus. The very nature of work of the delivery personnel involves physically visiting the customers and handing over the order to them. Therefore, it seems imperative that they should be provided with safety equipment, sufficient to enable them to work in a safe environment and minimise the dangers. However, this does not seem to be the priority of the companies or the state. The step taken by them is the initiating contactless delivery, which means the delivery boy and the customer would not meet each other, and the order would be simply kept at the customers’ doorsteps. The priority of such initiatives seems to be protecting the customers rather than the delivery boys, who would still have to go out and visit multiple houses in the city.
The recent announcement of lockdowns across the country, which brought the entire economy to a halt, did not mean a lockdown in the online delivery sector. The online deliveries are still going on, and the deliverymen still hit the road every day in order to earn their daily bread. While this keeps their kitchens functioning, the risk that they are exposed to, and simultaneously expose their customers, coworkers and families to, is simply not worth it.
Right to a safe working environment is a fundamental right ensured by the Court in the case of Bandhua Mukti Morcha v Union of India. Though the case dealt with the rehabilitation of bonded labours, the Court also discussed the standard of living and the conditions that those workers were to be provided after their rehabilitation. It would be justified to treat those standards as a benchmark, against which the present is to be judged. The list is a long one but includes fair wages, health, medical care and sanitation.
While the manufacturing sector of the economy has been asked to shut down, and the employees are to be paid their salaries at home, the online delivery business was not brought under the lockdown. On the contrary, the restaurant employees were temporarily employed by the online grocery companies as delivery boys to enable the delivery to customers.
The National Restaurant Association of India said that they would not be laying off employees, and would collaborate with other companies to find them temporary employment. This clearly tells that the employees would not be paid their wages unless they come out and work in this pandemic. This is a loophole being exploited by the employers to make their employees work during this pandemic and minimise their own losses, at the cost of entering into a compromise with the safety of the employees and their families.
In situations like this, it becomes the responsibility of the state, to ensure that the compliance to the law is there, and that the employers adhere to the guidelines regarding the working conditions of the employees. The Supreme Court also put the duty to ensure proper working conditions on the government, and to look for any violations. During this pandemic, while the migrant labour in the unorganised sector had to migrate en masse towards their villages due to lack of resources sufficient for survival, the people working in this sector are forced to choose between losing their jobs, or delivering stuff around the city, putting their safety at risk. While the people working in the essential services like healthcare and the police are to be provided with adequate safety equipment by their respective employers, no such concern seems to be affecting the minds of the employees of the delivery boys.
Adding insult to injury, the approach of the judiciary in the matter douses the remaining hopes. Recently, the Supreme Court while hearing a plea regarding the labour being put under deplorable conditions during the lockdown and government’s observed that the labour across different states is provided with food and shelter that should be enough. It refused to address the question of poor facilities provided by the government and the decisions taken by it, which expose the labour class more to the coronavirus.
The right to fair wages and a safe working environment were envisioned not only in the Directive Principles of State Policy [Article 39 (e) and (f)] but have also been upheld in by the Supreme Court as flowing out of Article 21. The Court had categorically held that no workman should be forced to work for his bread in conditions that put his health and vigour under threat, and if they work under such hazardous conditions, the responsibility on the state doubles. Treatment of COVID-19 is an extremely expensive affair, and for the section of the workforce that is being talked about, the expenses can be next to unbearable.
The COVID-19 crisis is such a situation, where such jobs should be considered hazardous, and therefore it shall be the duty of the state and/or the employers to make sure that such workers are being provided with adequate safety equipment, and if any misfortunate incident happens where the worker(s) contracts the infection, the employees and/or the state should take care of the expenses of treatment and other related expenses. Steps like the provision of minimum safety gear, and mandatory health insurance- at the expense of the employer and/or the state can be a feasible option, which can at least, to some extent, make the conditions of these workmen better.
The authors are students at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru.
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