Heatwave fee for Asia’s gig workers does little to cool climate stress

Gig firms are levying heatwave and rain surcharges as extreme weather events rise, but drivers need more protection, say experts.

A woman food delivery service provider takes a quick break in Bangkok, Thailand.  Image: UN Women Asia and the Pacific, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

As a heatwave engulfed northern and central Vietnam earlier this month, customers reaching for their phones to order food or a ride on the Grab app learned they would have to pay a surcharge.

The extra fee, applied when the local temperature hits 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit), came months after the Southeast Asian platform company introduced a rainy-weather fee in Vietnam.

“Working under such bad weather conditions can be tough on our driver- and delivery-partners. We want to ensure they are fairly compensated for it,” a Grab spokesperson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the surcharge is 5,000 Vietnamese dong ($0.21) for Grab’s motorcycle taxi, and food and grocery deliveries, and 3,000 dong for its quick delivery service.

Nguyen Tuan, a Grab driver in Ho Chi Minh City, said the additional payment gave him and his colleagues an incentive, as they have to work regardless of weather conditions.

“If I don’t work, where do I get money to eat? I make a living day by day,” said Tuan, who puts in several hours a day as a food-delivery and motorcycle-taxi driver.

Strategies like a hot-weather surcharge should not be used as a way to exploit workers and drive them to deliver under dangerous or unsafe circumstances.

Jaya Dhindaw, program director for urban development, planning and resilience, WRI India

Platform companies offering delivery and ride-hailing services have come under increasing scrutiny for their planet-heating emissions linked to traffic congestion and packaging.

But there has been little discussion of how riders and drivers are dealing with extreme weather, as they often work long hours, waiting at street corners and outside restaurants for orders, and have limited access to medical care.

Only now is the issue starting to grab the public’s attention as climate change brings more frequent and intense heatwaves and floods around the world, raising questions about the health impacts for the must vulnerable in the labour force.

‘Absolutely inhumane’

India, which is estimated to have more than 7.5 million gig workers, was hit by several heatwaves in April and May, with temperatures of 45C-50C recorded in parts of the country.

In May, a series of tweets from Mumbai resident Parizad Baria-Unwalla went viral as she described finding out that her food order was delayed because the delivery worker was walking to her home from the restaurant.

“It is a summer afternoon in Mumbai and the restaurant was 4.5 km away. This is absolutely inhumane,” she wrote, as she appealed to the Swiggy platform to get him a cab or an auto rickshaw, and offered to pay for the transport.=

Dozens weighed in, with one user saying they had stopped ordering from Swiggy after a delivery worker cycled at least 5 km (3.1 miles) to their home at noon.

Swiggy did not respond to a request for comment.

“Gig workers in India have no protections because they are not recognised as workers, and hence don’t fall under the occupational health and safety rules,” said Rikta Krishnaswamy, a representative of the All India Gig Workers’ Union.

While several platform firms hike prices during rains, that is more due to heavy demand, she said. Few firms make similar concessions in hot weather.

“The workers are not even allowed to go into restaurants to pick up orders or get a drink of water, or use the washroom to freshen up. Meanwhile, companies are pushing more of their workers to cycle as part of their ESG drive,” she added.

Zomato, another Indian platform company, delivered nearly a fifth of its food orders by bicycle in the financial year to March 2022, according to its Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) report.

Zomato pays riders an extra fee for deliveries in the rain, and reduces the distance they have to travel, a spokesperson said.

During the recent heatwaves in India, the company set up refreshment centres in several cities for riders to rest between deliveries and get free cold drinks, the spokesperson added.

Rising risk

Demand for gig work has surged in recent years with the growth in e-commerce and the so-called “platformisation” of work, with advocates saying it offers both sides greater freedom and flexibility. The pandemic further boosted demand.

But critics say it exploits workers who have few other choices, and that it undercuts hard-won labour rights, with gig workers in poorer nations largely treated as casual labour.

Heat stress occurs at temperatures above 35C in high humidity, according to the International Labor Organisation. Heat stroke can occur if body temperature rises above 40C.

In the UAE, where summer temperatures can top 45C, delivery workers are exempt from taking a mandatory break from 12.30 pm to 3 pm, between June 15 and September 15, introduced to protect labourers from the “risks of exposure to high temperatures”.

Where labourers have to work during these hours, employers must provide cold drinking water, first-aid kits, cooling facilities and shaded rest areas.

Similarly in India, while several states have adopted heat action plans that recommend minimal outdoor activity during the hottest hours of the day, this is not an option for gig workers.

Exposure to extreme heat can have adverse health impacts, and also carries an increased risk of injury or lapses in concentration, said Jaya Dhindaw, program director for urban development, planning and resilience at WRI India.

“Platform workers will be especially susceptible to this,” she said. “However, strategies like a hot-weather surcharge should not be used as a way to exploit workers and drive them to deliver under dangerous or unsafe circumstances.”

Meanwhile in Vietnam, on a public Facebook group of Grab drivers in Ho Chi Minh City with over 51,000 members, there were dozens of comments on the heatwave surcharge.

In one post that has garnered over 300 likes and more than 100 comments, a member said that of the additional fee of 5,000 Vietnamese dong, drivers only get 3,600 dong, while Grab gets the rest for “sitting around doing nothing”.

Tan Giang, a Grab user in southern Vietnam, said he would be happy to pay the surcharge if it benefited drivers 100 per cent.

“As a customer I support that because it is their sweat and tears,” he said.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.

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