“It has been a year and I have not been able to get my children admitted to a good school. My husband’s work has taken a hit and we had to sell off a house we used to rent out for merely one and half lakh rupees,” says 35 year old Seema Singh. Seema used to work at a salon in Laxmi Nagar in New Delhi until 2018. She then got a call from an Urban Company representative who convinced her of flexible work hours and greater financial independence if she were to join the company. By December 2021, as an all-women gig workers led demonstration reached the gates of Urban Company’s office in Gurgaon, protesting for workers’ rights, Seema had decided to quit. “It was my daughter’s birthday as I sat there in the cold protesting against the company’s unfair practices. I wanted to be with her that day,” Seema says, talking to FII in a telephonic interview.
Singh, who lives in Vaishali, Ghaziabad with her husband and their nine year old son and four year old daughter, is among the four women on whom Urban Company issued a dasti summon following their second round of protests at its Gurgaon office in December. The court injunction issued against the women at the Gurgaon district court now restricted them from coming anywhere within the 100 metres radius of the office and from coming together as part of a protest, gherao, dharna, demonstration, etc. Urban Company, popular for simplifying the process of accessing home service providers like plumbers, beauticians, sanitary workers, etc., has been witnessing a growing unrest among its employees, that the organization refer to as “partners”. The company had increased penalties for cancellation of deals, the partners were required to ensure minimum ratings and there was no cap on the company’s commissions on the bookings taken up by the partners.
The workers reportedly noticed a rise in the company’s commissions only around early 2020. They were already in the midst of navigating the precarities of the pandemic that was beginning to unfold and the effects of which were slowly but surely hitting them. In addition to the company levying high commissions, the beauticians also began to be penalized heavily when they would cancel bookings. According to a report by Scroll.in, the fine would range anywhere between INR 200 to INR 800.
“I didn’t even know where their office was before this. But in August, I and a few other beauty partners went to Urban Company’s office in Gurgaon to discuss our concerns. We were assured that our problems will be addressed,” says Seema. Not ready to settle for hollow promises this time, Singh, along with four other beauty partners met at a local park in Preet Vihar to enlist their demands from Urban Company. Some of their prominent demands were a 20 percent cap on commissions, a proper grievance redressal system, a reduction in prices of the products they were expected to sell, health insurance, customer ratings, regulation of the ID-blocking mechanism based on ratings, etc. In addition to these, the workers also wanted TDS deductions, automatic product payments from their accounts and additional charges for rejoining after a break, among others, to end, according to the Scroll.in report.
Following the protest in October, when a 100-odd women reached the Gurgaon office, the company issued new policy changes in a blog post wherein it seemed to agree to the partners’ demands. Seema was also quoted saying that the 35 percent commission in big bookings was reduced to 25 percent. However, it was found that on smaller bookings the commission rate was increased to 8.5 percent from 5 percent.
In December however, the company introduced a significant change in the booking system. According to Rikta Krishnaswamy, one of the coordinators of All India Gig Workers Union (AIGWU), who was helping the women workers organise, Urban Company already had an internal hierarchy-based performance categorisation of the workers which was dependent on their customer ratings and response rates. For instance, if you have 4.85 and a 70-80 percent response rate, then you are in the Plus category, Rikta explained, speaking to FII in a telephonic interview. But that does not mean that women who were in the top categories were satisfied with the company policy. “Workers in the Plus category are expected to give a 10 percent discount to the customers from their earnings to create a ‘customer experience’,” says Rikta. Women workers with a history of low response rates and low customer ratings are slated in categories lower in the hierarchy, as a result of which they would be given slots for cheaper bookings, such as a 400 rupees pedicure, irrespective of how skilled or experienced they are.
This does not mean that women who were in top tier categories were satisfied with the company policy: the more money they made, the higher rates of commissions the company would levy, thus inevitably eating into the earnings of the partners, Rikta explains.
In December, a parallel system was introduced: Smart, Basic and Flexi categories. The new system would bring into place a subscription plan which required the partners to pay INR 3000 upfront to Urban Company at the beginning of the month, in return of “guaranteed leads” from the company, says Rikta. The partners found this systemic strong-arming particularly unfair, given how the organisation had promised flexible work hours and financial stability to get the women on board in the first place. As per the new regulations, the partners who bought into this hefty subscription plan and paid the money upfront to the company would be allowed to work regularly and be given guaranteed bookings, as promised by the company. And the partners who did not pay the subscription fee upfront every month would only be allowed to take up bookings on some days of the week. An infuriated Seema recounts this as against what the company promised the partners when it was onboarding them.
“We were told we could work flexible hours, take up booking that suited our convenience and now these changes were being brought in just to weed us out,” she says. Seema explains that there were several skilled beauticians who had to attend to familial responsibilities and chose to take up lesser bookings or more expensive bookings. But this new system would restrict these skilled workers to only take up bookings on a couple of days in the week, which in turn would gravely affect their earnings. “How is this fair? I would keep myself free through the day but they would often give me bookings in late evenings and to places that would be unsafe for me to travel to so late. As if to get back at us for protesting, the company would show no consideration towards our safety,” Seema says.
The introduction of this new system led all negotiations between the workers and the company to break down, leading to a spontaneous dharna at the main gate in December. Workers demanded that the company repeal the new regulations. “We did not have access to even a washroom and a few of us went to a stranded building nearby to relieve ourselves. There were pregnant women sitting there with us. It was very harrowing for all of us,” says Seema. “
“The police came and imposed Section 144 on the protesting workers! – Imagine, they impose a colonial era law on workers fighting for their rights in an industrial pocket in Udhyog Vihar!” Rikta says.
Gig Economy, Feminisation Of Labour and Cheap Labour
Professor Mary E John in her seminal essay ‘Feminism, Poverty and Globalisation’, observes that India’s New Economic Policies that hailed globalisation and privatisation dismissed how this could lead to an increase in the disparities between rich and poor regions, with the women of the poor population getting affected the most. “…. such women will have to increasingly bear the disproportionate burdens arising from the unequal allocation of resources and poorer self-care, even as they work harder to make up for the falling real incomes…”.
While gig work has led to an increase in workforce, female labour force participation rate (FLPR) in India has been abysmal. It fell to 16.1 percent during July-September 2020. Yet, Urban Company reportedly comprises 40 percent female labour force. While on paper that sounds great for ‘women empowerment’ through economic liberation, (yay, capitalism) the on-ground implications of the same have historically proven to largely involve generation of cheap labour. Scholars have observed trends over years of employment of women (especially from marginalised communities) in the informal global economy based on how they form the cheapest and docile form of labour. Urban Company issued a ‘dasti summon’ to the protesting workers to accept a court complaint filed against them, introduced structural changes without taking stakeholders into account and asked the partners to leave if they cannot comply with the changes, evidently indicating their dismissive attitude towards the female workforce.
WhatsApp ‘Whisper Circles’: Organizing For Revolution
A 2020 report by GSM Association found that women in India are 56 percent less likely than men to have mobile internet while a 2018 Harvard Kennedy School study estimated only 38 percent women in India use mobile phones. In this context, for Urban Company beauty partners to come together to voice their concerns and organize protests on WhatsApp is nothing less than revolutionary. Historically, patriarchal structures have actively ensured women do not speak to each other about their concerns, often dismissing women talking as “gossip”, when not patronising them.
Also read: The Act Of ‘Gossiping’: A Feminist Analysis
Seema says she created the WhatsApp group titled ‘Salon Problems Share’ in 2019. “The beauty partners would join the group to talk about their problems. Through voice notes and text messages, we would tell each other about the discriminatory and unfair experiences we would go through because of Urban Company clients. Gradually, we also began discussing the unfair practices of the company too,” she explains.
However, a little before September 2021, Singh started getting threats from Urban Company to disband the WhatsApp group. An Urban Company staffer called Singh and said, “Tum ladkiyon ko bhadka rahi ho” (you are instigating the girls) and added that they will block her ID if she doesn’t disband the group. “I refused to budge. These are 20-25 year old women, some of whom are the sole breadwinners of their families. They have ageing and ailing parents to take care of. Some of them were pregnant. It is wrong of Urban Company to infantilise them by saying I instigated them. They are all fully aware of their concerns with the organisation. None of the beauty partners required any convincing to join the group. They were evidently frustrated and demanded justice,” Seema says.
Seema says she received close to three WhatsApp calls from the organisation’s staffer, asking her to stop mobilising the women on the WhatsApp group. But she was determined. Instead, Seema and a few others created a list of their demands on the group, got it approved by the rest of the workers and continued to press for these demands to be taken into consideration. When they saw that the officials did not address their demands by October like they had earlier promised to, the women began organising themselves for protests on the WhatsApp group, resulting in what was India’s first all women-led gig workers’ strike.
“Urban Company must have been worried about us forming a union. Some of the women were discussing on these lines but our aim is to create a formal body for all people working in the beauty industry and not just the Urban Company workers to raise their concerns at,” Seema says.
However, the WhatsApp group has not just been a space for agitation for these women. They have rekindled old friendships and formed sisterhood through their shared lived experiences of betrayal by the company, Seema says. “We also share useful leads of job vacancies amidst all these,” she adds.
Feminism In India has reached out to the Urban Company for corroboration but is yet to receive a response. This copy will be updated as and when we hear back from the company.