All of this has led the company to push its workers into a mold that essentially has all the downsides of regular employment but few of the benefits. For workers who joined the platform for its flexibility and autonomy, this reality of platform work becomes difficult to reconcile with.
“Urban Company is trying to imagine an ideal worker for this particular model to be someone who is always available, gives their 100 percent, [doesn’t] cancel at all, has no family responsibilities,” Tandon says. “But a lot of these workers are single parents, who have family responsibility and children to take care of. These are not folks who will fit into this model of having a 80 percent, 90 percent acceptance rate.”
In June, WhatsApp groups used by Urban Company workers were flooded with messages about one of their peers, who had reportedly died by suicide after the company deactivated her account—leaving her with no source of income. Several workers I spoke with said that while the news was shocking, none of them knew the victim. “We were vexed,” Seema from Bengaluru says, “But the problem is that all of us are so isolated from each other. The platform doesn’t have any get-togethers, nothing. We all don’t have any relationships, which is a plus point for Urban Company.”
But, like their peers across the platform economy, Urban Company workers are now getting organized. In June and July, hundreds of Urban Company workers took to the streets in Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, and Kolkata. Shabnam was present at one of the protests last month in Bengaluru, demanding that the company reinstate her account. With this, they have joined thousands of Indian gig workers from Uber, Ola, Swiggy, Blinkit and more.
There have been at least half a dozen such protests across different cities in India since the beginning of the year—all of them essentially fighting for the same reasons: better pay and working conditions, a ban on unfair practices, and laws governing gig work that workers can lean on for safety and protection. “It’s not just Urban Company that has been blocking accounts,” said Shaik Salauddin, founder of Telangana Gig and Platform Worker Union. “Ola, Uber, Swiggy, Zomato, Amazon, Flipkart—all aggregator companies are doing this.”
Rikta Krishnaswamy, a coordinator with the All India Gig Workers Union, said that the union has had conversations with the labor departments across different cities, including Delhi and Pune. Another meeting is coming up in Mumbai. “We have raised complaints against these illegal dismissals, and the labor departments in Delhi, Noida, and Gurugram have sent notices to the company for a meeting,” she said. “Let’s see if they actually show up.”
Some of the workers whose accounts were blocked have been able to get it reinstated, provided their rating was not lower than 4.7 and they weren’t blocked for trust and safety issues. But, if the video shared by Bahl is any indication, things are only going to get worse by the end of the year. The company has launched a salon quality improvement program called Project Shakti, under which, by December, the performance metrics are going to get even stricter for beauticians: an acceptance rate greater than 80 percent, no more than three monthly cancellations, and “100 percent orders delivered on UC app only.” The rating threshold will continue to be at a minimum of 4.7.
The new policy is being hammered home. Workers whose accounts have been reinstated and those already active on the platform are being called for a meeting to the Urban Company office in small groups of around 10. Some have to watch Bahl’s video. Then they are presented with new terms and conditions to sign, which include consent for them to be permanently blocked from the platform if they miss their targets.
CORRECTION 08/04/2023 5:23 ET: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Sequoia was an investor in Urban Company.