Working in ‘hellfire’: Gig workers bear the brunt of India’s heatwave

Delivery workers face physical and mental hardships while enduring India’s scorching summer.

GURUGRAM, INDIA - MAY 20: A postman going to deliver the letter in heat wave on a hot summer day at sector-17/18 dividing road near Iffco chowk on May 20, 2024 in Gurugram, India. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) weather forecast report states that heatwave to severe heatwave conditions is expected in Punjab, Haryana, and Delhi until May 23, in Rajasthan over the next three days, and in Uttar Pradesh until May 21. (Photo by Parveen Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
A delivery worker rides his bike on a hot summer day on May 20, 2024 in Gurugram, India [Parveen Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images]

New Delhi, India – Every morning before stepping out of his rented accommodation in New Delhi, India, gig worker Aman fills three plastic bottles with water from a small earthen pot and packs them with some leftover food inside a sling bag. To support his family, in 2018 the 26-year-old moved from Bihar to New Delhi to work as a delivery person at a logistics company. And it’s the hottest work he’s ever experienced; he’s never endured such scorching working conditions, he says.

Parts of India are currently engulfed by an extreme heatwave. In the last month, the mercury in Delhi rose to the highest temperature ever recorded: 52.9 degrees Celsius (127.2 degrees Fahrenheit); however, weather officials later issued a statement pushing the maximum temperature lower, in the high 40s (113-120F). In 2021, a report identified India as one of the top five countries in the world with the most exposure to extreme heat.

“When I am driving my two-wheeler during work, the hot air blowing on my body makes it feel like I am sitting outside a furnace,” says Aman, who goes by a single name. Last month, he fainted due to the heat while making a delivery in a remote area of Delhi, he recounts, adding that a shopkeeper came to his aid and poured cold water over his head. “Since that incident, I make sure to carry small water bottles and sprinkle water over my head and face multiple times during the day to remain conscious,” says Aman, his clothes drenched in sweat.

Delivery driver Aman pours water over his head to cool himself after making a delivery [Parthu Venkatesh/Al Jazeera]
Delivery driver Aman pours water over his head to cool himself after making a delivery [Parthu Venkatesh/Al Jazeera]

According to a recent report by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), the rising temperatures in India will reduce daily working hours 5.8 percent by 2030. With 90 percent of workers in the country employed in the informal sector, the loss of labour hours brings significant challenges.

Aman’s family has been worried about his health and safety. However, quitting or switching to another job is not an option. “While driving, I think about what would happen if something unforeseen happens to me due to heat,” he says. “That scares me, but unfortunately, I have no other skills than driving – and a family to look after – so I cannot leave this job at any cost.”

The scorching temperatures affect him mentally, he says, but also economically because they impact his ability to meet his delivery targets. In the winter, his daily earnings were around 750 Indian rupees ($9). That has now dropped to 500 rupees ($6). “It really haunts me how I will take care of my family,” he laments while getting ready to deliver the last parcel of his day, finishing a 10-hour shift.

According to a report by government think-tank NITI Aayog, there are 7.7 million gig workers in India — a number that is expected to grow to 23.5 million by 2029-30.

Outside a small eatery in South Delhi, Sharukh, 25, who works with a food delivery platform Zomato, stands opposite an old, rusted cooler installed by the owner. “Posh restaurants don’t even allow us to stand in front of their outlets while we are there to collect orders,” Sharukh says, adding that delivery people also have to ask for water in the unbearable heat and are made to feel like “untouchables”.

Since the heatwave began, Sharukh has avoided accepting orders from higher-end restaurants, preferring small establishments where “they have the humanity to offer us water and a place to rest while they prepare the order”.

“After all, I am not a machine who can work all day in this unbearable temperature,” he says, disheartened, while waiting to collect the seventh order of his shift. Each day he typically brings home 500 to 650 rupees ($6 to $7.80).

From March to May, there were approximately 25,000 cases of suspected heatstroke and 56 fatalities in India’s severe heatwave. May was the worst month, with 46 heat-related deaths alone, according to the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). News outlets including Reuters and The Hindu have reported that heatwave-related deaths could be as high as 80 or even 100.

Last month, while delivering an order, Sharukh experienced extreme pain and cramps in his stomach. Since then, he has been skipping heavy meals to stay light and drinking lemonade from roadside stalls to keep hydrated.

“My health has been badly impacted due to heat this year. After work, I feel exhausted and, at times, have severe headaches,” he says. The high temperatures also impact him at home, where frequent power outages prevent him from getting proper rest, making his condition worse. He says his mother insists that he find a different job, but that’s not an option considering the nation’s high unemployment.

“Also, our companies aren’t doing much for our safety and wellbeing,” Sharukh says, wrapping a gamcha (soft cotton towel soaked in water) around his face before leaving to deliver his next order.

Situations such as prolonged working hours, pressure to meet delivery targets, carrying heavy loads, irregular income and lack of social security like health insurance all negatively impact gig workers’ physical and mental wellbeing, according to a 2024 report by Janpahal, a Delhi-based non-profit.

“Although we all live in similar temperatures, the burden of heat isn’t shared equally,” explains Selomi Garnaik, a campaigner at Greenpeace India. “Heatwaves disproportionately impact outdoor workers, forcing them to endure extreme temperatures and putting their health and safety at grave risk.”

She says that Greenpeace India is demanding the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) declare heatwaves as a national disaster to ensure “effective fund allocation for heatwave adaptation, mitigation and relief”.

“Unfortunately, the heat action plans are reduced to being mere guiding documents; this needs to change,” Garnaik adds. “The heat action plans should prioritise outdoor workers and pay attention to their needs, including reducing working hours during peak heat, providing work absence allowances, and ensuring accessible basic public goods like electricity and water. It’s high time to address this inequity and protect those at the forefront during these challenging times.”

Govinda,27, wraps a white cloth (gamchha) around his face and wears sunglasses to protect himself from heat. Photograph by Parthu Venkatesh.
Delivery driver Govinda Shah wears sunglasses and a white cloth (gamchha) wrapped around his face to protect himself from heat [Parthu Venkatesh/Al Jazeera]

Govinda Shah, 27, who works for Zepto, a grocery delivery platform, says: “The temperature in Delhi is like hellfire … for people like me who earn hand to mouth.” He sits under a tree waiting for his next order outside a housing society in India’s second-largest IT hub, Gurugram, a major satellite city of New Delhi.

He works 10-hour shifts to make ends meet, earning about 600 rupees ($7.20) daily. The excessive heat is both physically and mentally challenging. “I have got rashes, making it painful to walk, and also my clothes stink very unpleasantly, making me feel embarrassed in front of the customer,” Shah says. “Before going to sleep, I pray this heatwave ends soon, or else survival will be difficult.”

Source: Al Jazeera