‘Vegetarian cleanup’: How Zomato’s Indian food app sparked all sorts of controversy | Labor Rights Issues


Rajesh Jatavad*, a delivery man at Zomato, a food delivery app in southern India, is concerned that his full name will be displayed to customers on the platform – because his last name indicates that he belongs to the underprivileged.

The most privileged areas among the Indian population are the former castes like the “untouchables” of the Jatavad.

Javad’s anxiety is based on life experiences. “It’s easy for others to know my group from my name. Some customers, after reading my birth name from the app, won’t let me near them, or even [allow me to] give a packet of food. They told me to put it down and leave,” Rajesh told Al Jazeera.

Then, in mid-March, his employer announced a decision that threatens to escalate Jatavad’s daily struggle against racism.

On March 19, Deepinder Goyal, CEO of Zomato, announced social media platform X that the company is launching “Pure Veg Mode along with Pure Veg Fleet on Zomato, for customers who prefer 100% vegetarian food.

“India has the largest vegetarian population in the world, and one of the most important comments we got from them is that they care a lot about how their food is prepared, and how they eat it,” he wrote.

The Clean Veg option allows customers to choose from a list of restaurants that only serve vegetarian dishes and excludes dishes that serve any meat or fish. Pure Veg Fleet, Goyal announced, will have passengers who will only carry food from Pure Veg Mode restaurants.

And in the future, Goyal wrote, the company plans to bring in more specialized teams – a comment that left Jatavad worried and also suggests, say sociologists, ignorance of the hard truth behind India’s largest food delivery business, valued at $7.4 bn in 2023.

More than half — 54.5 percent — of birth workers are of pre-planned races, according to a March 11 study by the University of Pennsylvania.

These communities are designated as “remedial” by the government because they have suffered from discrimination and economic hardship for many years. In Indian tribal society, they are often associated with being “dirty” by people in authority.

Zomato’s latest policy could reinforce the same sentiments and increase the discrimination that Jatavad faces, say cultural experts and workers’ rights activists. There is 700,000 to one million food delivery operators on platforms like Zomato in India.

Delivery drivers – many who work for Zomato – wait in line to pick up their orders outside a market in Mumbai, India, on August 10, 2023. [Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters]

‘If it happens, I’m in trouble’

Jatavad learned about these special ships from pictures shared by his friends. At that moment his mind raced.

“‘What does the company want?’ he said. “Are they going to form religious-based militias with the next group? If that happens, I’m in trouble.”

In his articles on X, Goyal explained his rationale for various groups. “Because despite everyone’s best efforts, sometimes the food ends up in the delivery boxes. In that case, the flavor of the previous order will carry over to the next order and may cause the flavor of the previous order,” said Goyal. “For this reason, we had to separate the vessels to order vegetables.”

Following the push for the threat of uniforms with colors that could exist for passengers, if communities that consider the animal as unclean decide to attack or harass the delivery workers, Goyal pushed back.

“All our passengers – all our ships, and our green ships, will wear the color red,” he wrote. “This will ensure that our red uniform delivery partners do not accidentally come into contact with non-vegetarian food and are prohibited by everyone on special days… the physical safety of our passengers is of utmost importance to us,” he read in his post.

But while passengers carrying vegetarian and vegan food will not be distinguished by their uniforms, they will still be of a different class – and customers will be able to select “Pure Veg” ships on the Zomato app.

Employees are worried.

“Today, they will say veg and non-veg; tomorrow, they will bring religions and groups,” said Shaik Salauddin, national general secretary and founder of the Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers (IFAT), a union of ride-sharing and other transport workers. Al Jazeera. “They will say, high end customers want delivery boys. This will create further division among the workers. “

Shaikh asked why Zomato ventured into complex and culturally relevant food in a country as diverse as India. “This company is dividing people,” he said. If they are here to do business, let them do business.

‘Purity and pollution’

When asked by Al Jazeera about the delivery staff’s concerns, Zomato said customers cannot choose their delivery based on the passenger’s food preferences.

It added that “Zomato’s onboarding partners are not and will not be discriminated against on any grounds (including preferences, politics/religion).”

But that’s easier said than done, according to Mini Mohan, a sociologist in southern India’s Kerala state, who said that by separating vegetarians and non-vegetarians, Zomato was taking advantage of religious and divisive issues.

“The social system in India associates food with purity and pollution,” he said. “Vegetarian food is considered ‘pure’, while meat and activities associated with the lower classes are considered ‘impure’. This creates a particular diet, with the upper classes avoiding even food served by the lower classes.”

Zomato spotted a special green uniform for its ‘Pure Veg Fleet’ passengers instead of the red uniform in the photo, but it’s gone from the plan, Kolkata, India, July 13, 2021 [Rupak De Chowduri/Reuters]

Zomato’s behavior “not only discriminates against certain groups but also creates controversy. When food choices are supported, they create conflicts and undermine social cohesion,” he added.

And the intersection of deep-rooted racism and food delivery is not new to India – or to Zomato.

In 2019, Zomato met to argue when the customer to be terminated law because of the religion of the person bringing it. Zomato’s response to showing that food has no religion has been widely praised on social media. Five years later, the company is now found on the other side of the fence.

‘Rise in Brahmin restaurants’

The concept of pure and impure food in Hinduism dates back to the Dharmasutras, Vedic texts written by various authors between BCE 700 and BCE 100, TS Syam Kumar, a Sanskrit scholar and teacher and debater told Al Jazeera.

“Dharmasutras are ancient Indian texts that serve as instructions for dharma – a concept that includes duty, justice and morality. They are considered the primary sources of Hindu law,” he said.

Quoting chapters from the Dharmasutras, the scholar said that the scriptures say that food caught by an impure person is impure, but it is not given as unfit to eat. On the other hand, food brought by a Shudra – the lowest of the traditional caste hierarchy – should not be eaten.

The caste system often associates poor people with eating meat and considers them “contaminated”, justifying their exclusion. This is true even in Kerala, a region often considered to be the most progressive region of India.

Kerala, too, he said, is “seeing the rise of Brahmin restaurants”.

“People prefer to buy certain products that have high-end brands,” Kumar said.

Meanwhile, business coach and former hotel manager, Shashi Bellamkonda, says the way Zomato has messed up is the lack of communication and lack of understanding of the customer.

“Instead of introducing ‘Pure Veg Mode’ and ‘Pure Veg Fleet’, the company should have focused on streamlining existing processes to ensure that vegetarian orders are handled as carefully and strictly as non-vegetarian orders,” he said. . “And they informed the customers.”

*Name has been changed for anonymity


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