What our elitist reaction to the Zomato delivery man tells us about our lack of empathy

By making him the butt of jokes and spinning the incident to revolve around our consumer rights, we’ve ignored the human story behind the viral video.

As the story goes, there was once a French princess whose courtiers told her that her impoverished subjects were starving for want of bread. Proving that insensitivity has no expiry date, she is supposed to have retorted by saying, “Then let them eat cake.”

A revolution in France (they sure seem to like those, just look at Paris) took care of their monarchy, but the expression has since gone on to become shorthand for the apathy of the privileged toward the plight of those less fortunate. And yesterday, the “let them eat cake” sentiment was witnessed in full effect as a video of a Zomato rider eating food out of a customer’s order before proceeding with the delivery went viral. It started with a Twitter user sharing the video online, tagging Zomato and asking the company to provide answers for its service provider’s behaviour. The floodgates of internet outrage were opened, and online commenters attacked Zomato for failing to ensure the safety of their takeout.

How many people use Zomato, that this incident made national news on the day results of five state assembly elections were being declared? The media attention prompted the company to announce that it had terminated the rider’s employment, and would focus on coming up with “tamper-proof packaging” to prevent incidents like this in the future. So the rider lost his job, and we have to struggle with parcels sealed tighter than Tutankhamun’s tomb in the future. That’s what I call a Lose-Lose Situation.

But sealing the next package tighter and firing the rider won’t help address the real cause of the problem. It wasn’t a faulty container that made the man take a bite of the food. It was, quite possibly, a horribly unfair system that had him working ungodly hours for a pittance, to deliver food he could never afford for himself, to people who probably never tip because delivery charges were included in the bill. By making him the butt of jokes and spinning the incident to revolve around our consumer rights, we’ve ignored the human story behind the viral video.

Who cares how long the rider has been on the road when you can have a pizza at your doorstep in under 30 minutes after midnight, right?

A search on the job portal Indeed.co.in shows the average monthly salary of a Zomato delivery driver is ₹18,971. In Mumbai, that isn’t even enough to afford rent in a run-down chawl, let alone the luxury of having ₹700 bowls of pasta from Indigo Deli delivered home. On Quora, a former campus brand ambassador for Zomato shared that riders are often paid a paltry ₹60 per order (even if it’s a late-night order), with bonuses as incentives for completing a greater number of orders. Riders also have to bear all the expenses for fuel, and pay out of their own pocket for any damaged food items.

The life of a delivery boy is far from glamorous – and if you live in a metropolis, you’ve probably cursed one for having a deathwish. In August this year, two Zomato delivery executives died in road accidents in Nagpur, leading to a protest on the streets from the other riders. What had started in Nagpur in August, spread to Mumbai by September, as delivery executives of Zomato and other online food delivery services like Foodpanda and Swiggy, raised their voice against the unfairness of their working conditions. Unlike yesterday’s viral video, their mass protests didn’t quite catch the media’s attention; the most exposure they received was when part-time actor, part-time felon Ajaz Khan published a video on Facebook supporting their calls for better pay and more humane working hours, blasting the management of these companies for ignoring their workers’ demands.

But who cares how long the rider has been on the road when you can have a pizza at your doorstep in under 30 minutes after midnight, right? We have zero empathy for these workers who make our lives so easy. We get exasperated when the rider calls us asking for help with directions, and blissfully call in for pakoras and chai on rainy days, without realising that some poor sod is going to have to ride on dangerously slippery streets to get us our snack, which we ordered on a whim. There is human hardship behind our lives of digitally enabled convenience, but we don’t like being reminded of its existence.

Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

That’s why it’s easier to crack jokes and feign outrage over the Zomato rider who dared to take a bite. Doing otherwise would require looking past our initial reaction of “eww jhoota khana” and acknowledging the inequalities that stare us in the face every time we open the door to collect our orders. Hopefully, the rider can find another job, one that gives him a real lunch break and pays him enough to buy a real meal, instead of sneaking in scraps.

As for us, instead of insisting that Zomato, Swiggy, and the other delivery services protect our precious parcels from ravenous riders, perhaps we should take to Twitter and ask them to give their employees better working conditions and quality of life. Don’t hate the player, hate the game. And the next time you order a pepperoni pizza, add a side of empathy, please.

This article has previously been published on Arre.