But when this doesn’t happen, companies desperately rework their models. When they need to curb spending, or when they struggle to raise new funding, marketing is the first thing they cut. Demand drops, creating an oversupply of workers on the platform. “And the excessive supply on the platforms feels the pinch. That’s the typical cycle with a two-sided marketplace,” Doshi says.
On July 10, Urban Company CEO Abhiraj Bahl released a video to the company’s workers explaining the new strict policies. He said that each year, 45 percent of customers use the platform just once and don’t make a second booking, while 15 to 20 percent of workers leave. “And as a result of all of this, Urban Company is still a loss-making company,” he said in the video, part of which has been viewed by WIRED. “So we are losing customers and we are also losing money.”
He blamed the decline in customers on “poor quality service” and “off-platform jobs”—that is, workers making private arrangements with clients and taking their work off Urban Company, something that’s a serious risk to the company’s model. “It’s kind of an existential question: They need the workers and the customers to stay on their platform in order to remain an intermediary,” says Ambika Tandon, a tech and labor researcher at the Center for Internet and Society think tank.
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.