What Women (don't) Want


Why e-commerce companies need to do more to ensure the safety of women customers, who account for over half of their business. The irony of her first -and only -cash on delivery purchase isn’t lost on Mili Srivastava, a senior corporate executive in Hyderabad.

In September this year, she bought a copy of Maya Angelou’s book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings on Flipkart. And, rather than enjoy the first in a seven-volume series detailing the struggles of the African-American writer, she discovered the title was, in a cruel twist of fate, symbolic of her struggle with the online retailing giant. When the book was delivered to her house, Srivastava wasn’t home.

Instead, her young domestic help was, but with out the cash to pay for the book. So, she borrowed some money from a neighbors; on her return the delivery man made a grab for her. Thanks to force of will and some situational awareness (the maid dialed the neighbors on an inter com during her struggle), she slipped free and the delivery boy bolted. “Would he have had access to my house if he wasn’t delivering a Flipkart parcel,“ asks an irate Srivastava. The many shades of deliverymen are a vital cog in the business model of inter net-enabled businesses. They are the face of a business that is otherwise conducted on a computer (or phone or tab let) screen. And as more women become part of the business model – especially as customers – their safety is under threat.

Hiring an army of fitters, drivers and delivery men may be integral to the survival of the business, but the companies here are yet figuring out how to keep women customers safe. For two days, Srivastava adds, she tried to reach Flipkart. Instead of prompt action, she says, her complaint slipped through the cracks, into a general pool dealing with an assortment of less pressing issues. It was only when she took to social media and to the local law enforcement that Flipkart responded.“ Senior executives have called and visited me, but there has been no written apology from them, which is something I want,“ says Srivastava. Instead, they have made an offer to pay for a vocational training programs for the maid, an offer she has declined.“ I bought a service from you as Flipkart and that service was deficient, therefore I should be compensated,“ she contends.

A Flipkart spokesperson explains that the leadership has been in touch with the family and “will partner with them every step of the way to ensure the case reaches its logical conclusion“. Flipkart points out that the accused has been arrested (for allegedly trying to outrage the modesty of a woman), and that the matter is being investigated by the law enforcement authorities. Question of Safeguards “The safety of our customers is of utmost importance to us: we have a very strong business ethics policy that binds not only our employees but also our business partners. We have zero tolerance for such behaviour and strictest action has been taken for this unfortunate incident that happened in September,“ says the company spokesperson. “We have been cooperating fully with the police…We have worked very closely with our manpower sourcing partner to ensure that all documents requested are being furnished immediately.“ The spokesperson adds that Flipkart has taken up the matter “very strongly with all our manpower sourcing partners to ensure even more stringent background checks are being done, including police verification“. To be sure, the incident has spurred the e-commerce giant into action. The spokesperson points out that the training and the operations managers have undertaken a series of communication sessions with delivery staff partners across the country to reiterate a zero-tolerance policy on such matters. “They are being educated on the pursuant actions in case their staff violates these policies in any way.

There is also a complete review being undertaken of our response system for matters of such gravity. Flipkart will ensure that such instances are dealt with and addressed within significantly shorter time frames going forward.“ In addition, delivery partners undertake a four stage employee verification process to try to weed out the bad apples, and are committed to making their customers feel safe, says the spokesperson. This case of an assault on a woman, and more recently the alleged rape of a woman by a driver, highlights the growing gender insensitivity of e-commerce firms, say activists. They are putting business ahead of the safety of women customers, they claim. They argue that these companies aren’t doing enough to protect women, who form at least half their customers.“These companies generally do not give any thought to women’s safety, with a few (rare) exceptions… MNCs usually follow double standards with regard to safety clauses on most counts, be they environmental or related to social aspects when they operate in third world countries like India,“ says Indu Agnihotri, director, Centre for Women’s Development Studies.

“They meet with indirect support from government civic agencies who give low if not the least priority to violations especially with regard to issues of women’s safety.“ While there isn’t a rash of cases, women themselves are getting increasingly wary of dealing with the frontline of India’s e-commerce boom. Smita Yagnick, an assistant general manager with a multinational asset management firm, says she is equally uncomfortable and on her guard when products are delivered to her home in a northern suburb of Mumbai or when she rents a cab from one of the aggregators. “When I am alone at home I am not comfortable with them coming into my house, especially when my neighbors aren’t home,“ she says. “It appears the safety aspect is not something that these companies thought of when putting together their business plan,“ says Priyanka Roy, partner at Indus Law, a firm specializing in the e-commerce and technology space. While the legal framework is hazy, she says The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 has helped by extending the definition of office beyond the traditional boundaries of an actual brick and mortar structure.

“Companies of over 10 people need to have an in-house panel to deal with these complaints and it is up to companies how they spell out this liability with contracted employees and business partners,“ she says. At best, these firms can opt to verify the details of court cases where the employee lives. However, if he (or she) has committed a crime in say Port Blair in the Andamans, unearthing their criminal record in Hyderabad wouldn’t be easy. A digital national crime records’ backbone is nowhere close to completion. Second, an army of agents and touts swarming government offices means that certificates are a few thousands of rupees away. Priti Kumar, a hospitality professional, says she used to book cabs from her office on MG Road in Bengaluru’s central business district to her home in the city’s north. However, one evening, she says, a driver turned up in plain clothes in a car which appeared like a private vehicle, despite having a yellow license plate. “He was crass on the phone and was leering at guests,“ she alleges. A sixth sense told her to not get into the cab.The miffed driver, she adds, called her names and stormed out of the hotel parking lot when his ride was cancelled. She didn’t complain to the cab operator, but now depends on her own driver (sourced using family references) to find her way about town. “Web-based apps were a convenience for me, but not at the cost of my safety,“ she says. The clamor for tech-based firms to pay more attention to women’s safety is growing. Two years ago, Richa Dubey, a gender activist, led a Girlcott campaign, after a gang rape in Gurgaon shook the borough’s residents. The campaign aimed to highlight issues related to safety, especially gender safety in public spaces. Now, she believes, these issues of public safety are being transferred to the private sphere.“ Women are vulnerable to these sort of large companies, which don’t have systems in place to protect them.“ She argues: “Flipkart is a great poster boy for e-commerce, but where are its ethics?“ Flipkart is the focus of Dubey’s ire because she says the firm briefly sold a sexual wellness medicine called Spanische Fliege, which is said to work similar to date rape drugs, before hastily withdrawing it, she points out. Flipkart says all its sellers are expected to adhere to guidelines and violations are taken seriously. The product concerned was not a `date rape’ drug, though it was a prescription drug that cannot be sold without a prescription, ac cording to Flipkart. The company has registered a complaint with the police. But Dubey isn’t satisfied. “These firms often use legal disclaimers to claim they are not liable for their partners’ conduct, but as a woman I order a cab and pay a premium to ensure my safety.“

Growing Challenge

The challenge for the fast-growing e-commerce sector is the quality of its offline workforce -the army of in-house and outsourced folk who deliver an assortment of goods; or, in the case of cab service providers, drive customers around town. As the e-commerce industry surges ahead -expected to hit $43 surges ahead -expected to hit $ billion in five years, according to Nomura’s India Internet Report -its background verification engine may struggle to keep up. eKart, the delivery partner for Flipkart, has around 11,000 employees now compared with 2,000 employees six years ago. “Public records remain a challenge and we are working with the government to improve checks,“ says a Flipkart spokesperson.

Experts say the gap between hiring people and authenticating their backgrounds is a function of the market. “Whichever industry is growing rapidly compromises background checks as it races to recruit people,“ says Ajay Trehan, founder and CEO of Authbridge, a background screening firm. “Eight or nine years ago a quarter of all CVs in the IT industry were fake, then the scamsters moved to insurance and now they’re trying their luck in ecommerce,“ adds Trehan. As these people (in this case men) with bogus credentials find jobs, women’s safety will be threatened. Securing background information -especially from law enforcement agencies -can take ages. “It takes around 15-21 days in a place like Delhi to get the police to verify someone and up to 180 days in other parts of India,“ says Trehan.

Companies are trying to keep pace. For example, BigBasket, a large online grocer, has GPS-enabled all its devices to track the movement of consignments. “We estimate that the average delivery takes about 10 minutes,“ says Hari Menon, CEO of BigBasket. “After this, we call the delivery person and if he fails to pick up we call our customer directly to make sure all is well.“ Now, he wants this method to be automated so calls are placed without human intervention based on this time limit. “We have a very repetitive business (customers order three or four times a month from Big Basket) and we try to build some familiarity by using the same delivery people as often as feasible at each location,“ he says. Others such as Urban Ladder, an online provider of furniture and home décor, claim to have a watertight process in place to check the antecedents. “We have 400-450 people that help with deliveries and we work with companies which do a complete background check,“ a company representative says.

Women’s safety should be a priority for companies hiring an army of men as the face of their businesses. “Companies need to ensure that they perform the most stringent background checks for people with these customer-facing roles,“ says Arvind Singhal, CEO of Technopak.

Source: The Economic Times

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