Gangwar Shewar cannot conceal the pride in his voice as he speaks about the certificate he got, the first in his working life. “Imagine, I got a certificate from a minister at Vigyan Bhawan in Delhi. I feel very happy thinking about how far I have come,” he says. The 28-year-old, who moved from Patna to Noida in 2012 in search of work, has been a cleaning services professional, or partner, with on-demand services startup Urban Company for the last three years. The certificate he is referring to is from the government’s Skill India certification programme that Urban Company had enrolled all their service professionals for. “The company has told us we are partners, not cleaners,” adds Shewar.
In a country where cleaning services — typically an unorganised, poorly paid profession — is not accorded dignity and has historically been associated with casteism, this distinction is important for Shewar and his colleagues. In fact, the startup’s cofounder Varun Khaitan says when he asks partners about their experience with the company, they say they are happiest about the respect they get from society and their growing self-confidence, rather than an increase in their income, although that is usually double what they previously earned.
Currently, Urban Company has 30,000 partners across 18 cities, of which 2,000 are in cleaning operations. “Every cleaner on our platform is given training, uniform and loans to buy cleaning chemicals and machines. With training and equipment, the individual is transformed into a high-quality professional who takes pride in their work,” says Khaitan. By removing the middlemen, he says, they have made each of them a micro entrepreneur.
Lavanya Panwar, a corporate lawyer in Gurgaon who uses Urban Company’s deep cleaning services, says the partners’ professionalism has shaped her perspective about them. “We all tend to have a certain bias. But your respect goes up when you see they are serious about their job.”
Jitendra Kumar Shukla, who has been on the platform for over four years, says the company gave him PPE kits, gloves and masks during the pandemic, apart from additional insurance. “I have referred several of my friends to the platform,” says Shukla, who earns about `35,000 a month now. About 90% of partners the startup signs on are via referrals like these and, over the next year, it plans to add up to 50,000 partners, says Khaitan.
Shukla says he is “100% satisfied” with his job, thanks to which he has started saving money to buy a house. But there are still some customers who do not treat him with respect because of the nature of his job. “Their mindset is like that. It will take time to change. But I hope it does.”