The flip side of corporate social responsibility

In the wake of #Ubershame which created a furore across the nation, came a less-heard protest against Flipkart. Less heard because the consumers of media, particularly social media, tend to be people like us who are, by and large, less empathetic towards what happens to people who are less economically or socially privileged

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Richa Dubey | December 31, 2014



Here are the bald facts. In Hyderabad, Mili Srivastava had ordered a book from Flipkart, the e-commerce giant, and it arrived before it was due. She was away from home when she received an SMS with the delivery boy’s details and asked her domestic help to take the delivery. The delivery boy was not the same as the one whose details had been sent to her phone. He attempted to rape the help,  though she managed to save herself.

Mili tried to reach out to Flipkart for three days to file a complaint and, after receiving no response, finally lodged an FIR. The delivery boy who has been arrested and is currently out on bail made threatening calls to Mili’s home. Flipkart was unavailable and responded only after a week with a delegation that promised to look in to the matter. Over the course of the next three months, Mili negotiated with Flipkart in good faith, asking for a public apology for the incident, compensation and changes to their system to prevent such incidents in future. Flipkart denied all of this claiming that they did not own “vicarious responsibility” for the delivery boy who was technically an Ekart employee and that they refused compensation on the grounds that it would set a precedent for the future. They also refused an assurance that such incidents would not take place in future. To add insult to injury, they offered “vocational training” for the help who neither needs nor wants it.

In another unrelated incident, Flipkart was found to be selling a date rape drug, Spanisch Fliege, on its website, which was subsequently removed

In all of this, the big question is one of responsibility and accountability. Currently the legal provisions that protect consumers is full of legal loopholes that do not hold companies liable for actions by third parties that are employed or contracted by them. Indeed, Flipkart’s terms of use attest to those.

Currently, there are no proposals for e-commerce regulation or reform which will protect online shoppers. Any discussion of the topic is limited to fraud and cheating. Where, then, does the question of safety arise? With the boom in online shopping, there has been a spurt in logistics companies that provide courier services but none of their employees are verified. Effectively, all you need to start a courier company is a registered address, a logo and name, and delivery boys who need not be verified.

At a time when we are talking about ‘responsible business’ and the new Companies Act talks about corporate social responsibility (Section 135), is this the other side of the coin? On the one hand, the government asks companies to fund socially responsible activities and, on the other, it turns a blind eye to the laissez faire attitude exhibited by e-commerce companies. Is it simply because they are attracting and making big monies?

It’s high time we exhibited a more comprehensive approach to the manner in which new business models are emerging rather than rejoicing at quick growth and never mind the slapdash manner in which it is all held together. On a closing note, I can only point out that, on their own admission, Flipkart did not even have systems to accept complaints or queries of a criminal nature. And this, after Vishaka. If this does not sound a clarion call for the careful re-examination of the e-commerce industry, then what does?  

PS: An update. The government is not contemplating any regulatory framework for e-commerce, and Flipkart has raised $700 million since the developments above.

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