People working for ride hailing services like Uber and Ola work in a “very toxic and isolated work environment”, a report released by labour unions on the health hazards faced in course of such work highlighted. The report suggested that the toll that it takes on drivers’ physical health manifests in body aches, stomach problems, among others, due to irregular food routine, and sleep deprivation, as most drivers end up driving for more than fifteen hours a day. Compounding these ailments, the report showed that an overwhelming majority of these drivers don’t have basic health coverage, even as they claim that the companies they drive for continue to shy away from their responsibilities towards drivers’ welfare.

The report was prepared by labour unions Indian Federation of App-based Taxi workers (IFAT), and the International Transport Workers Federation. The findings were based on surveys of 2,100 drivers from major cities such as Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi NCR, Hyderabad, Jaipur, and Lucknow, conducted between July-November 2019. The unions also consulted with think tank IT for Change, and the Centre for Internet and Society supported post-production of the report.

Readers should note that the study was conducted until November 2019, well before the COVID-19 pandemic brought services like Ola and Uber to an absolute standstill, further compounding the plight of its drivers

“There is a complete absence of social security and protection—a glaring 95.3% claimed to have no form of insurance, accidental, health or medical. This reflects the inability of workers to invest in their own health. This partly is a result of declining wages—after paying off their EMIs, penalties and commission to the companies and having less than Rs. 20,000 left at the end of the month,” the report said. In fact, less than 1% of the people surveyed said they had access to some kind of accidental insurance.

On average, the report claimed drivers spend close to 16-20 hours in their cars in a day. 39.8% of the respondents spent close to 20 hours in their vehicle in a day, and 72.8% of the respondents from Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad drive for close to 20 hours a day. Due to long hours, 89.8% of the respondents claim they get less than 6 hours of sleep.

Diminishing income, no support from Uber and Ola: Drivers

Extremely long working hours: The drivers who drive for Ola and Uber end up driving for more than 15 hours a day, the report said. “They do so in order to justify the cost of fuel consumed, to pay the commission/EMI they owe to Ola/Uber and even then, they don’t take home a decent enough earning for survival”.

On top of that, there has been an “astronomical drop” in drivers’ monthly earnings, which the report said has dwindled from Rs. 70,000-1,00,000 to Rs. 22,000-25,000 per month over the last 4 years. The major reason behind this drop was fuelled by “incentives and bonuses being cut coupled with the rise in fuel prices and decrease in per kilometre rates by Ola /Uber, pushing drivers towards urban poverty”.

No help from the aggregators in unfortunate times: Ola or Uber for the most part do not intervene if there is any intimidation from traffic police or local authorities, incidents of road rage, violent attack by customers or criminal elements that endanger drivers’ lives, accidents while driving etc., the report said. It added that Ola and Uber always “fall back to the argument that their organisation being an aggregator and drivers being partners absolves them of any responsibility they have towards the drivers”.

“It is curious then, how these companies regulate the manner in which drivers operate, through their commission and incentive structures, penalising through the blocking of drivers’ IDs based on ad hoc company policies and rules”, the report added. Although Ola and Uber have claimed that there exist health insurance schemes for drivers and future initiatives being advertised and announced, on the ground none of these plans or measures are available to the drivers, it added.

Drivers in limbo: Drivers said that under the new code on wages they are rendered even more invisible as neither the “aggregator” nor the “driver partner” are recognised or mentioned in the new wage codes. The government has proposed in the Motor Vehicle Amendment Act 2019 that the “aggregator” will be governed by the Information and Technology Act of 2000. “This further insulates the companies from labour litigations and allows them a freehand in how they can operate and employ the workforce to run their businesses,” the report added.

Several drivers are migrants who don’t drive their own cabs: Within the ridesharing and gig economy model of operation of app-based companies there also exists the third-party outsourcing of work by individuals who informally lease out their vehicles on a fixed rate to individuals who do not own any vehicle of their own, the report said. Drivers who drive for “somebody else” made up for about 16% of the respondents, and were migrants.