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Ola, Uber drivers say they are exhausted, fear being wiped out

Drivers' strike in Hyderabad | Credit: IFAT

Rajesh Kumar* doesn’t have many enemies in life. But, Uber, for which he drives a cab everyday, is starting to look like one, he says.

Kumar was one of the 40-odd Uber and Ola drivers who protested at Jantar Mantar in Delhi last week, against the ride-sharing companies’ various policies. These drivers want the government to intervene and fix the fares for Ola and Uber, like it does for other taxis in the country. They also wanted respite from paying road tax for at least two years, and for the prices of petrol and diesel to immediately go down.

“It’s become a very challenging life,” Kumar told MediaNama, as he sighed behind his mask. “I leave home everyday, not knowing how long I’ll be driving, not knowing where I’ll be driving. On most days, I come home without having made enough money to justify the hours I spent on the road.”

It had been four hours since he was driving his cab when he spoke to us, and he was staring at another ten hours or so on the road. Repaying the monthly instalments for his car, a Swift Dzire, he said, doesn’t come cheap, and he also has to take care of his family. Kumar’s family of four—a wife, and two daughters—lives in Uttar Pradesh’s Orai, a small town located around 200 kilometres from the state’s capital, Lucknow. He doesn’t get to see them many times a year. “I’m able to send around Rs 20,000 back home every month. You tell me, in this economy, with two daughters who are growing up, is that enough?” Kumar asked.

He lives in a rented room in Noida, which he shares with three other people—all cab drivers—driving for either Ola or Uber. The monthly rent of Rs 12,000 is split between the four of them. There are days when he doesn’t even get to see all three of his roommates because they’re out driving their cabs, Kumar said. “Things for my friends who drive for Ola are not any different,” he told us.

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“Drivers end up paying around 30-35% of the fare to Ola and Uber. If Uber charges Rs 15 for a kilometre, the drivers only get Rs 5,” Kamaljeet Gill, president of the Sarvodaya Drivers Association of Delhi told us. “The people who bought these cars to use as Ola, Uber cabs years ago were not exactly poor, but they have certainly become poor now,” he said.

Before this, a similar strike was organised in Hyderabad, Telangana. There, drivers said that nearly 60% drivers in the city had gone back home during the COVID-19 lockdown. India’s complete lockdown had brought cabs, and most activities on the road to a grinding halt.

“Earlier the commission payable to Ola and Uber, when they entered the Indian market used to be zero, but then it was increased to 5%, then to 10% and now to 30-35%,” Shaik Salauddin, the national general secretary of the Indian Federation of App-Based Transport Workers (IFAT), told MediaNama.

A report from last year, prepared by IFAT and the International Transport Workers Federation, had claimed that people working for ride hailing services like Uber and Ola work in a “very toxic and isolated work environment”. It said that the toll that the job takes a toll on the drivers’ physical health, manifesting in body aches, stomach problems, among others, due to irregular food routine, and sleep deprivation, as most of them end up driving for more than fifteen hours a day.

Drivers say they get no support from Ola, Uber on several issues

“If a driver dies, these companies don’t pay a single penny to their families. Instead, they delete all the data on that driver from their systems and claim that the person never even drove for them,” a driver protesting at Jantar Mantar told MediaNama. “There is no record left of that person on these companies’ apps,” this person said.

This person recounted an incident where a driver was shot dead in Delhi’s Najafgarh. “After that person died, Uber distanced themselves from him, and the company removed any information about that particular ride from its system. A similar thing happened in Greater Noida, and no one knows what’s happening at these companies,” he said.

“We work for 17-18 hours a day”, another driver said, dejected, “and it is hard to earn Rs 500 after working for these many hours”, he added. “There is no support from these companies,” this driver said, as another driver joined in the background, shouting, “zero, zero support from Ola and Uber”.

Sometimes some customers also get down and run away without paying the driver any money. “That happens more than you’d imagine. And when it inevitably does, we have no where to go to. Ola and Uber will tell us that it’s the driver’s responsibility to take cash from the passenger,” a driver said.

Ola, Uber drivers strike at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar | Credit: Soumyarendra Barik, MediaNama

Drivers are also often given rides for which they have to drive an empty cab for kilometres at stretch, just to pick up a passenger, drivers at the strike said. “When a customer books a cab, we have to drive to their location which is sometimes 7-8 kilometres. That person’s journey is hardly for about four or five kilometres. So even if I drove for 15 kilometres, the fare was only Rs 35,” he said.

“You must know when you book an Ola or Uber, the driver would unfailingly ask you what your destination is. We do that because we want to make sure that we’re undertaking a ride that is long enough to make economic sense to us. Please, the next time a driver asks you your drop location, please tell them politely. It’s the only workaround we know for now,” another driver said.

The tech on Ola and Uber’s apps also lands drivers in problem sometimes. “The map for the journey takes us through narrow lanes, Google often leads us to areas where there’s a footpath instead of a road, and there’s really no place to move”, another driver said.

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India working to offer social security to gig workers

In a first, the central government, in September 2020, recognised the gig economy — gig workers, platform workers, and aggregators — under a wide-ranging labour law.

Called the Code on Social Security, 2020, it makes space for their benefits around life and disability cover, accident insurance, health and maternity benefits, etc. Aggregators such as Zomato, Uber, and Ola, will have to contribute between 1–2% of their annual turnover to such social security funds for workers, this amount will be capped at 5% of the total amount payable to gig workers and platform workers.

However, gig workers have called for more clarity on how welfare schemes prescribed in the Code will be funded.

Our questions to Ola, Uber

We have reached out to Ola and Uber with the following questions. We will update this post when we receive responses:

  • Drivers have alleged your company sometimes takes 30-35% of the commission from the fare. Is that correct? How often do you charge that kind of commission?
  • Drivers want that the commission that you charge on rides be evenly split between the driver and the passenger. Why can’t that be possible, and why do drivers have to bear the majority of the commission?
  • A report last year released by a drivers’ union said that drivers spend close to 16-20 hours in their cars in a day. Does your company have an idea on the number of hours a driver averages driving on your platform every day? Are there any methods in place to make sure that no one ends up driving for more than a certain hours per day? How many hours does your company prescribe drivers to drive?
  • In case a driver meets with an accident while undertaking a ride, what sort of assistance do they get from you?
  • What kind of outreach program does your company have? Do you regularly have a dialogue with drivers, or trade unions, about how the job could be made easy for them?
  • A numbers of drivers said that they don’t have basic health coverage, leaving them vulnerable to massive hospital bills. What is your company doing to address that?

Update on Feb 24, 5:32 PM: Uber did not send specific answers to the questions we had raised. Instead, it sent us the following statement:

“Drivers are at the heart of everything we do and their wellbeing is a priority for Uber. We’re committed to providing them with meaningful earning opportunities, and giving them access to health and life insurance, on-trip insurance and micro credits. We also provide them and their families free on-line medical consultations through DocsApp. During the lockdown, we created livelihood opportunities for drivers through new services like UberMedic, UberEssentials and last mile deliveries. In 2020, we disbursed grants to approximately 100,000 drivers and are providing financial assistance to either those who’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19 or have been placed in quarantine by health officials.

Over the past few months, we’ve introduced several new safety measures, such as a mandatory mask policy for riders and drivers, an updated cancellation policy and distributed over 3 million masks and 400,000 bottles of disinfectants and sanitisers to drivers free of cost. To help protect them, we pioneered and have installed a protective floor-to ceiling plastic safety screen in 43,000 cars and in 87,000 auto-rickshaws across India. We constantly engage with drivers across cities through various programs, and deeply value their feedback. Additionally, we have a 24×7 emergency phone support for drivers.”

*This person’s name was changed to “Rajesh Kumar”, as he feared retribution from the company.

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*Updated with Uber’s statement at 5:33 PM on Feb 24. Originally published at 2:26 PM, Feb 24.

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