Protests against ride aggregators gains momentum nationally
The wave of protest that started in Hyderabad, Delhi, Bangalore spread through Chennai when OLA and Uber drivers affiliated to Federation of Chennai Call Taxi Unions ( CITU, AMOM, TDTUC and TADWA Chennai ) struck work for two days on March 6th and March 7th and protested in front of Transport Department. Not surprisingly the issues raised by the workers on broken promises of guaranteed wages, overtime, employment conditions and lack of redressal mechanism echoed with their comrades in the other cities. The workers led by CITU also met with Transport Secretary on March 8th, who has promised speedy action including a Government Order on regulation of the working conditions in OLA and Uber within 15 days.
Workers said that they had migrated from occupation such as farming or auto drivers to participate in the ‘dream machine’ perpetuated by the advertisements of OLA and Uber, The companies promised income upto Rs 80000. A taxi driver, who was earlier driving autos and had joined the OLA Brigade since it started 2 years ago, said ‘they said, take 10 trips and Rs 6000 per day will be guaranteed. This was just a lure to get us in’.
He, like others, initially joined the scheme promoted by OLA called Pragathi in collaboration with SBI and Murugappa Group. The driver said that he had to pay Rs 35000 to avail the scheme but soon quit the program as OLA would take all the incentives as daily car payment leaving a wage as low as Rs 1000 through which he had to sustain the cost of providing the service (diesel, maintenance, insurance etc) and his life needs. Soon, he said, he moved out of the scheme and has used an outside loan to purchase the car.
Lack of transparency in the allocation of trips and penalization of the drivers when they refuse rides were the top complaints by the workers in addition to falling wages. The drivers say that preference is given to the drivers who lease the car from OLA’s subsidiary company by giving the drivers of leased cars longer rides, while car owners are given shorter rides. This means that they have to do more rides and overtime to earn reasonable daily earnings.
According to them, the OLA software algorithms are changed to enforce these discriminatory trip allocations. Another form of discrimination they cited was that OLA has favored business entities owning a fleet of cars who operate their fleet by employing drivers as daily wage earners. The workers also allege inexplicable time delays especially when they are close to completing their required trips, often where they need to wait for long hours before completing the last trip.
The workers expressed that companies such as OLA and Uber have grown and captured the market share on their backbones and now they are willing to stab their back. Some of the drivers said that the farmers from nearby districts such as Vilupuram, Thiruvannamalai sold their land to invest in these cars and participate in this dream of making Rs 80000 per month and now struggle to make even Rs 15000 a month.
Changing incentives and wages
While their complaints about the OLA is miles long, the workers say that while Uber does not seem to implement such discriminatory policies, the fare structure and cuts in incentives have made Uber as unviable for the drivers as OLA. They say that the companies are paying Rs 6 per km as fares which is much lower compared to the Government regulated fare of Rs 12 per km for autos in the City.
In addition, they say that 26% is taken by the companies in the form of commission and tax (20% and 6% respectively) which reduces the payment to Rs 4.80 per kilometer. The drivers also allege that the tax should have been paid as income tax deducted at source for the drivers, in which case, they could demand returns based on their earnings and that the company does not pay them.
Speaking on the occasion, comrade Anbazhagan of CITU said that while OLA may be Indian company, it is still funded by foreign investments and both companies have to be opposed for their anti worker policies.
Walled OLA Offices
The workers are frustrated that they are unable to access the OLA management for airing their complaints. Their calls to customer care invariably is met with a response by a representative that these are software driven and mandated by the upper management and that the customer care cannot do anything. The drivers are sensitive to the fact that the representative at the customer care is also another worker, who has little insight to the management policies.
The workers say that they have tried to voice their complaint on a direct visit to the OLA office in Ekkatuthangal, which they liken to a prison complex. They say that they have to negotiate their access with half a dozen security personnel, whom they refer to as ‘bouncers’. “We are allowed to visit the office individually and never as a group”, they said.
The union representatives, according to Comrade Anbazhagan of CITU, had visited the Uber office in May 2015 and OLA in Feb 2017 and have received no responses on their petition. This has prompted the strike in March 2017 in the backdrop of fuel price increases due to increased VAT in the State. The workers are frustrated that while the input costs are increasing, the companies are decreasing the fare structure and demand that the State Government step in to regulate the company. They demand that the fare structures as payment for drivers for various services be fixed.
Violations at will
The workers also pointed out that the new scheme of ride sharing services by OLA and Uber as unlawful. The Karnataka State Government had taken action against OLA and Uber on ride sharing service by these companies. The workers said that only public transport services have the license to drop and pickup at several locations and highlighted issues of sexual harassment that arise out of providing such services.
The federation has placed the following demands which are aimed at bringing the State into the role of regulating the conditions of employment with these companies.
- Regulate meter based charge of Rs 100 for 4 kms and Rs 17 per km beyond 4 kms for Mini cabs, Rs 19 per km additionally for Sedan, Rs 150 for 4 kms for SUV with Rs 22 per km beyond 4 kms, waiting charges of Rs 2 per minute and 25% increase during night service.
- Reduce commission to 7% and remove conditions such as acceptance rating, star rating.
- Stop adding new drivers into the saturated market.
A delegation of union representatives met with Transport Secretary at Ezhilagam and shared the outcome of the meeting with workers. Comrade Anbazhagan, who had been part of the delegation, said that the Transport Secretary has communicated that there have been steps by the State Government on this regard and directives will be issued in this regard in 15 days. The assembled drivers of over 75 people cheered the announcement and raised questions regarding the future course of actions and drawing the support of drivers who had not participated in the strike.
While the federation has demanded fare increases, there have been no demands placed on issues faced by the workers which include transparency in trip allocation, access to management and worker benefits including ESI, PF. These demands on behalf of the workers will ensure that workers have a say in the very processes that controls their lives. And also, organizing against OLA and Uber services are happening nationally and internationally with workers opposing vociferously these new forms of exploitation. Increased coordination and interaction between these groups can only help the workers challenge the gig economy that seems to structure our consumption behavior these days.