Companies forced to falsely claim “Minor disruption in services”
Ola and Uber cab services were considerably disrupted on 3rd January 2017 as many drivers even outside the union fold responded positively to a one-day strike call given by several unions. Almost 700 drivers participated in a protest and raised angry slogans blaming the state and central government for their plight and for selling them out to private cab companies. The unions have continuously pressed for several demands including regulation of fares, provision of restrooms and toilet facilities as per the Motor Vehicles Act and desisting from penalising drivers who work beyond 8 hours. The Transport Commissioner who called union representatives for a dialogue has agreed to discuss fare regulations and send a recommendation for fares to the government for implementation within a fortnight.
Taxi drivers, young and old, gathered at the MLA Hostel in Chennai on 3rd January to protest exploitation by cab aggregators Ola and Uber as well as call taxi company Fast Track. The one-day strike was announced after the government failed to resolve drivers’ issues despite promising to do so following a similar strike in March last year.
This time around, the anger was palpable at the venue as workers shouted slogans against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the AIADMK state government who they feel have provided a free reign to companies like Ola and Uber which operate unregulated. Although Ola and Uber both claimed “minor disruptions”, the reality is that both services were minimal. Both apps showed longer wait times and of course, the companies were quick to capitalise on the situation by introducing surge pricing and charging double the fares to milk even this situation for profit.
One of the major demands of the drivers is that the government regulate the fares and follow a similar system that is present for autos. “Onions are priced at Rs.50 per kilo today and we are driving our cab for Rs.6 per km. How does this make sense? Do customers not wonder how we eat and live? We may as well change our work from Call Taxi to Free Taxi”, said a driver with Fast Track who had worked briefly with Uber.
Currently, both Ola and Uber offer very low fares for various categories and almost all the drivers that Thozhilalar Koodam spoke to were in debt, as they were unable to pay the EMIs towards loans taken for purchase of their cars. Most drivers say that if they work for 15 hours a day, they can earn Rs.1000-Rs.1500. Both companies deduct tax and their own fees from the fare collected or credited to the driver’s account (if the customer pays by debit card/PayTM and Ola Money) for each ride. Added to this, the driver also ends up spending a large amount on diesel which leaves him with little money at the end of the work day.
One Uber driver showed us the payment details for trip from Chennai Airport to Tambaram for which he had collected Rs.249 but at the end, the total payment made to him will be much less i.e Rs.162.77.
Rs.249.77 – Rs.31.50 (Rider’s fee) – Rs.43.65 (Uber’s commission) – Rs. 11.90 (tax on fare) = Rs.162.72.
The driver has to further shell out money for diesel which leaves very little earning for him. The unions are therefore demanding a uniform fare structure for each category of cab.
“People may ask us why we joined these companies. There is only one answer, they cheated us. We saw ads in the paper claiming that we could make Rs.50000 or more per month. We immediately went after it”, said a driver who works with Ola. Many of the drivers used to work for smaller tourist and travel companies and quit their jobs as they were fooled by these advertisements.
Ola and Uber’s Exploitative “Incentive” Systems
Ola and Uber both use their incentive systems or schemes to attract drivers. In the beginning, the drivers say, the schemes were better and they did make money, but gradually both companies kept changing incentive and payment systems.
The companies say they are facilitating drivers to become entrepreneurs to take control of their own business. In fact Uber even refers to them as “driver-partners.” But the employment relationship is murky and therefore does not fall into any law. Drivers are therefore not “employed”, and their cars are “attached.” But the notion of propagating entrepreneurship is cleverly deceptive as nothing is really under the drivers’ control. Payments, ride allocation, etc are decided unilaterally by the company using technology which remains a mystery. The fare rates, incentive systems and mode of payments are subject to change on any given day – drivers simply do not know what “scheme” awaits them each morning. They minced no words in calling this out as blatant cheating, and condemn the government which continues to sit mum.
Ola follows a Minimum Business Guarantee, a system by which a driver is required to meet a certain fare target each day based on which Ola will then provide an additional amount. As on 3rd January, MBG scheme forwarded as messages to driver’s phones through the Ola app was that Ola would provide Rs.1100 if the driver earned a bill of Rs.800, Rs.2000 if he earns Rs. 1400, etc. However, from this Rs.1100, Ola deducts their commission, taxes and riders fee. Adding to this, the driver will also have to shell out money for diesel and maintenance, leaving a very insubstantial amount in his hands. For instance, in this case, the driver has logged in 7 and a half hours but has managed to earn only Rs.355.
In the case of Uber, the current incentive system requires a driver to make 54 trips from Monday to Thursday for which they will be paid Rs.2700 (in addition to the fare). But in most cases, it becomes almost impossible to achieve these targets simply because, no control lies with the driver. “There was a time that I worked 14-15 hours a day and somehow managed to complete 53 trips. I waited hoping that I will be assigned the last trip but it never came and the deadline was over”, said one driver.
Ola drivers say that they are purposely assigned short routes so that they their operator bills are low and they can never meet the target for an MBG on all days while Uber drivers are assigned long routes which effectively mean given the traffic and distance, they can not achieve the trip based target. This makes them work longer hours, with many of them spending the night in their cars in the hope of completing the target.
In light of this, the government’s move to amend the Motor Vehicles Act, penalising drivers who work beyond 8 hours, has further angered the drivers. Drivers are required to maintain a trip sheet provided by an RTO which can then be checked by police or other authorities at random. If they are found to be working beyond 8 hours, drivers are fined. For a second offense, the license can also be cancelled. Many of the drivers feel that the government and bureaucracy is further adding to their financial burden. One driver said that he paid almost Rs.10000 to get the annual FC for his vehicle as most of this work is done by touts. Similarly, drivers shell out thousands more to brokers to complete the necessary paper work for a meter which costs Rs.1100.
Another demand of the unions is to do away with the star rating or score that customers assign to drivers. Many customers either unfairly give poor ratings or in some cases, press one or two stars inadvertently in the hurry to make the next booking. Both Ola and Uber allow the customer to make a new booking only if they rate their previous ride. The rating will affect the number of rides assigned to the driver, further creating a dent in his earnings.
How can Ola and Uber be allowed to continue to deceive workers and the general public that they are turning drivers into entrepreneurs when in fact they are only creating a large number of indebted workers. Moreover, the entry of the cab aggregators into the market has severely affected older call taxi companies like Fast Track, NTL and independent drivers who are finding themselves out of business or working longer hours to earn what they would have been able to earn in 8 hours, a few years ago. It is for this reason that governments of many countries have kicked out Uber, as they were forced to do so after protests by taxi drivers or failing to meet basic security and safety protocols.
Trade union leaders from CITU, Urimai Kural, Vazhvurumai Drivers Thozhil Sangam, Nanbargal Magizhndhu Drivers Welfare Union and Thozhalrgal Car Drivers Unorganised Workers Union and other unions met with the Transport Commissioner who has asked for 10 days time to call for a dialog on the issue of fare regulation. Com.Anbazhagan, General Secretary of Chennai Maha Nagara Motor Vahana Thozhilalar Sangam affiliated to CITU, said that the Commissioner has promised to send a framework with regulated fares to the government with 15 days after this dialog. “Last year, they only took our petition but this year they have been forced to sit and talk to us. If they do not act, we will intensify our struggle”, he said.
It remains to be seen if this strike yield results or if it will be a repeat of last year. But as more and more drivers joined the strike, evidence of discontent is undeniable, and it is inevitable that more and more workers will join the resounding call for better fares and regulation.