Driven to desperation, Ola, Uber drivers threaten strike

Low fares, high commission & unpaid debts push some to suicide

Politics

October 25, 2020

/ By / New Delhi

Driven to desperation, Ola, Uber drivers threaten strike

Drivers for ride hailing apps Ola and Uber have threatened to launch an indefinite strike to force the two companies to pay heed to their demands for a fair remuneration

Even four months after the lockdown was lifted, tens of thousands of drivers of ride hailing apps remain desperate as Ola and Uber change rules of the game and bankers chase drivers for debt repayments.

After months of pleas and representations to the companies as well as the government, drivers of ride-hailing apps Ola and Uber in New Delhi and National Capital Region (NCR) are likely to go on an indefinite strike shortly.

The drivers say that they have been forced to resort to industrial action as instead of helping t he drivers during the unprecedented crisis posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the two companies have been exploiting them. After over three months of zero earning as their cabs were immobilised during the lockdown, the earnings of drivers have crashed even after the resumption of business as both the companies have made drastic changes in the compensation paid to the drivers.

“Earlier Uber and Ola used to take less commission and we used to get more rides. Now the commission charged by them is higher and we hardly get any rides. Earlier in a day we used to get 15-16 rides now we hardly 7-8 rides in a day. Also, if we completed 45 trips in 3 days then were given an incentive of INR 1,000 by the companies but now that has also stopped,” Nasrul Hasan, who has been driving for Uber since the past 18 months in the National Capital Region, tells Media India Group.

Prahlad Singh, another Uber driver, agrees about the immense challenges that they face now. “Uber is now taking commission of 30-35 pc per ride. Earlier, when we had to enter Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, for a ride, they used to pay us INR 100 for state border tax. Now they have stopped it, even though they collect it from the customer, so we have to pay it from our own pockets and this has a dramatic impact on the net amount that we earn with each ride to these states,” says Singh, who has been driving for Uber for well over three years.

“Low fares and high commission being charged by the companies has cut our net income dramatically. Over the year, the two companies have increased their commissions tremendously. Initially, it used to be zero, then they charged 5 pc, then 10 pc and now 25-30 pc. Earlier, we could manage to save about INR 2,000 every day after working for 12-15 hours and deducting all costs like fuel or a second driver’s salary. Nowadays, after working for the same 12-15 hours per day, our total income is about INR 1,200 per day. From this, we need to pay for all costs like fuel, a second driver’s salary, if any. So, our daily net earning is less than INR 500 and from this we need to manage our household expenses and, for most of the drivers, the repayment of loan instalment to the bank,” says Toofan Singh who has been driving for the past three years.

Ola and Uber drivers struggle to find a national voice  

Even though the problems are being faced by all drivers for both the companies and across the nation, in equal measure, their biggest challenge is the absence of a national body or union that can take up their issues with Ola and Uber.

Sarvodaya Drivers Association of Delhi is one regional body that brings together about 2500 drivers. The association has been taking up the issue with the companies in the past and is now leading the move towards launching a strike. “We have been facing all kinds of problems in the recent past. I have gone and met government officials on several occasions and have also spoken with the representatives of both Uber and Ola. Each time, I am told that they would consider our issues and take the necessary action to address the problems being faced by the drivers,” Devender Singh, president of the association tells Media India Group.

He says he has been consulting members of his association about the next step to be taken and has called a meeting for the same. “Next week, we are organising a meeting of drivers in New Delhi and in that meeting we will take a decision on whether we should go on a strike and if so when. But whenever we decide to go on strike, it will not be a token one for a day or two. This time the strike will go on until all our key demands are met and our problems addressed satisfactorily,” Singh says.

Summarising the key demands, Singh says, “Our main demands are about the quantum of fare, rate of commissions being taken by Uber and Ola, reimbursement of state transport taxes to drivers as well as waiver of any penalties or interest on interest on our car loans.”

Illustrating the drop in fares, he says, both the companies have dramatically dropped the fares in order to capture market. For instance, earlier fare from Greater Noida to New Delhi airport was about INR 1200. Now for the same distance, the average fares are about INR 350. “We want the earlier average fare of INR 12 per km to be restored,” Singh tells Media India Group.

Low fares, high commission and feeble demand 

Singh says that at a time when the pandemic has driven business to dramatic lows and reduced many drivers to penury, they have been let down by all the stakeholders – the central government, state governments and principally the ride hailing apps. “We have been following all the government guidelines and cooperating with the authorities in all respects including staying at home and not driving for over three months even though we did not have any income or alternate source of livelihood. Now, it is time for the government to cooperate with us. One of our biggest problems right now is that even though the central government has announced moratorium on repayment of loans without any penalty, the banks have not only been imposing penalties but also resorted to seizing cars of those drivers who have not paid the instalments on their loans. Our demand is that the moratorium on repayment of loans for our vehicles be extended to December 31 without any kind of penalty. Many banks are now insisting that the drivers pay upto 6 instalments at a time. If someone does not have enough to even eat and take care of basic needs of the family, how will they suddenly find the money to pay 6-7 instalments immediately?” asks Singh.

Even though the drivers have approached the courts against this malpractice, they have not obtained any relief whatsoever so far. “We have filed a petition in the Supreme Court, but unfortunately, the matter has been pending as the problem with the Supreme Court is that it has been postponing the hearing from September 1, even though banks have begun seizing our vehicles,” recounts Singh.

With a drastic cut in number of flights, domestic as well as international, Ola & Uber drivers have far fewer rides to the airports, normally the most lucrative business for them (MIG Photos/Varsha Singh)

Another major demand relates to the Uttar Pradesh government which has not waived off its levy on transport vehicles. “We want UP government to cooperate with us and waive the annual road tax which is about INR 16,000. All other states have waived this tax up to December 31, 2020, keeping in mind the economic crisis that we are facing. We would like the UP government also to follow suit,” Singh tells Media India Group.

He says the problem is immense as over the past few months, road transport department officials have been imposing stiff penalties and even seizing the vehicles of drivers whose taxes have not been paid even for a short duration.

Media India Group contacted both Ola and Uber for their response. While Ola did not respond, Uber refused to answer most of the questions.

“Driver partners are at the heart of everything we do and their wellbeing is a priority for Uber. To help them during the Covid-19 pandemic, we created the Uber Care Driver Fund, with an initial commitment of INR 25 crores (250 million) from Uber. For greater impact, we welcomed contributions from our employees, citizens, NGO’s and corporate partners to the fund. We have disbursed grants to approximately 100,000 drivers. Uber’s financial package has been warmly acknowledged by thousands of drivers. It is in addition to other livelihood opportunities we created for them during the lockdown through tens of thousands of free rides offered to various state governments, and services like UberMedic, UberEssentials and last mile deliveries,” a spokesperson for Uber tells Media India Group.

The company goes on to talk of distributing masks and sanitiser bottles, but refused to respond to the issues of high commissions, dropped fares and pocketing of state transport taxes which the drivers say ought to come to them.

Sarvodaya Drivers Association of Delhi claims that about a dozen drivers for Ola and Uber were even forced to turn to suicide as they were unable to face the mountain of problems facing them since the lockdown had been imposed. If the two companies or the government continue to turn a blind eye to this issue, many more drivers may be find themselves staring at a similar fate. Several others are already considering selling their vehicles and moving into a different profession, despite the dearth of jobs in the pandemic-riddled economy.

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