Indian drivers may finally be taking cues from global movements against on-demand cab services

  • In Mumbai, almost 60,000 cabs are reportedly off the roads in the city today leaving most commuters stranded.
  • The companies initially offered huge overhead payouts to them, but now takes approximately 25% cut from each of their trips.
  • Maharashtra Navnirman Vahatuk Sena has reached out to the police to get the ‘decision makers’ from these companies to meet them and the government, in order to come to an amicable decision
Ola and Uber drivers have gone on an indefinite strike starting midnight 18 March, organised by the Maharashtra Navnirman Vahatuk Sena (MNVS). Though the strike is primarily affecting commuters in Mumbai, there have been some instances of cab unavailability in Delhi and Bangalore too. In Mumbai, almost 60,000 cabs are reportedly off the roads in the city today leaving most commuters stranded. We spoke to a couple of drivers in Delhi who seemed to be blissfully unaware of the strike and claim they are happy and have 'no problem' with the company. Uber itself says that only Mumbai and Pune have been affected by the strikes and it’s business as usual in other cities.

In a statement to the press, an Uber spokesperson said:

We regret the disruption caused to our rider and driver community by a small group of individuals. We remain committed to serving the city, ensuring driver partners can continue to access stable earning opportunities, while giving riders a convenient option to get around their city. The Hon’ble Bombay High Court issued an injunction prohibiting unions, their leaders and anybody else from obstructing the activities of Uber driver partners. We welcome this, and hope that it will enable drivers to stay behind the wheel, something many have been telling us they wish to do.

We have been listening to our driver partners all along and are committed to ensuring that Uber remains an attractive entrepreneurial opportunity for them. While the authorities have taken steps to ensure minimal disruption to our rider and driver communities, we hope that they will continue to enforce the order passed by the High Court.

However, it's no secret that disgruntled cab drivers who bought in on the rosy picture painted by Uber and Ola, promising a lucrative career and a chance to squeeze into the middle class have today realised that it was nothing but a pipe dream.

Initially promised earnings over a lakh per month, people from various walks of lives decided to give up their full-time jobs and even land to cash-in on this. However, today these drivers are finding it difficult to scrounge up enough money to pay up the loans taken to buy their cars.

But this isn’t the first time we’ve heard this story. Drivers in India have been complaining about reduced incentives and overall earnings from Uber and Ola for a while now. The companies initially offered huge overhead payouts to them, but now takes approximately 25% cut from each of their trips. While both companies still do have some incentives in place, drivers say they are more difficult to achieve and working for Uber and Ola isn’t the “joyride” it once used to be.

Examples overseas...

When strikes against Uber first broke out in London back in 2016, Uber’s impact on Black Cab drivers’ income was one of the cornerstones of the movement. “Unite, the union that represents many black-cab drivers, claims the government is biased against their trade and claims light-touch regulation will threaten passenger safety as well as drivers’ incomes,” the Guardian wrote at the time.

These strikes have become somewhat commonplace and except for one big win for Uber drivers in the UK in November last year, the results, for the drivers at least, have always been wanting. In the UK, a panel ruled that Uber drivers are employees and not contractors, and therefore entitled to basic protections such as minimum wage and vacation pay.

In September last year, Uber was denied the licence to operate by Transport for London (TfL) claiming that the company was not a “fit and proper” operator. Uber’s failure to report ‘serious criminal offences, obtaining medical certificates and driver background checks’ was the main reason behind this decision. This move affected the 40,000 people who worked for Uber, not to mention its 3.5 million users. In 2015, local cab drivers in Rio de Janeiro protested against Uber because they claimed they were the “official” drivers who were strictly regulated and fewer overhead costs gave them a ‘competitive advantage’. In 2016, Uber decided to cease operations in Austin, Texas because it didn’t find it feasible to comply with the regulation to fingerprint and run thorough background checks on all its drivers. In 2014, both Berlin and Hamburg, Germany voted to ban Uber because it did not ‘do enough to protect its passengers from unlicensed drivers’.

The common thread of grievance is a predictable trio -- local taxi operators revolting against Uber’s competitive advantage, security concerns based on Uber’s slack regulation over the choice of drivers with regards to proper background checks, and unethical treatment of drivers. All of these complaints have been cited in India as well, but this is the second time such protests have sprung in as many years. Last year, the Sarvodaya Driver Association of Delhi (SDAD) called for a strike in Delhi against Uber and Ola on similar grounds, though the companies escaped unscathed at the time.

Taking cues...

The current strike in India hopes to achieve similar results. “This time things will be different because they have partnered with us,” says Sanjay Naik, president of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena's (MNVS) transport wing. He believes that the privileges that are mandated by law to the Mumbai Kaali Peeli’ (black-and-yellow) taxi drivers should also be applicable to Ola and Uber cabs so that all drivers can benefit from them. He wants the implementation of the BC Khatua Committee’s proposal that includes ‘relaxation of several provisions of the Maharashtra City Taxi Scheme, including lowering the permit fees for all types of cars to a flat ₹10,000 instead of a graded system ranging from ₹75,000 to ₹2.6 lakh under the City Taxi rules.’

He also accused the companies of giving preference to cabs owned by the companies instead of driver-owned cabs. In India, Uber offers to buy cabs that are then passed on to drivers. Drivers effectively work off their debt to the company, by paying a monthly instalment to them. What Naik is insinuating is that Uber gives these drivers more rides than those who register their own cars on the service.

What is most interesting, however, is that MNVS hasn’t ruled out going into business for themselves. Naik told us that if things don’t work out, they will consider bringing all the drivers together under one umbrella and take out the middlemen (Ola and Uber).

However, for now, the organisation has reached out to the police to get the ‘decision makers’ from these companies to meet them and the government, in order to come to an amicable decision that will not only benefit the drivers monetarily but also implement regulations so that all drivers come under the same law and benefit from it.

With the predictable spate of grievances by Uber drivers, commuters and local taxi operators, will Maharashtra take a cue from international events and tighten the leash on the private taxi operators? If it does, will that, in turn, set the precedent for the rest of the country?

UPDATE: Ola shared the statement below with us today.

“Interest of our driver partners and customer convenience is of paramount importance to us. While, we have seen a slight improvement in our services in Mumbai, however for the situation to improve significantly it is imperative that intimidation of driver partners and vandalism of their cars by vested interests be stopped. New economy companies like us are counting on the police for normalcy to return.”

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