Drivers being taken for a ride? With the increasing number of strikes and agitations against the managements of Ola and Uber, drivers and trade unions have been coming out in the open, to voice out issues. However, there are a lot of smaller undocumented and unspoken about details.

Drivers for mobile application-based taxi cab aggregators Ola and Uber have been agitating across many Indian cities, particularly Chennai, against alleged exploitative practices by the two companies. When California-based Uber and Bangalore-based Ola Cabs of ANI Technologies Pvt. Ltd. made an entry, they managed to woo drivers with many driver-centric schemes.

A CITU member said that initially, everything had looked good. “You had to attach a vehicle with the company. They will train you, then you can earn good money plus get bonuses. You are your own master. You don’t have to be like those call taxi fellows.” As seen from their websites, these are the qualities for which they want to be associated with. ‘Convenience, Quality, Control’/ ‘Tap a button, get a ride, Choose how to pay, You rate, we listen’.

The idea that the drivers were ‘driver-partners and ‘Uberpreneurs’ was what attracted thousands of drivers to license their vehicles to Ola and Uber. In an interview to the Business Line, Siddharth Shanker, GM, Uber Hyderabad said, "Uber is deeply committed to creating sustainable livelihood and entrepreneurship opportunities for our driver partners who are thriving as a new breed of entrepreneurs, "

NDTV Gadgets 360 in a survey stated that: “Uber India says it has over 250,000 driver partners on its platform, and is available in 26 cities. Ola claims to have one lakh more vehicles available via its app…a fleet of 350,000 vehicles, include government-licensed taxis and auto-rickshaws.”

Protests and strikes are increasing as the companies are turning more passenger-friendly by the day. Balu, an Uber driver highlighted this: "The fares are cheap for the passenger. They get an air-conditioned car. Why will they have any problem? To achieve our target number of rides for the day, we are slogging all day and night.”

Their main demand is to remove the minimum balance guarantee (MBG) rule laid down for drivers. B. Anbazhagan, General Secretary, CITU, explained, “If a driver finishes a target of say, 10 rides a day, the company also checks if he has covered a minimum number of kilometres. Only then will he get an incentive,” referring to the tip drivers get upon target completion.

Their concern is that the companies set the MBG as per miles and not kms, which, the drivers all claim, is an act of ‘cheating’. “I’m educated. I can convert miles to kms and see we’re being tricked into not getting the incentives for not completing the MBG when in fact we have, as per kms,” claimed K. Saravanan, member of a trade association. He added, “Most of our drivers are not educated enough to be aware of this!” On one hand, fares are being reduced for customers with Uber Pool and Ola Share options. On the other, incentives are falling because of excessive supply, and less demand of cabs, none of which augur well for the driver community. Failing to meet the target by even one ride can make them lose out on the money they had earnt for the day. Uber driver Ajith Kumar (name changed on request) said that if for a target of 18 rides, a driver is able to manage at least 17, he will still have to take a cut in incentive for that day. These rather unrealistic and impossible standard is heightening resentment against the management, as observed from the protests.

The losses encountered by the drivers appear to have significantly outnumbered whatever little ‘profit’ they received. “After they take a 10% tax return on each ride, a daily 25% or 30% commission on earnings [varies according to the type of vehicle – Prime, Sedan or SUV], and subtracting all the fines they levy upon us, what do we get? Only a fraction”, stated Reji Thomas, an association member. Carpooling options have only brought down earnings severely. Drivers ride around the whole day and the customers are happy with the discounted fare. But the driver has to take home a significantly reduced pay for hs labour, alleged several drivers. Joseph Kamlesh, co-founder of ZMillion Cabs felt that the customer could take a regular share auto for a ten minute distance rather than book an air-conditioned car for a price that is just a little than more than the average share auto fare.

Most of them have bought cars on loans, which they have to repay through EMI payments. Fuel charges, toll booth fees, mobile data charges, etc, are all deducted from the driver’s earnings. Also, the extra money collected during a surge in demand, as part of peak pricing doesn’t go to the drivers. A driver who wished to remain anonymous said that they could not see by what rate times had the fare for a particular ride been multiplied. Also, the new flat rate had been announced a few weeks to be Rs. 29/- for the first 4 kms. Ajith Kumar argued if auto drivers charge 50 for the smallest of distances, how was it fair to expect them to drive for such a low rate.

A 5-star is the norm for quality as per the companies’ standards. If the customer gives them anything below that, it would adversely affect the reputation, not to mention his earnings for the day. This is too tall a standard, most drivers feel. Ajith Kumar felt that passengers for whatever arbitrary reason give them a 3 or a 4-star rating, and it costs the drivers. He alleged that in such a scenario, the next pickup would appear on his app screen only after an hour or so, making them lose precious time in completing their target for the day.

Failure to reach the target can have a number of reasons, most of which appear to be out of the driver’s control. One, when supply exceeds demand, there is bound to be loss. Two, if there is a delay in accepting a pick up request from a customer on the app because of technical lag, it has a negative marking, alleged a driver, under conditions of anonymity.

Also, app irregularities can cost drivers dearly. Ajith Kumar mentioned that after PayTM e-wallet transactions, the details take time to appear on the driver’s phone. “After we drop the passenger, around half an hour or so, the details come on the screen. Suppose there is an issue, and say, the fare amount has not been credited from the account, what can we do? We don’t have their number, nor will the company people address it”, he added in frustration.

Yet another genuine cause that needs looking into are technological limitations. Ajith Kumar and several other drivers complained about the GPRS map not being updated. Kumar said, “Our map shows: turn left. The customer’s updated Google Maps shows right. How can we spend time and petrol going roundabout like this?” Instances of the mobile app hanging at the end of the ride when the customer is waiting to know the final fare amount were recounted by several drivers. Kamlesh mentioned that there has also been situations when the pin which points to the customer’s location has ‘jumped’ or behaved erratically just as the driver was about to pick the customer up.

Concerns regarding passenger safety in these cars have always existed, especially with allegations of rape and sexual harassment dogging the companies since their inception, around the world. However, drivers also can be at risk, albeit of a different kind. Sukumar felt that it would be best to do away with the share riding options as that made it more dangerous for female passengers on one side, but also, “the driver cannot possibly be able to do anything when there is one woman and two men in the car at night.” The carpooling options have only added to their mounting burdens. An Ola driver, Balasubramaniam asked, “When we have one female passenger and two male passengers, usually drunk after a night of revelry, what can we do? How can we drivers take on two men?” The additional responsibility and the lack of safety for women make them very apprehensive. They wish Chennai would stop carpooling options, like Bangalore did quite recently.

At one of the strikes organised near the CITU office, the protesting drivers pointed out the psychological stress undergone by drivers once they joined Ola or Uber. The drivers all claimed to “drive with high pressure and tension”, in a race to complete the prescribed target. They also mentioned that their vehicles which ideally had to be in a good working condition for at least 4 years, were all depreciating quickly because of constant wear and tear.

Kamalesh was of the opinion that the stories of harassment and rude and erratic behaviour by drivers will automatically come down when they get peace of mind. “There is unimaginable pressure on their psyche.”

Uber drivers don’t have a support number, unlike the customer help/ support option on the customer’s app. Ajith Kumar says that they have to call the office number but “the line is engaged most of the time”, as a result of which, they have to go to the office in person to tell them their problem. This takes away time that they have to spend in completing the set number of rides, he feels.

When customers delay, and make the drivers wait for them, the drivers are unable to call them. The companies do that to protect their client information. But, there is no way of contacting the passenger before the customer calls from his/ her number. The customers gets the driver’s number, but not the driver. And if it gets cancelled after a minimum waiting period, the ride gets cancelled. Also, in such situations, the driver can’t press the ‘cancel icon, as it will have an adverse impact on his earnings. An Uber Pool driver said that waiting indefinitely without getting a call from the passenger added to their stress, especially when there are other disgruntled passengers in the car.

Founder of Qik Cabs, the latest entrant in the online cab aggregators market, Joseph Kamlesh confirmed that the huge increase in the number of cabs being attached to the two companies is what’s led to several of the drivers’ concerns, today. Too many cabs, too little demand. Kamlesh is a doctor by profession and his wife, who works in the IT sector, were concerned about the plight of the drivers, and researched extensively into their problems. Coming down to Chennai from Bangalore, they met with all the taxi cab drivers unions and associations, and with the positive response they received, they decided to step in. They had developed a software for a clinical trial, which they modified for their app-based taxi cab company, which is expetd to roll out from the 14th of this month.

Terming it a ‘deplorable situation’, Kamlesh said that they don’t charge commissions, a MBG, or any hefty payment from the drivers, amongst several genuine driver-friendly schemes. A monthly subscription fee is all they charge. The ability of the drivers to complete a certain number of rides, say 18, is dependent on Ola. Algorithmic preference for their own cabs exists, he claimed, referring to Ola’s policy of leasing their own vehicles.

Ironically, they are referred to as ‘driver-partners’. Not in any sense of the term are they partners, because they are not provided with any sense of ownership, Kamlesh pointed out.

A number of drivers this writer spoke to maintained that they were ignorant of certain rules and regulations, which they were expected to be aware of. Ajith Kumar who drives for a owner running a fleet of 30-odd cars (they were leased to Ola, Uber and FastTrack), said that he was unaware that a certain amount of commission would be taken everyday from the earnings made on the rides he had completed. At least a few of them were observed to be struggling with the application on the smartphone, weeks into driving for the two companies, thus, revealing inconsistent training and orientation during the signing-up process.

Ideally, a single fuel recharge should give a car mileage for 17 kms, the cost for which is deducted from the driver’s earnings. Ajith Kumar said that because they turn on the air conditioner, the mileage gets reduced to 13 kms. He added, “Now, we drivers have to refill more often”. Rising fuel costs have not helped matters.

Ajith Kumar also said that with drivers like him, it was even more difficult to make a living. The companies and the owners have decided a 30% commission for him, and if he were to receive any additional fee, it would be left to the discretion of the owner.

*cash collected each day in a week, against the targets.
*how daily earnings are broken up in the drivers’ app.

The next problematic aspect is the five-star rating feedback system. Both Uber and Ola list it as a safety requirement, to ensure that rides are completed smoothly, for the customer and the driver. However, alleging that customers can be prone to arbitrariness, drivers state that it can affect them dearly. A low star rating from the customer can lead to a fine. Mahesh Kumar alleged that on several occasions, when the customer had clicked on a slightly lower star, there was a perceptible delay in the next customer demand. Kamlesh added that if for example, a driver isn’t able to understand the directions of a customer, instantly, his rating would dip. Flimsy reasons can harm the driver.

Sukumar said, “The customers also need to understand that we’re thinking of them as well when making these demands.” They wish to highlight to the unsuspecting public these instances of ‘fraud’ by the companies. A member of CITU’s Koyambedu branch warned auto drivers to not get lured, in the light of the recently concluded Ola Auto Bhasha mela, a move by Ola to invite drivers to add more autos to their fleet.

“We don’t want MBG, or incentives. Just pay us what we deserve for our work. Just the required amount,” requested a couple of drivers during a road roko near Guindy, in November last year, referring to the money they are owed for the amount of hours they clocked in.
*For a Rs. 214, the app charged a 15% commission (as seen on the driver’s app.)

These companies seem to be evading responsibility by functioning in grey areas of the law. Their defense is that they are not a taxi service and are just cab aggregators. A classic case of the laws of the state not having caught up with technology. They call themselves as a transportation network company; a technology company, with the mobile app functioning as a sort of a middleman between the company and the passengers.

Most of the drivers this writer interviewed were of the consensus that without these drivers, the businesses of Ola and Uber (whose reputations are in a shaky place, currently) stands to lose.

Is the government listening?

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