Ahmedabad, GUJARAT — For several weeks now, Uber users have been inundated with push notifications seeking contributions for its drivers; almost all of whom have been out of work since taxi-aggregator services were suspended in India’s novel coronavirus lockdown.
“They moved us forward. It’s our turn now,” said one representative notification on the Uber app, suggesting Uber users and the company — which was valued at just over $82 billion after it went public last year and is currently valued at $48.5 billion — had the same responsibility towards drivers affiliated with the company. Uber has donated Rs 25 crore ($3.3 million) to its own fund and hopes to make up the rest by soliciting donations.
Uber rival, Ola — last valued at about $5.7 billion — has rolled out a similar appeal for contributions under its Drive The Driver Fund; yet information provided by both companies to HuffPost India suggests the relief funds of both companies have reached less than 5% of their respective drivers, many of whom have taken loans and pledged family assets to buy their taxis.
While employers across the Indian economy are struggling to find ways to compensate their staff through the lockdown, the fate of Uber and Ola drivers reveals how gig economy workers have been largely left to fend for themselves. Both companies, it is worth noting, do not acknowledge their drivers as employees — choosing instead to characterise them as self-employed contractors. Last year, Uber’s Chief Legal Officer Tony West justified this position, telling the New York Times that “drivers’ work is outside the usual course of Uber’s business.”
The “benefits” —partly funded by outside donations and characterised as charity — that Uber and Ola are providing to a tiny fraction of drivers, fall far short of what most full-time workers in other sectors are entitled to as a matter of law.
“The crisis highlights, once again, just how precarious gig work is — no income security, no access to social protection, even while these platforms continue to grow and their valuations increase,” said Urvashi Aneja, the founding director of Tandem Research, a tech-policy research collective. “We must rethink the platform model. It emerged during the financial crisis of 2007/2008, and now with a certain economic downturn, more people will be looking for temporary, platform-based work, to make ends meet. The current model is exploitative and unsustainable.”
An Ola spokesperson said the company has so far provided food supplies to 40,000 drivers through the Drive the Driver fund, 2% of Ola’s estimated 2 million drivers in India, and covered medical expenses of another 17,000 (less than 1%). Ola’s relief package doesn’t include any monetary compensation, but has been used to buy emergency rations. Separately, Ola is also offering interest loans to drivers of up to Rs 3600 paid out over the period of 3 weeks.
As these are loans, drivers will have to return the money.
Uber has thus far only paid a one-time grant of Rs 3000 to 75,000 drivers. The drivers will not have to repay the money. Uber does not disclose how many drivers are on its platform in India, but in February the company claimed to have garnered more than 50% of India’s ride-hailing market — implying the company has at least as many drivers as Ola, and has helped as few as a percentage of their total driver base.
Driver representatives said the lack of transparency around how both companies have handpicked the miniscule number of drivers to support was troubling.
“There’s a lot of inconsistency. We duly paid them 30% commission. We work for them. Why are they not supporting us in such times?” said Shaik Salauddin, National General Secretary, Indian Federation of App-Based Transport Workers. “They don’t consider us employees even though we drive their car and bring them revenue.”
“Even what little support they are offering is not available to all the drivers. On top of that, the money they’re offering has to be returned. This is an insult,” Salauddin said. “They call us driver-partners. This is the time to show that they really mean and believe that.”
Aneja from Tandem research said the opacity around distributing relief could push drivers to take unnecessary risks. “Drivers worry that this [fund] is only being offered to drivers who continue to work during the lockdown, leaving them with an impossible choice between income and health,” she said.
Neither Uber nor Ola explained how they had selected the beneficiaries for their relief efforts.
“Over the past two weeks, we’ve been pleased to see generous contributions from our employees, citizens, NGOs and corporate partners to the fund, enabling us to speedily disburse outright grants to more than 70,000 drivers. As Uber raises additional money, we’ll continue to distribute outright grants to as many drivers as we can, as quickly as possible,” said an Uber spokesperson.
As mentioned earlier, information shared by Ola indicates that company has distributed food rations to 40,000 drivers and emergency medical support to 17,000 drivers. Information previously shared by the Ola with HuffPost India said Ola had distributed about 650,000kg of essential supplies.
Drivers feel abandoned
Uber and Ola’s relief efforts appear impressive at first glance.
Uber’s relief package includes the aforementioned one time grant of Rs 3000, a waiver on monthly payments for drivers who lease their cars from Uber, “EMI relief”, a Hospital Cash Insurance policy to benefit driver-partners, and cover COVID-19 and other illnesses that need hospitalisation, for up to 14 days. The company also claims to be offering its drivers free access to DocsApp, which offers tele consultation with doctors.
Yet on a phone call, an Uber spokesperson declined to answer basic questions like how many months of lease payments would be waived, how exactly Uber was provided relief on estimated monthly instalments, the terms of his cash insurance, or the insured sum for hospital expenses. For context, a COVID-19 test can cost as much as Rs 4000 in a private hospital — or Rs 1000 more than Uber’s cash grant.
And while Uber has shared how many drivers have received the one-time grant, the company also declined to say how many drivers had benefited from the rest of the benefits, including the DocsApp telemedicine service.
Ola, with its Drive the Driver fund, is offering supplies and insurance cover for drivers in critical medical emergencies like pregnancy and cancer. The company shared three case studies of where the company had helped drivers with medical bills, but drivers must apply to fund — and there is no guarantee they will be selected.
As mentioned earlier, Ola is separately loaning upto Rs 3600 to drivers that will have to be returned once work resumes; but Ola declined to clarify exactly how many of these drivers have availed of this loan.
Plus, Ola has offered drivers a temporary lease waiver, free tele-medical consultation, and Covid-19 insurance cover — but much like Uber, the Ola representative declined to offer any details.
Salauddin, the trade union general secretary, was critical of Ola’s decision to vary the amount of relief given to drivers.
“This is no time to discriminate against drivers based on how much they’ve worked. You’re taking the same commission rate from all drivers,” Salauddin said. “This class-based system complicates relationships between drivers and the driver community too.”
Uber and Ola drivers told HuffPost India they felt abandoned by both companies.
Raman Mourya, a driver from Thane who has been with Ola for over 3 years and completed nearly 8,000 rides found himself grasping at straws a few days into the lockdown. He was able to procure ration after several calls and tweets but with a wife and two children, he said his family had eaten most of their rations already and without any financial help, doesn’t know how he’ll survive until normal services resume.
The cash grants, he pointed out, was a pittance for drivers who have families to feed, rents to pay, and children to support. Drivers households, Salauddin the trade unionist said, were often ignored by community NGOs because grassroot workers who spotted their cars outside assumed they didn’t need emergency relief.
Afzal Khan, a Mumbai-based 30-year-old who has been driving for two years and completed over 2000 Uber rides, said he’s been unable to obtain any support or funds from the company. “I’ve a wife, two children, and a younger brother to take care of. Without work, my bank balance has dried up and I’ll soon have to resort to asking for help from relatives and friends who themselves are struggling.”
App-based drivers haven’t come under the radar of most local governments either. Delhi’s Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal’s administration has set an example with its one-time financial relief package of Rs 5000 for auto rickshaw and taxi drivers. But to qualify for this grant, each vehicle must have a “Public Service Vehicle” badge — which isn’t mandatory on Uber and Ola platforms. As a consequence, Delhi-based app-based drivers have not been able to avail the government’s aid either.
RBI’s Moratorium for relaxing EMI payments has offered some relief. But despite these official orders, drivers ― whose vehicles are tied to EMI schemes of private firms ― are still being harassed and as their payments continue to bounce, they run the risk of losing their cars.
While Ola and Uber have come up with a limited set of new avenues like ferrying medical workers for drivers to earn, those are only available to the most top-rated drivers. Plus, there is an absence of clarity among the driver community. Many simply don’t know where to apply and who to reach out to for signing up.
“To select drivers for the emergency services, Ola has created a repository of drivers who have been identified centrally basis a number of parameters such as high ratings, high acceptance rates etc. These drivers are then contacted by the city teams and trained to maintain high levels of hygiene and sanitation that are of critical importance in the current scenario,” Subramanian from Ola said.
Noor Alam, a fleet manager from Kolkata oversees 130 drivers, some of whom have clocked over 10,000 rides and have been with Uber for five years.
“None of my drivers have received any support whether it’s direct funds or supplies,” Alam said. “Customer support keeps sending me a copy-paste reply preventing me from escalating the issue to higher authorities.”
Alam said a screenshot of a chat he had with an Uber customer service representative.
“Our endeavour is to continue to raise more funds from third parties to cover a broader set of driver partners and increase the amount paid to them,” the service rep said. The response was accompanied with a note at the bottom that underlined the ethics one must adhere to be a top-rated driver.