On the morning of February 8, Amit Bansal* who lives in Rohini, North Delhi, and works as a driver with taxi aggregators Ola and Uber, got a call from a friend and colleague living 60 km away in Faridabad, Haryana.

Bansal was told that no driver working with app-based taxi aggregators would go on the road after February 10, and was asked to communicate this message to other drivers living near his home. The message said that if any Ola or Uber taxis were found on the roads after that day, their passengers would be made to disembark, and the driver would be asked to go home.

“I got one call, and then another after a few minutes from another colleague,” recalled Bansal. “I too feel disappointed at how companies like Ola have treated us in the last 12 months. I told them [his colleagues], I support this.”

He added: “Also, we were not planning to block traffic, or obstruct anybody violently. I did not see any problems in enforcing this on the route between Rohini and Mangolpuri, near where I live.”

The strike by the driver partners of California-based Uber and Indian firm Ola Cabs in Delhi and its satellite towns of Gurgaon and Noida continued for the fifth day on Tuesday with both apps showing long wait times for cabs, or no available taxis at all. The strike may spread to other parts of the country too. On February 13, newspapers reported that drivers working with these two taxi aggregators in cities like Hyderabad and Bengaluru may also join the strike.

Both cab aggregator companies’ apps show up messages as a result of the strike. While the Ola app has a push notification saying that the absence of cabs on the app is due to “low availability of cabs in Delhi” and suggests that customers look in the autorickshaw category instead, the Uber app displayed a message saying that “Over the last few days, certain groups of people have forcefully disrupted our services…”

Worsening work terms

Uber and Ola drivers are part of the “sharing economy” in which people rent services and assets like cars, homes and rooms directly from each other using the internet. Cab aggregators like Uber and Ola link their driver partners with customers seeking taxi services.

While technological changes have generated new opportunities and an optimism, they have also created a grey zone where there is no clarity about how such employment relationships will be regulated, or what the rights of workers will be in such a business model.

Nearly all driver partners this reporter spoke to say they took loans amounting to between Rs 4.5 lakhs to 4.8 lakhs to purchase new cars in order to register as drivers on the Uber and Ola platforms. Many say they were lured to do this, adding that they signed the loan agreements in the offices of the cab aggregators.

The companies initially offered them guaranteed incentives of Rs 90,000 a month.

“They told us even after paying monthly loan installments, fuel and maintenance costs, you will still earn Rs 40,000- Rs 50,000 monthly,” said Mohammad Irshad, a driver in his early 30s.

But from 2015 till now, the drivers claim that the terms of service have steadily deteriorated to their disadvantage.

They say that the rates per km have reduced from Rs 10-Rs 8 per km to Rs 6-Rs 4, and that they get no share of the steep surcharges applied at peak hours. The drivers also claim that the “company’s commission” – the term used to describe the share of the cab aggregator company that is deducted from their daily income – has increased from 10% to between 20% and 25%.

Many also question the mechanism of imposing penalties on drivers. For instance, the drivers say that Ola Cabs deducts Rs 500 from the driver partner’s earnings if a customer complains. This happens even though there is no transparent mechanism to establish whether the driver had any control over the situation that led to the customer’s complaint.

At the same time, the cab aggregator companies take little or no responsibility if the police impounds the cars of driver partners, or even in case of events such as the horrific accident on January 22 in which Uber driver Nazrul Islam was killed after a multinational executive crashed his BMW into Islam’s taxi in South Delhi.

Credits: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee
Credits: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee

With a decrease in their earnings due to reduced rates, and frequent deductions due to arbitrary penalties, drivers say their income has fallen to a tenth of what it was in 2015. This has put them under immense pressure to pay their next loan installment.

Drivers say that if they earned Rs 2,000 a day in 2015, they now take home just Rs 250 to Rs 200 a day for the same hours of work. This forces them to work longer hours, with some staying logged in for 18 hours to 20 hours at a stretch.

“When I took a loan in January 2015, I opted for paying it back over five years, with a monthly installment of Rs 9,000, which i could manage in an 8-hour shift,” said Bansal, the driver partner from Rohini. “But in the last year, the companies have got thousands to sign up for loans of Rs 4 lakh to Rs 5 lakh to be paid back within three years. This means paying monthly installments of Rs 30,000, which has become impossible at the current rates.”

He added: “Several drivers feel they are close to going bankrupt, and their cars will be taken away by the finance companies. I had enrolled my children in costly tuition classes, and now I am struggling to pay the fees.”

Organising themselves

Drivers have found ways to keep in touch with each other.

Though Bansal is not a member of any union, he said he is in touch with several other drivers on the mobile phone constantly. On February 13, he was getting messages regularly that drivers must enforce the strike even more extensively since it was a Monday. Old networks help in this coordination.

“For years, before Uber and Ola came along, many of us worked together, ferrying BPO [Business Process Outsourcing] employees to call centers in Gurgaon,” said Bansal. “We would bring staff from different parts of the city, wait in the same parking lots outside the BPO offices for 10-12 hours till the end of their shifts. We kept in touch.”

When Uber and Ola Cabs launched in India, many of these drivers switched to these companies around the same time. The drivers say that they are now going through the highs and lows of the business together.

Several drivers spoke of how the absence of any structure within the aggregator companies had pushed them to organise themselves.

“We went to the Ola Cabs office on February 11, it was locked,” said Kamlesh Mandal, a driver in Dwarka. “We only have phone numbers of our account managers, and even their phones are switched off or they refuse to respond to us.”

Mandal said he has instead been contacting drivers whom he had met earlier outside Ola, Uber offices.

“Each time we go to these offices if the device is not working, or to enquire about penalties, we note other drivers’ phone numbers down,” said Mandal.

He added: “In several cars, you will find that drivers keep registers with names and phone numbers of 200-300 other drivers, as well as car owners’ numbers. We do this so that if there is any problem, we can coordinate.”

Drivers’ unions such as Sarvodaya Drivers Association of Delhi are leading demonstrations at Jantar Mantar, a protest space in central Delhi. They are pursuing a demand that Uber compensate the family of the driver who was killed in the January 22 accident. They are also negotiating with the Delhi government transport department for help in pushing the demands they are making of their cab aggregator companies.

Direct communication

Ernesto Noronha, professor of Organisation Behaviour Area at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, pointed out that direct communication between the drivers was driving their push for a change.

Said Noronha: “The idea of an ‘independent’ driver partner, as aggregator companies like to portray it, does not quite work in practice, and most drivers are experiencing the same conditions of maintaining the car as an asset even while earnings are falling.”

Noronha, who researches the Business Process Outsourcing sector, contrasted the tactics of cab aggregator driver partners with those of call centre employees who have largely failed to organise over their work conditions.

“The call center workers think of themselves as middle class and the BPO management tries to impose a cultural value that they are professionals who do not go on strikes or organise like blue collar workers,” said Noronha. “Here, the aggregator companies impart little or no training and have no regular interaction where they can try impose a culture against labour organising.”

What cab companies say

An official with Ola Cabs declined to respond to a questionnaire asking for details on the company’s policy of sharing profits and imposing penalties on their drivers.

He said the strike was being driven by a minority – “10% to 15%” – of all driver partners.

“We are getting regular calls from other driver partners who want to work, but are being obstructed by these minority group of drivers,” said the official. “At this point, government and traffic officials should intervene to protect citizens who are being stopped from using our services.”

The Ola official also did not respond to an allegation made by several drivers that Ola cabs favoured drivers who opted for an offer – started in 2016 – in which Ola was the owner of the car and the drivers earned a monthly stipend. This reporter could not independently verify this claim.

Uber India did not respond to an emailed questionnaire. The company has filed a civil suit in Delhi High Court against Sarvodaya Drivers’ Association of Delhi and Rajdhani Tourist Drivers’ Union, accusing them of blocking cars of drivers who do not wish to take part in the protest. The High Court in an interim order restrained anyone from blocking the taxis.

Update: After this report was published, Ola Cabs issued the following statement in response to an emailed questionnaire:

“Offering a seamless mobility experience has always been our priority. We are concerned about the inconvenience being caused to some of our customers across Delhi-NCR over the last few days. We’d like to reassure them that we are working closely with the local authorities to resolve the issue at the earliest.”

*Names of drivers have been changed on request.