Your Uber Will Be Striking Shortly

People

Your Uber Will Be Striking Shortly

Illustration: Akshita Monga

T

he city of Mumbai woke up to an unusual sight on Monday morning. Its normally congested streets were oddly empty, and motorists were driving to work with expressions both confused and happy. The reason for this modern miracle was a nationwide strike by drivers of Uber and Ola cabs, over demands for better salaries and management from the two companies.

As commuters with the privilege to summon a driver at our fingertips, we consider it our birthright to complain. We are used to going off on frequent rants about how terrible app cab drivers are – how they’re always late, how they can never find the destination, how they can’t read maps, or how rude they can be. But today’s strike is a reminder of the humanity of the people behind the wheel. Your Uber drivers are people too, and just like you, they’ve had it with the app.

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A few days before the strike began, I booked an uberPOOL trip and was picked up by Rajesh K*. I had the misfortune of sharing my trip with a snooty co-passenger who insisted on being dropped right to the gate of a crowded station on a busy street. My driver protested, but with the spectre of a bad rating looming, had to finally relent. After spending almost half an hour stewing in traffic to drop off Her Highness, the frustration Rajesh felt toward his job was palpable.

Who could blame him? If we shed our self-centred perspective and think about the drivers for a change, we can see how they’ve been let down by the company they work for.

Thousands of drivers signed up with the app when it launched in Bangalore in 2013. Over the next twelve months, Uber expanded to 11 Indian cities, making it the second largest network after the US at the time. The app was presented as a more stylish and luxurious alternative to public transport, and it used celebrities like Anil Kapoor and Raghu Dixit to thrust itself into consumers’ consciousness. Reeled in by the tempting offer of deciding his own working hours, and driving an AC vehicle in Mumbai’s heat, Rajesh and so many others bit the bullet and signed up as Uber drivers in 2014.

“Four years ago I heard about Uber. The incentives being offered were so attractive that I pawned off my wife’s ornaments to get a loan to buy three vehicles. Biggest mistake of my life,” Rajesh told me. “Now, I drive 16 hours a day to pay off those loans. At the end of the day, I go home, splash water on my face, drink a glass of water, and sleep. There is no urge or energy to eat dinner. All this, because I have loans to pay. In fact, I am going to my village next month to sell my land and pay off my loans.”

“Uber has tricked all its drivers,” said Rajesh, reflecting on his ordeal.

Rajesh’s grievances are echoed in the demands of the striking drivers. The strike was called for by the transportation wing of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. “Ola and Uber had given big assurances to the drivers, but today they are unable to cover their costs. They have invested five to seven lakh rupees and were expecting to make back 1.5 lakh a month. But drivers are unable to make even half of this because of the mismanagement by these companies,” said the president of the body, Sanjay Naik.

In addition to declining profits, drivers also have to deal with the fallout of bad publicity, like the 2014 case of an Uber driver raping his passenger, which hurts their business. Add to this competition from similar services like Ola, as well as the existing network of public transportation, and the Uber dream so many drivers bought into, starts resembling a nightmare.

“Uber has tricked all its drivers,” said Rajesh, reflecting on his ordeal. “We are earning nothing on the Uber platform. All the incentives have disappeared. Drivers have realised that Uber lured them with incentives in the beginning just so that it could have a large fleet ready on the road. After I pay off my loans, I am not going to sell these cars as cars. I am going to break them and sell them as scrap metal for they have wrecked my life.

Uber has come under fire internationally for underpaying drivers, with CEO Travis Kalanick caught on camera in one of his company’s car, ranting at a driver. Combined with workplace scandals, including allegations of widespread sexual harassment and a toxic culture, Uber’s fall from grace has been as swift as its rise.

I thought about Rajesh this morning when the strike made me try to figure out a bus route to my office. There have been other strikes before in the past, but they’ve all fizzled out as the drivers eventually realise their daily earnings are the first to suffer. Rajesh and his peers need to be able to find a solution to their troubles before their bills begin piling up.

For today though, I hope he’s sitting on his couch for 16 hours a day, and forgoing the single glass of water for a real dinner.

* Name changed to protect privacy.

Edited by Dushyant Shekhawat.

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