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OP-ED: The uncanny profiteers

  • Published at 01:39 am October 11th, 2021

Are ride-hailing platforms exploiting its workers?

A few days ago, on September 28, a post on social media caught my attention: A person posted on a social media group, “Why is the cost of Uber exuberantly high today?” One person replied to the query: “The ride-hailing platform workers have called for a strike today.”

On the same post, others also commented about the tendencies of the ride-hailing drivers who, after receiving a request, allegedly ask about the destination and cancel the ride if they do not want to go there.

Other problems that have recently got media attention about the ride-hailing drivers include: Inexperienced drivers who are not proficient in navigating online maps, many who are not welcoming to digital payment, and so on. These are somewhat valid points, but the ride-hailing platforms present all these “expectations” to the customers/passengers as part of their service. Contrarily, the ride-hailing drivers have many complaints about the platforms’ business practices and government regulations.

Astoundingly, the main problem for the customers/passengers is the drivers, and the drivers demand a worker-friendly policy from the government. But the platform operators or owners remain out of the tug-of-war. The platforms get enormous benefits, but they could position themselves to be free of many responsibilities to both the workers (drivers) and customers (passengers).

As per their business model, the digital ride-hailing platforms serve as a medium of contract between consumers and those able and willing to work freelance. For instance, the ride-hailing platforms enable those having a car to share the ride with someone for payment while travelling towards a destination. By sharing, both get the benefit.

In theory, it works well for both parties, ie, drivers and passengers. In place of coming to work every weekday and following orders, drivers enjoy flexibility and predictable pay. And people can request rides without having to maintain a full-time driver or a vehicle. As more people, ie, drivers and passengers, sign up, the platforms become an efficient medium of exchange. But the reality for the drivers is far different.

One of the unique ingenuities of the platform economy is that the “employees”, ie, the drivers -- who work on the ride-hailing platform -- hardly receive any on-the-job training and must invest in the tools and equipment, i.e., vehicles. Ride-hailing platforms do not supply or protect any such investments. This is an important aspect, as investment risks shift to the individual from the organization. 

In this system, the workers are more vulnerable to exploitation as the customers could sometimes refrain from using the services. And like many other service sector providers -- ride-hailing platforms also follow a “customer is always right” approach. Hence, many of the workers of the ride-hailing services are stressed and sometimes penalized unduly.

In a Facebook group of ride-hailing workers, one worker shared his recent feedback from the ridesharing company. One passenger complained that he requested him (the passenger) to cancel a trip, and thus, he received a warning to maintain the ride-hailing company’s service guidelines. Otherwise, they would suspend his account. Similarly, another driver received a notice for cancelling trips on digital payments.

Besides, many are forced to work for several platforms to earn enough as their share of the payment is exceptionally low. However, ride-hailing platforms give incentives and persuade drivers to work longer hours to gain popularity and an edge over competing companies. With provisions of benefits with increased numbers of services provided within a timeframe, the platforms coercively engage workers to drive for long hours. 

Overall, their business model results in the absolute increase of surplus labour time for the ride-hailing platforms. The more a platform is being used, the more profit is generated for the platform owners, as they earn a 25% share/commission of the total fare of any ride.

Workers are treated as if they are into a zero-hour employment contract. As a result, they endure a lack of fair share, inflexibility, no fringe benefits, and occupational safety and health risks in the long run. They are also more stressed because of constant evaluation and rating of their service by the passengers. Moreover, ride-hailing platforms use a pyramid scheme-like approach to hiring more workers in their system. From time to time, the existing drivers receive an offer for referring new drivers to the platform. For example: If a driver refers a “friend” -- who, after signing up to the platform, completes 15 trips within 15 days -- the referrer will get Tk2000 as a referral bonus. 

It appears that ride-hailing workers are denied rights and benefits on many fronts, and their plight is undeniable. In a recent event, a rider had set his bike on fire, allegedly protesting harassment by the police. Once the news of this event became viral, a news presenter asked Fahim Ahmed, president of Pathao, to share his opinion about the possible reasons for such an act. What he said in response was very surprising.

He made three points: Firstly, he claimed Pathao to be the biggest ride-hailing service and said that they had given good services to the people and created thousands of jobs or earning opportunities for the youth. Secondly, they had also taken initiatives to ensure that their riders had valid driving licenses, vehicle registration, and BRTA enlistment certificates. And lastly, that they quickly addressed any grievances of the rider or the passenger with the help of authorities and law enforcement agencies. However, he remained silent about issues the drivers/riders demanded every day and claimed he did not have enough information on the said events. Instead, he pointed towards workers’ alleged bypassing of the platform -- which would require tracking the trips and aiding the users if needed. Nonetheless, the problem of the drivers/riders, ie, a low share of income, that forced them to ride in an on-the-spot contract was wholly ignored.

Structural inequalities ensued by a neoliberal capitalist approach to the economy appear normal in the business model of the ride-hailing platforms -- the uncanny profiteers.

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka. Currently, he works as a research fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden University, the Netherlands.

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