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Unrest in India’s Gig Economy: Ola-Uber Drivers’ Strikes and Worker Organisation

Drivers of Uber and Ola, the two biggest cab-aggregator platforms in India, have been increasingly taking to the streets in protest citing mounting unsustainability of incomes and the overall degradation of work. Amidst their growing frustrations, a landmark strike was called in Mumbai late last year that showed how a successful mode of labour struggle can be built with platform workers at its centre. Reports at the time documented how most of the existing fleet of cabs from the two platforms went off the roads, supported by several opposition parties and unions, affecting tens of thousands of daily urban middle-class commuters, and forcing the two companies to enter negotiations. The strike was suspended only after the state government intervened and brokered a revised fare structure pegged to hikes in fuel prices. Since then, several more strike actions of platform cab drivers have taken place across the country. The strikes signal that the gig economy in developing nations such as India is heading towards a new phase of consolidation that is likely to further deepen the lines of contestation between platform labour, capital and the state.

The Driver Workforce and its Discontents

In India, platform-based cab-driving, much like cab-driving in general, is dominated by male workers. Many do not own the cabs they drive, but are rather employed by corporations or by local elites and paid a monthly wage. These drivers face an imminent double squeeze, where apart from being forced to share a significant proportion of their incomes with ride-hailing companies and actual car owners, they are also responsible for bearing operational expenses and overheads such as fuel and maintenance costs. In recent years, however, there has been an apparent spike in the category of cab ‘owner-drivers’ from less well-off sections of India’s population. Indeed, one of the key issues that arose in the strikes was that many new ‘owner-drivers’ had taken up cars on loan just to join the platform, often encouraged by ride-hailing companies to do so, and were finding it increasingly difficult to pay them down.

At the heart of drivers’ discontent lies the much-vaunted venture capital-fuelled business model of global tech companies and start-ups, glorified originally by e-commerce giants Amazon, and eulogised recently by Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi as promoting the companies’ ‘growth over profit ethos’. Since their inception, both Ola and Uber have regularly infused new capital to incentivise drivers and customers with monetary rewards, downplaying the need to break even in the short-run. Over the years, this subsidised pricing strategy, together with the convenience of last-mile connectivity of their service, have made Ola and Uber widely popular amongst India’s urban and affluent middle-class populations. Uber and Ola maintain that they have met a hitherto unfulfilled need and have achieved a healthy co-existence with other local transport providers in the local context. However, there is some evidence to show that Ola and Uber have priced out traditional taxicab-operators in some cities, and have adversely affected other ‘non-cab’ transport operators like ‘Auto-Rickshaw’ and ‘E-Rickshaws’. This is an associated problem, since cab-hailing cannot be an alternative to the development of, and investment in more diverse and affordable means of public transport for last-mile connectivity, which are not purely car-based or limited to the more affluent middle classes.

Moreover, while ride-hailing platforms have been hailed by companies as providing a modern and rewarding source of entrepreneurial employment, in reality the incomes for drivers on the platforms have been rapidly diminishing. In their most recent phase of business consolidation, Ola and Uber have been seeking to cut down incentives for drivers in India, even as both continue to exact commissions to the tune of 25 to 35 per cent. This restructuring has hit drivers hard. Base fares have continued to be low and have become more untenable especially in a time of burgeoning fuel prices in India. Drivers have been complaining that there is also little reflection of benefits of ‘surge pricing’ on their earnings, and these accrue to companies rather than benefiting them. Cumulatively speaking, there have been reports that average driver earnings have fallen by over 50 per cent from the heyday three to four years ago. Back then, drivers were being assured high monthly earnings of more than INR 100000 (about £1000), considered highly lucrative in the national Indian context. 

Diminishing incomes have been accompanied by greater pressures of work intensification and extensification through the app-based gamification of work. Drivers have found it hard to earn enough working regular hours, as this does not always guarantee a decent living wage. In effect the current wage incentive structure followed by the ride-sharing companies enables them to ‘withhold wages’ for those who work less hours and rewards those who work more. Consequently, many drivers, completely dependent on this form of employment for their livelihoods, often end-up working extremely long hours, doing shifts of up to 16 hours a day. They face increasing health and safety risks induced by exertion and fatigue. Meanwhile, both Ola and Uber have largely avoided obligations to bear social insurance costs associated with their drivers-partners, considering them to be ‘micro entrepreneurs’ rather than workers. Drivers have also widely complained of the inadequate provisioning of holidays, even in the case of sickness and family emergencies and of arbitrary ejections from the platform, often without being provided adequate notice or justifications. This is on top of the physical risks and dangers of working as cab driver in India. To cite Sarvodaya Driver’s Association of Delhi, 19 cab drivers were murdered in the national capital last year alone while at work, even as several faced harassments at the hands of both customers and the local police. 

Strength in Numbers

The organisation of Uber and Ola drivers in India has been a gradual phenomenon. During the early years of their existence, ideas of organisation were considered unlikely to gain traction amongst drivers, and traditional unions hardly made a dent. Many drivers also saw driving for Ola and Uber as a ‘novel’ profession that represented a brand-new service culture which was flexible yet high paying. In fact, early on, Ola and Uber drivers often found themselves pitted against traditional taxicab drivers’ associations and unions across different cities in India, as the two platform companies were viewed as evading local transport regulations and pricing out local players. However, so radical has been the platforms’ overall impact on the transport sector that within a few years of their introduction, drivers associated with Ola and Uber have become one of the most identifiable urban transport ‘workforces’ across Indian cities. As of 2018, Ola estimated that it had about 1 million ‘driver-partners’ globally – most of them located in India, with Uber not far behind, boasting similar numbers in the country. In terms of its geographical spread within India, Ola claims to be present in as many as 103 cities, whilst Uber is present in 28.

Even as the number of Ola and Uber cabs have grown nationally, new dynamics of contestation have emerged. Some of the initial Ola/Uber drivers’ protests can be traced back to 2013. However, these were more sporadic expressions of discontent, limited in number and locations, and often directed at the local government, transport unions and police than the companies themselves. But as the Ola and Uber fleet has expanded, drivers’ strikes have become more common, more organised and more cohesive across the country and have targeted the two companies head-on. Two strikes of note took place in 2017, both called nationally but centring on action in the Delhi-national capital region (NCR). These strikes were led by the Sarvodaya Drivers’ Association of Delhi (SDAD) – one of the biggest drivers collective in the capital, which claims it can call upon the support of 150,000 drivers in Delhi and adjoining regions, with the additional backing of some local taxi and auto rickshaw unions. One of the strikes went on for 13 days and was successful in getting the Delhi government and Ola management to the table and have them agree to their demands related to better fare pricing in the city. March 2018 again saw coordinated strikes across several large metropolitan centres including Mumbai, New Delhi, Bengaluru and Chennai over several days with reportedly one million drivers taking part. In Mumbai, a city with a longer history of labour organisation and strikes, Ola and Uber drivers pulled support from traditional unions with mass membership bases in the city. This was clear as the strike action of March 2017 that came to be led by the Marathi Kamgar Sena (MKS), a union affiliated to the right-wing Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). Whereas, another strike action lasting several days, over October and November 2018, was fronted by representatives from the Maharashtra Rashtriya Rajya Kamgar Sangh (MRRKS), the union associated with the centrist National Congress Party (NCP), which boasts large presence among urban and rural middle classes as well as backward social caste groups. Some of the local politicians of the Indian National Congress (INC), the main opposition party at the centre, were also seen speaking vocally on the issue of drivers’ rights.

A key factor behind the recent successful organization of drivers of Ola and Uber in India is that they now have numbers behind them, a critical mass required to make a more resounding impact. Overall, as many as 15 major Ola-Uber drivers’ strikes were recorded between 2016 and 2018 in India – most of these in the larger metro cities in India, but some also increasingly in smaller cities, not to mention the credible strike threats that have also become more common. In the case of the recent strikes in Mumbai, it emerged that many traditional taxi operators – also known as the Kaleepeeli (black-yellow) cab drivers – had joined a ride-hailing platform in a bid to diversify their incomes, and showed ample readiness to organise. The impact of the Mumbai strike could be gauged from some reports that claimed that about 90 per cent of cabs were halted during peak periods of the strike, sending out a strong statement to companies to come to talks and accede to the key demands. Another example of a location which has seen pugnacious protests by Ola and Uber drivers is the city of Hyderabad in Telangana, known for the large presence of multinational IT companies and professionals who are dependent on Ola and Uber for their daily commutes. The unions there claim to have the support of over 50,000 drivers, having the capacity to disrupt operations of the entire IT economy in the city on any given day. Recently, the Ola-Uber drivers in the city joined other taxi unions and public transport workers, demanding an increase in the base fare along with the re-instatement of retrenched state-run public transport corporation employees.

Learning from the picket line

An industry study from E&Y, estimates that nearly one out of four online gig workers in the world are from India. Politics and policies associated with the gig economy in India are going to have significant ramifications in the wider world. Overall, strikers across different Indian cities have been making similar demands as drivers in other parts of the world, and whilst there are differences in modes of organisation arising from local factors and histories, there are also opportunities for gig workers in different places to learn from each other’s struggles. Indeed, the recent Assembly Bill 5 passed into law in California, forcing companies like Uber and Lyft to reclassify drivers as employees, now exists as a precedent for Indian gig workers’ unions, activists and lawmakers to argue in favour of and follow.

India remains an important market for Ola, Uber and other transport-aggregator platform companies, given the rising demand for these services among the country’s urban middle classes. This market is expected to expand even more in the coming years, with the addition of new ‘e-rides’ and ‘bike-hailing services’ targeting a wider range of lower middle-classes in the country. Meanwhile, with the expansion of its market, strikes too have become more common. In recent times, ‘Tier-2’ and ‘Tier-3’ urban centres in India like Kochi, Chandigarh, Jaipur have witnessed cab driver strike, even as allied food-delivery platforms associated with the likes of Uber-Eats, Swiggy and Zomato have also started to organise in some cities.

Importantly, Ola and Uber cab drivers’ strikes in India have been effective in busting some of the myths about platform companies and the generous narratives of sustained high incomes and work quality. Through their strikes, cab drivers have been able to distinguish their position as ‘service providers’ vis-à-vis the middle-class ‘users’ of platform services and companies as powerful ‘intermediaries’ between them, while also finding allies among other new services workers. Strikes have also necessitated more government intervention and political mediation, as seen in more serious involvement from the ruling and opposition parties and some traditional unions at the state level, as they recognise this new segment of workers both as a potential votary and a disrupter. The strike in Mumbai, for instance, had the Chief Minister of the State talking about introducing a single cab-aggregator app in the city to make the markets more transparent for both drives and commuters, mitigating the growing mistrust of platform companies and their opaque pricing practices. While little has been heard of this since, it’s ideas such as these that need sustained political perusal.

There is a long way to go to ensure that the interests of drivers and gig economy workers are taken care of. There are many avenues to be explored, including in legislation. A draft code bill on social security is waiting to be passed in the Indian parliament, which will extend social security, including life and disability insurance, health and maternity benefits among other things, to gig workers. How comprehensive or robust the final bill will be, remains to be seen, and if the recent Wages Code introduced by the central government earlier this year is anything to go by, then it may well fall short of expectations. Meanwhile, Ola-Uber drivers’ strikes in India have shown new modes of organisation in the global South that will sustain their struggles in the future. They will likely be emulated as the gig economy expands.

Aditya Ray is a Research Fellow at The Open University

Image credit: Jorge Royan via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)