Deepening Crisis of Olanomics: “You Can’t Beat an App”


  • December 31, 2018
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Few days back, Kolkata Uber and Ola drivers and operators withdrew their vehicles in the middle of the peak holiday season, protesting against severe financial crisis caused due to the predatory business policies of these companies. Many cab drivers burst into spontaneous militant protests across various parts of the city, preventing other cabs from operating. There were also reports of some vehicles being damaged, and passengers being asked to get off. Part One of this GroundXero coverage was a brief account of the financial crisis that the cab operators are dealing with. In this concluding part, we report on punishments and trickeries engineered from behind the smokescreen of an “App”, harassment by customers high on the entitlement to convenience, and role of the Government and online cab operators organisations in negotiating with this crisis.

 

 

Punishments, Trickeries and a Bloody “App”

Many drivers and operators have repeatedly complained about their IDs being suspended by the companies – both Uber and Ola – based on complaints filed by customers. Some of them even alleged that many times it’s not even clear if there is a complaint at all behind the blocking of their IDs. ID can even be blocked if a driver gets consistent low ratings from the passengers, for whatever reasons. Many have had their IDs suspended for months, some allegedly even up to 6 months at a stretch.

 

There is no clearly formulated process which tells you how to unblock your ID. You basically have to make enough number of rounds, and wait for the benevolence of the company. It’s completely arbitrary

 

“My ID has been blocked 4 times by now. Every time I asked the Ola office here, the person at the counter says they don’t know anything, these things are dealt from the central office in cities like Mumbai or Bangalore. I don’t even know where the central office really is. In the Calcutta office, when we go for any such thing, they give us a token, and make us wait, sometimes for the entire day. I lose an entire day’s earning, and many times only to again go back the next day. My family waited that day expecting I would bring back 500 rupees home, but in fact I had to spend 500 from my pocket. My home is in Santoshpur. I had to bring back the empty car from Ballygunj PS (Ola regional office) to Santoshpur [9 kms], burning my own fuel. There is no clearly formulated process which tells you how to unblock your ID. You basically have to make enough number of rounds, and wait for the benevolence of the company. It’s completely arbitrary,” said one of the Ola drivers who had queued up in the TMC-run Online Cab Operators’ Guild office in Tollygunj. The drivers even alleged of the constant presence of “bouncers” in “black dresses” in the regional office. “They don’t let more than 10 of us enter the office at a time. We are treated extremely rudely. We are always scared, because we have everything at stake,” one of them said.

 

The companies usually offer a bonus (or “incentive”) if the vehicle completes a certain minimum number of trips in a certain time period. But according to allegations, IDs begin to get blocked as the vehicle gets close to completing the minimum requirement. Vehicles with their IDs blocked cannot operate till the IDs are reactivated, and thus miss the “incentive”. The drivers have no way to check if there is a customer’s complain at all behind the suspension of his ID, or the contents of the complaint even if there is one. “When we ask them for such details, they either tell us we are not supposed to get that info, or they say this is handled by their main office and the regional office can’t do anything about it. They might even get their own people to file complaints if needed. We have no way to check. There is no administrative officer who is ultimately responsible for all this, who could be held accountable. There is nothing official about anything. The software decides everything,” they said. “It is a regular practice for the companies to dissuade the drivers/owners to get the incentive. If the incentive offer is km based, they will give you shorter trips as you move closer to completing the required quota. If it is trip based then you won’t be provided trips,” said Sandip Saha, one of the vehicle owners, who had to finally sell off his car. “It was unsustainable. If I had to continue, I’d had to pay from my own pocket,” he said.

 

 

GroundXero tried visiting the Uber regional office in Kolkata on Thursday to get the company’s reactions to some of the allegations. But their office was closed for the entire day. “They are just scared. This Monday, they blocked my ID, so I went to their Ballygunj office. It’s basically 3 people sitting at a counter inside a mobile store in the Lake Mall. I went and queued up at 1 in the afternoon. They kept us waiting till 3. After that they asked us to go have lunch, saying they also would also have lunch meanwhile. After a while when we went back in, we saw the counter was closed, and no one was there. They literally fled through the back door while we were having lunch outside,” said one of the vehicle owners.

 

The Uber and Ola Apps have a provision for the driver to choose a so-called “Home location”. The idea was that these would be the points centered around which their trips would be assigned. Earlier it was possible to choose a home location at any point of the day depending on your convenience. Later they changed it to only after 10 in the night. “This means if someone at your home falls sick, or if there is an emergency, you won’t be able to come back, unless you are ready to come back with an empty vehicle. Also, say you have chosen Tollygunj as your home location. They might still give you a trip from Airport to Sinthi. Which means, to come to your ‘home location’, you will have to come through Sinthi, instead of the direct route from Airport to Tollygunj. They know that I would rather wait at Sinthi, with the hope that I get a booking from there to somewhere close to Tollygunj. Someone else whose home location is Sinthi, will be given a booking this side, for the same reason. This is their way to ensure that we don’t get to take a break from our driving schedule, we don’t get to go home, or anything like that. Home location is meant to be a mechanism to ensure that you are close to the area you live in, so that you are available for your other personal needs. This is their way to prevent that from happening,” alleged Mr. Banerjee. “The App is in full control, we don’t understand what goes on inside it, we can’t ignore it, we can’t negotiate with it. Every now and then new features are introduced that the common driver doesn’t understand, and new ways of robbing us are invented through the damn software,” he adds.

 

The App is the only investment these companies have made. They don’t own a single vehicle. They have only a few employees. They don’t even have a proper office or administrative setup. They have no maintenance costs. It is just one App, and nothing else, and we are all caught in it.

 

“The App is the only investment these companies have made. They don’t own a single vehicle. They have only a few employees. They don’t even have a proper office or administrative setup. They have no maintenance costs. It is just one App, and nothing else, and we are all caught in it,” one of the drivers said. “The only way left for us is to thrash the company people! But then, these companies have no people as well, it’s only the App! You can’t beat up an App,” said another.

 

 

The only way left for us is to thrash the company people! But then, these companies have no people as well, it’s only the App! You can’t beat up an App

 

Harassment from App-happy customers

Few days back when a section of Ola and Uber drivers took to the streets of Kolkata, prevented some of the vehicles from running, even damaged a few vehicles that insisted on running, the local mainstream media went up in arms about the “inconvenience faced by the passengers”. The drivers however had a different story to tell about their passengers and their sense of entitlement to “convenience”. From arbitrary cancellations by customers while the vehicle is on the way to pick-up, to verbal harassment, to parts of the car being stolen and damaged, to the threat of filing arbitrary complaints if the driver does not comply with unjust demands – the list runs long. “I had to burn all that fuel to drive from Sakherbazar to Unique Park, and then the booking gets canceled. This money I have to pay from my pocket. My labour went to waste. Who pays for this labour?” asked one Ola driver. “Customers file complains when we refuse to take arbitrary amounts of luggage, or refuse to take more than 4 people – something that is not even allowed according to traffic laws. There have been customers who have complained because I did not have change for a 2000 rupees note!” one of them mentioned. The companies allegedly do not conduct investigations into the complaints. “They straightaway block my ID. Even if they don’t, since there is a complaint in your name, you are supposed to call them to clarify what has happened. Everything is machine operated. You will have to wait for 10-15 minutes on the customer care call on an average. Meanwhile if bookings come, you can’t respond since you are on the call. Bookings get canceled. Once this happens for a few times, surely your ID is going to be blocked. And once that happens, till your ID is unblocked, you can’t work anymore,” said Jhontu Mondal, the Ola cab owner-cum-driver. Once the ID is suspended, the vehicle owner is expected to make rounds of the company office or just wait. “It’s funny how the customer’s complaint is taken so seriously, whereas the driver’s complain about a customer is hardly ever entertained. Which is weird because, the vehicle is mine, I am driving it, the labour is mine!” said one person. Customers frequently demand a pick up literally from their doorstep, even if that involves taking the vehicle into narrow lanes that might damage the vehicle. “If he had his own vehicle, he would never have taken it into such a narrow lane. My car got bruised and I had to pay up to get it repaired. Now if you refuse to comply in such situations, they file a complain,” we were told.

 

While the customer has all details of the driver through the App and can file even police complaints, the driver has no identification proof of the customer, and can do nothing in cases of harassment from the customer.

 

Recent protests in Mumbai. Source: Internet

 

Customers file complains when we refuse to take arbitrary amounts of luggage, or refuse to take more than 4 people – something that is not even allowed according to traffic laws. There have been customers who have complained because I did not have change for a 2000 rupees note!

 

The Government and the “Unions”

The biggest organisation of the online cab owners and drivers in the city is the ruling party’s West Bengal Online Cab Operators’ Guild, with more than 5000 registered members. The Guild had given a call for a strike, as reported in the media, but soon after spontaneous protests by cab operators broke out, they quickly withdrew their call for strike. GX spoke with Mr. Indranil Banerjee, Convenor of the Guild, about the recent protests by the cab owners and drivers. “Two days ago when some of our representatives and around 200 members went to the Uber office in Salt Lake, they forced us out with the help of the police. Because of the outrage, few members said they won’t be driving. But our president, Madan Mitra told us, we cannot stop the service as this is festive season. Some people started spreading violence spontaneously. These weren’t our people, they are not connected to us directly.” he said. Madan Mitra is a TMC strongman and ex-Minister who had been jailed because of his involvement in the chit fund scam. The Guild, according to Mr. Banerjee, has demanded that the bookings be given within a radius of 2 km, the driver be given the option to cancel the booking without incurring extra charges.

 

Our president, Madan Mitra told us, we cannot stop the service as this is festive season. Some people started spreading violence spontaneously. These weren’t our people, they are not connected to us directly. As our president is a leader of a ruling party, we won’t go against our honorable CM – Convenor, West Bengal Online Cab Operators’ Guild

 

“We are also demanding that the operators are paid ₹18.75 per km, at par with the [traditional] AC taxis,” he said. He also alleged that there are discrepancies between the actual fuel burnt because of traffic conditions etc, and the fare charged based on the Google maps data, and said that the extra cost of fuel is borne by the drivers themselves. “There are around 30k to 40k cars in Ola and Uber today in the city, much more than what is required. The companies therefore don’t really have to care about the cab operators,” he added. On their future plans, Mr. Banerjee said, “We are not calling for a strike, we never really did. We don’t want the general people to face inconvenience, like Madan da has already mentioned,” he said. “As our president is a leader of a ruling party, we won’t go against our honorable CM. But if people aren’t able to take out their vehicles, we cannot force them,” he added. On the role of the State Government in all this, he said, “The state government said that this is a private company and it is their policy.” We said that the society is being affected. Ola and Uber have become a lifeline for us and for the customer as well. We think the Government should get involved and some law should be drafted. On being asked whether there are other unions in the city that organise the online cab operators and drivers, he said, “When you have a Union affiliated to the ruling party, led by a name like Madan da, there cannot be any scope for any other Union.” Back in the Guild office in Kalighat, one of the drivers who had queued up for a Guild membership in the hope that “Madan da” would do something about his hardship, said candidly, “Aami kintu shoja chhele dada. Aaj mastaan hoye gelaam, ki aar korbo? [I am a simple guy brother. But today I am signing up to become a goon, what else can I do?]”.

 

 

GX later spoke to a small group of activists who are also involved in organising a section of the Ola/Uber drivers, called the People’s Brigade. While critiquing the TMC led Guild for betraying the issues of the drivers and vehicle owners by not supporting the spontaneous protests, they said however it is difficult to organise people since there is no fixed workspace or working area. “There is no written contract, no legal papers between the driver and the company. The only ‘contract’ is through the App which has no legal validity. Even the customer has no transparency regarding the charges and entitlements, it’s all opaque,” said one of the representatives from the organisation. They alleged that the TMC Guild takes ₹100 as subscription per month from each registered member, but makes no commitments when it comes to responding to their issues. “The customer is paying more, the driver is getting less. The ‘middleman’ corporation in between is eating off all the profit,” he added. “If the government can fix the rates of the traditional yellow taxi, why can’t it fix the rates for online cabs?” he asked.

 

Aami kintu shoja chhele dada. Aaj mastaan hoye gelaam, ki aar korbo? [I am a simple guy brother. But today I am signing up to become a goon, what else can I do?]

 

The People’s Brigade Online Cab Drivers and Operators Committee alleged that TMC Guild leader Partha Sen threatened them in person against trying to organise the cab drivers. “He also threatened the drivers asking them not to attend our meetings,” the PB representative told GX. The Committee has put forth a set of ten demands including the right of drivers and operators to be part of tripartite negotiations with the Government and companies in fixation of fares and other benefits, 8-hour working day for the drivers, guarantee of minimum wage for skilled labour, ban on arbitrary ID suspensions, fixed areas of operation for each vehicle, compensation in the case of accidents, etc. “The conspiracy of the TMC Guild in first calling a strike and then withdrawing it, is as a personal leadership bargaining tactic within the party at the cost of the cab drivers. They are now exposed. The city will soon witness an organised struggle of the online cab operators and drivers,” claimed one of their statements.

 

 

Photos are from the Internet.

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