Last month, there was an unusual protest in Colombo. There were no traffic jams, no riot policemen shooting tear gas, and no news alerts. Rather, these protesters had parked their cars and then stood on the pavement in front of Nelum Pokuna. Countless people drove past paying little attention to them, as they stood on the pavement they screamed and held their placards high that read, “ Uber Go Home.”
So exactly who were these protesters?
They were freelance drivers that had signed up with both Uber and PickMe. They were the drivers with minis and sedan cars you’d find on both services. When ReadMe spoke to these drivers, they told us that they were protesting about the introduction of UberZIP.
Launched last month, UberZIP is a new cheaper option offered by the company to get around Colombo. For the regular Uber rider, it meant a cheaper way of travelling from Point A to Point B. However, for the drivers it was bad news. Despite what Uber said about the service offering hatchbacks, UberZIP offers the same vehicles as UberGO.
And this is where the problems with UberZIP begin. The drivers told us that with UberZIP they only earn Rs. 20 per kilometre. Then Uber took 25% of whatever they earned from each fare. As a result, they’ve seen a significant decline in their income. The drivers went onto comment that even trishaws have better rates.
Furthermore, many of these drivers don’t actually own the vehicles they drive. As Dr. Sanjiva Weerawarana – Chief Architect of WSO2 shared on his blog, many of the drivers are hired by the actual owners of the vehicles. As such, the owner of the vehicle could take almost 50% of the driver’s daily earnings as a commission. Ultimately, the drivers are left with very little for themselves.
The drivers that spoke with ReadMe said that they voiced their complaints to the Uber management. But the only response they received was that if they didn’t like it then they could move to another service. However, Uber with its cheaper rates and convenience has taken over the market. As a result, the drivers feel that have very few alternatives to Uber.
And this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The drivers complained that they feel like slaves driving for Uber. This is because sometimes a driver may get a request for a hire that he feels isn’t viable. This is because the rider is too far from the driver and the rider may only want to travel a short distance. And so he rejects it.
But in doing so, the driver is negatively marked and after 5 rejections will be penalized. Even if they accept a ride and it’s later cancelled, they are still marked and can be penalized. In a sense, the drivers said that they are forced to accept hires and drive for Uber.
Ultimately, these drivers took to the streets because they feel the team at the local Uber office is ineffective. Typically, any issue be it major or minor has to be resolved by the teams outside Sri Lanka. As a result, they stated that the local office is ineffective and has very limited powers.
So why not move to another service?
As we mentioned earlier, the drivers stated that there are few viable alternatives to Uber today. One of these alternatives is PickMe. However, nothing is perfect and neither is PickMe.
PickMe too has reduced its prices but this only one of the issues the drivers see. The other key issue they had was the introduction of the Nano category. With the introduction of this new category, many drivers that were previously in the Mini category suddenly found themselves earning less.
Another alternative is Kangaroo Cabs. One of the drivers that ReadMe spoke to said that he had signed up with Kangaroo Cabs.The reason being that Kangaroo only asks drivers to pay a set fee of Rs. 300 everyday rather than asking for commissions from every ride.This he said makes Kangaroo a viable alternative to other other services.
However, besides PickMe and Kangaroo, these drives said there are no alternatives. They shared that with other services such as Sonit Cabs and Budget Taxi, they don’t get enough hires. Thus, the drivers want the government to step in. They want a flat minimum rate to be set for the taxi industry in Sri Lanka.
What has Uber said about this?
In response to many of these claims by the drivers Uber has said, “The future of our business depends on making driving with Uber the most attractive choice. We are committed to provide a great experience for our riders and driver partners alike.” The company went onto dismiss the claims about it ruining that taxi market saying, “This is factually incorrect and speculative in nature.”
However, the company did admit that it does give drivers hires from both UberGO and UberZIP. This was to fulfil the existing demand. Later on, the company plans to feature only Altos and Nanos on UberZIP and UberGO would feature vehicles like the WagonR and Estilo. But what about making these services profitable for the drivers?
In response to the claims from the drivers regarding its rates, Uber said, “Drivers earn money from fares paid by riders, but also from incentives. These incentives vary widely by individual drivers. They are dynamic, as is our business model, and we are constantly seeking to understand, assess and improve both organic earnings (earnings from fares) and our incentives structure.
But with regards to penalizing drivers for rides they reject, the company said, “They decide where, when and how much or little drivers choose to drive. Given the strong demand from riders, we are seeing sustainable earning opportunities for driver partners and are committed to supporting them”
As you can see, many of these responses are standard public relations, which is expected from a company like Uber. But there was one response we got that stood out.
In response to the driver’s claims that every complaint they make to the local office has to be forwarded to the Indian team to be resolved, the company said, “At Uber every city is managed by a strong local team who understand the local nuances and are working hard to ensure a healthy marketplace for riders and driver partners. In addition to this, driver partners are encouraged to visit Uber’s partner support centre in Colombo if they need to discuss concerns or share feedback that are most often addressed by the team in Colombo.”
However, prior to publishing this article, we shared the claims made by the drivers to the local Uber team in Colombo to get the company’s comments. Almost immediately, the local team had forwarded our questions to the team in India. And so, all the responses from Uber in this article came from an Uber spokesperson situated in Bangalore. And this shows exactly how effective and empowered the team in Colombo is to address the grievances of drivers.
So What Now? What’s next?
When Airtel first came to Sri Lanka, they offered free SIM cards and calls at dirt cheap prices. People were lining up at communication shops for these free Airtel SIMs. The TRCSL then stepped in and set a minimum price of Rs. 1 per minute for intra-operator calls and Rs. 2 per minute for inter-operator calls. This was to ensure that Airtel didn’t destroy the telecommunications market, while still leaving space for competition.
Similarly, if Uber keeps dropping its prices, it may benefit as riders in the short-term. However, in the long term it would be unsustainable for anyone to drive a taxi. And in such a nightmarish scenario, we’d all lose.
Yet, despite Uber saying that the future of their business lies on making driving with Uber the most attractive choice, little action has been taken. Ultimately, important that we ensure the drivers that actually run these taxis we rely on earn a decent living. This is because they’re the ones actually providing the service that gets us from Point A to Point B.
Many us often forget this fact and ignore our taxi drivers. Even when they’re out on the streets protesting, we turn a deaf year to their pleas. But to quote Dr. Sanjiva Weerawarana, “But beware; the guy (or gal) is listening and processing everything you say and do”