These drivers are in a dilemma: Either they expose themselves to COVID-19, or face the wrath of loan sharks and impending financial distress.

An Uber driver checking the maps on the appImage for representation/ Source: Uber Newsroom
Delve Cab drivers Thursday, August 20, 2020 - 13:47

When Ola and Uber cabs resumed post the lockdown, it came as a sigh of relief for lakhs of drivers dependent on these auto and cab services, who had been out of income for over 2 months. But this relief was short lived. These drivers are now in a dilemma: Either they expose themselves to the risk of getting COVID-19, or they face the wrath of loan sharks and impending financial distress. Several drivers have also now tested positive for the coronavirus.

Suresh*, an Ola/Uber driver in Hyderabad says that once services resumed around June, the number of bookings came down drastically, and most of these few bookings are passengers going to or returning from hospitals. “We cannot tell whether a person has COVID or not when they get into the cab. And most often it's an emergency so we cannot even deny them service. But our health is at risk. I cannot even give up and sit at home because I have two small kids to educate, house rent to pay and most importantly the vehicle EMI. I cannot afford to sit at home,” he says.

Drivers test positive

Last week, Suresh tested positive for the coronavirus and has been in home quarantine ever since. He claims that he wasn’t even informed by Ola or Uber that he could avail insurance and hasn’t received any support from them.

“They don’t care about us drivers. They only care whether we took booking, how many we cancelled and ways they can penalise us. I’ve been driving for them for almost 5 years, and even during the lockdown, I didn’t receive any support from them, not even a single phone call,” he claims.

Raju*, another driver who recovered from COVID-19 a few days ago claims that Ola and Uber have not given them adequate safety equipment to be able to sanitise his vehicle regularly.

“They resumed cab services but are not doing anything for our safety. I once had a COVID patient get in my cab and I only found out he had COVID because he forgot his test reports inside the cab. Why would anyone reveal they are sick when they sit in the cab? We have to suffer eventually. When I saw the report, I tried calling the customer, but he turned his phone off. Within days, I got a fever and tested positive. I was in home quarantine for over a month because I couldn’t afford going to the hospital,” Raju says, who also didn’t receive any information from Ola or Uber about insurance.

Ola, on its part, announced in March that drivers and their spouses would be covered in case they get COVID-19 by a floater sum of Rs 30,000 under which they can receive a compensation of Rs 1000 per day for a maximum of 21 days for an individual from the date of a positive diagnosis. This will include hospital and home quarantine prescribed by a qualified medical practitioner, as approved by the government norms. “Drivers can make a claim for this compensation for themselves and (or) their spouse by providing appropriate medical documents,” it said.

Uber had announced that rolled out a Hospital Cash Insurance policy to benefit select driver partners, and cover COVID-19 and other illnesses that need hospitalization, for up to 14 days.

Shaik Salauddin, Chairman of Telangana State Taxi and Drivers JAC says that these cab companies have only announced insurance but haven’t told drivers how to avail it and there is nothing given in writing to drivers to go and claim at hospitals. “Ask drivers and see. Who knows about this insurance and how to avail it? Is there a card or anything in writing given? No. Ola and Uber want drivers to drive during the pandemic, but they didn’t even safeguard them,” he says.

Lack of adequate safety equipment

Ola and Uber drivers were out of work for over two months post the first lockdown. When cab services resumed, Ola and Uber announced that cabs will be equipped with the highest standard of safety measures including sanitisers and masks for drivers and regular cleaning of cars.

But drivers claim that they haven’t received anything more than a small bottle of sanitiser and a mask.

Tanveer Pasha, president of Ola Uber Drivers and Owners’ Association in Bengaluru, says that only about 500-1000 vehicles in the city have been given a plastic sheet to fit in. “These are not even installed properly and don’t even seem safe. It's more of a show to customers that Ola/Uber is safe, but in reality, drivers are working in highly unsafe conditions,” he says.

Tanveer says that there are only 3-4 fumigation centres in Bengaluru set up by Ola, which only do water washing of cars twice a week and given how big the city is, drivers are forced to travel 15-20kms sometimes only to get their vehicle washed.

Uber, on the other hand, has set up sanitisation hubs  in Delhi, Chhatrapati Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Pune airports.

Praveen*, a driver from Bengaluru, says that Ola is offering sanitisation only once every 2-3 days, which doesn’t suffice. “They didn’t give us proper safety gear. They are sanitising vehicles only once in 2-3 days, but if I am taking about 4 passengers in a day, and one of them has COVID, I cannot wait for another day or two to go to their centre to sanitise my vehicle, completely right? As a result of this so many drivers have tested positive,” Praveen claims.

While Shaik Salauddin claims that thousands of drivers in Hyderabad have tested positive, Tanveer claims that 2-3 drivers in Bengaluru have even lost their lives to the virus.

All the drivers TNM spoke to said that Ola and Uber are very difficult to reach, especially during emergency situations. While Uber doesn’t have a support number, Ola has an in-app partner support line that drivers can use to reach the company.

Suresh claims that Ola’s driver support number in the app only addresses technical issues and connecting to them also sometimes takes at least 15-20 minutes, and customers won’t wait that long. Offices of these companies too, drivers claim, never entertain their issues.

Despite the risk of contracting COVID-19, the desperate need for an income and livelihood is forcing them to continue working for long hours amid the pandemic. Several drivers have EMIs to pay and the incessant calls from banks and financiers is increasing pressure on them, forcing them to work despite the health risks.

Suresh says that the finance company he took a loan from has been harassing him for EMI payments and claims that they refused to offer a moratorium beyond May. He has an EMI of nearly Rs 20,000 to be paid each month, which he hasn’t been able to do without an income.

“They call multiple times each day. I even tried telling them I am a COVID patient, please give me time. But they don't care, they are only trying to extract money. I was working only to be able to pay them back. I have another 18 months of EMI left. Once that is paid off, I will sell off my vehicle and never look back,” he says.

Drivers selling off vehicles

Prior to the pandemic, drivers say they earned up to Rs 2,000 a day, but now they barely get 2-3 rides a day. Making matters worse, rising fuel prices are also eating into their daily earnings. As a result, many are selling off their vehicles and are finding alternate means of income.

Vamsi*, another driver from Hyderabad says that working 12 hours during the pandemic is leaving them with barely Rs 250-300 of which commission, service charge, GST is cut. On top of that they have to pay for fuel, leaving them with barely anything to take back home.

Vamsi desperately needed the income because he had five months of rent pending, electricity bills and school fees to pay. But instead, he was spending hours roaming around in the car, waiting for rides, only increasing his costs. Eventually, Vamsi sold off his car at a huge discount for just Rs 80,000 to pay off his bills.

“It didn’t seem like it was worth the risk. We don't know what type of customers are getting in so to keep my family safe I dropped my wife and kids in the village and came back, sold my car and am working a temporary job as a driver of a vegetable truck early in the morning  to make a living,” he says.

Similarly, Surya, another driver in Bengaluru has now sold his car and is selling vegetables in Magadi Road.

“I didn't get any support or money from Ola. When I had the Ola vehicle, I used to get around Rs 10-20,000 a month. Now selling vegetables, I am making around 500 per day. I have no interest in going back to Ola. They are not even giving any insurance. I never get the right person to speak to and keep going around in circles trying to get someone within Ola to speak about our struggles. I have to educate my daughter, figure out her online classes and fees. Ola has only ruined our lives. They call us Ola partners, but once we sign on, we never hear from them again,” Surya says.

Ola announced in July that its ‘Drive The Driver’ fund impacted 55,918 families, enabling 9.3 million meals and aiding 843 medical emergencies across 25 cities.

Uber has said that it has disbursed grants to approximately 100,000 drivers and that it has also given other livelihood opportunities for them during the lockdown through tens of thousands of free rides offered to various state governments, and services like UberMedic, UberEssentials and last mile deliveries. 

“Driver safety has continued to be one of our key priorities. We recently introduced a comprehensive set of safety measures such as the Go Online Checklist and a mandatory mask policy for both riders and drivers, pre-trip mask verification selfies for drivers, mandatory driver education around Covid-19 related safety protocols, and an updated cancellation policy where both riders and driver can cancel trips if they don’t feel safe. Complementing these measures, we are distributing over 3 million masks and 400,000 bottles of disinfectants and sanitisers to our driver partners free of cost.  In case drivers choose to source the required PPE themselves, Uber will reimburse costs. All Uber driver partners are strongly advised to disinfect their cars before every trip," Uber spokesperson said. 

"As we move into the new normal, it’s our goal to encourage a sense of shared responsibility where Uber, riders, and driver partners, all play important roles in keeping each other safe," the spokesperson added. 

*Names changed

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