Uber has become a commonly-used verb in everyday language. It’s no longer strange when watching a series to hear someone explain that they “ubered” to arrive at their destination. This transport phenomenon has changed the way people travel and Uber has undeniably transformed public transportation and, with it, issued in a debate over the pros and cons.
Being an avid user of Uber, it’s not difficult to think of the upside to hailing a taxi from an app on your smartphone. All options considered, Uber is a good option for the consumer. But what about the other parties in this revolutionised world of taxi service? Let’s talk metered taxi drivers for a moment. In South Africa there have been numerous protests from metered taxi drivers protesting against Uber that have often turned violent towards Uber drivers. Their narrative? The playing field is not level and Uber is operating illegally. While metered taxi drivers have to pay for their licenses in order to service the areas that they are allowed to service, Uber comes in and, because they don’t subscribe to the same standards, offer a cheaper alternative which the consumer, naturally, will opt for. Word is that metered taxi companies are looking to up their game by adopting similar tactics such as launching apps. The problem, however, remains that even if you offer a similar service, if your competitor isn’t regulated in the same way that you are, the consumer will still opt for the cheaper option.
Following this upheaval, it’s recently been reported that the South African cabinet has approved a bill that allows for traffic authorities to impound Uber cars that operate without a meter license. Uber is reportedly in consultation with government and time will tell what the authorities decide to do around the situation. The livelihood of thousands of metered taxi drivers around the country and the wellbeing of their families is at stake, and in a country with a dangerously high unemployment and poverty rate the ideal scenario is not to put these drivers out of work.
Legal and illegal argument aside, since I first started using Uber a personal interest of mine has always been the Uber drivers themselves. Co-founder and CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, maintains that Uber offers a flexible platform through which the driver regulates his or her work hours and, essentially, determines how much money they make. On Uber’s website they claim to “strengthen local economies.” The question that really needs to be interrogated is whether or not Uber has empowered the drivers that are the pumping heart of this machine?
Following the protests by metered taxi drivers, I spoke to a few Uber drivers about what was happening and what their options were. When asked if they could retaliate or organise their own protests, I was told that they could but there would be consequences: “Uber told us that if we’re going to retaliate against them they’re going to deactivate our accounts.” When I asked if they’ve told Uber that they’re feeling unsafe, I received a unanimous response: too many times. What then, you may ask, did Uber do in light of the threats drivers and passengers faced? Well, they did deploy their own security. The sad thing is, these security personnel didn’t do much in terms of offering protection. Another driver I spoke to told me about an incident where an Uber driver was being attacked and the Uber security stood by, idly observing. Realising this, Uber drivers attempted to rally by forming WhatsApp groups and tried to warn one another to avoid hot spots. This, too, was prohibited and, if caught – you guessed it – Uber will deactivate your account. True to Uber SA’s policy of not recognising collective driver representation, Uber furthermore refuses to deal with the drivers as a group. “They said they don’t deal with groups. If you have a problem you must come individually.”
I have spoken to some Uber drivers who have admitted to pocketing a lucrative income from driving for Uber. This, however, is not reality for all drivers. In South Africa especially, it is very common for Uber drivers to work for partners who finance and buy the Uber cars. One of my first questions to an Uber driver is usually, “is this your car or are you driving for someone?” Through asking this I have gathered some sad but true insights. I read a very interesting article chronicling the plight of some Uber drivers, comparing Uber’s pitch with what’s happening in reality. It speaks of bloodshot eyes and two hours of sleep a night and still ending up running a deficit. For the Uber partners with money to buy and maintain cars the system is working well but it’s an entirely different story for the drivers on the ground. While partners are helpful in terms of being responsible for the maintenance of the cars and assisting with logistical issues such as tax, the problem for the drivers is that they do all the hard work but after Uber has taken its 25% of the fare and the partner has taken their share (factoring in maintenance, profit, and fuel – depending on the deal they’ve struck), the driver has worked a substantial amount of hours for a lot less money.
In 2016, Uber cut its fares in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, and Durban for the winter period by up to 20% with the reasoning that the price drop would drive up demand. These changes were made without prior notice or very short notice and without consulting the drivers, always with the claim that the changes will benefit the drivers. Uber partners, and especially drivers, had to bear the brunt of these changes. With reduced fares they had to clock more hours to earn the same amount of money previously earned and they ended up using more fuel and spending more on maintenance.
Where does this leave Uber drivers? A big issue for many who wish to become an Uber driver is access to financing. If you don’t have the initial capital to buy a car or your application for a loan from the bank gets turned down, driving for a partner is the next best option. For this reason a collaborative effort between WesBank, Uber, and FirstRand’s Enterprise Development Fund, Vumela, was launched to provide a Full Maintenance Lease deal to drivers. If your application is successful, WesBank will lease a car to you for a period of thirty-six months inclusive of extras such as maintenance and insurance. This opportunity is not limited to existing Uber drivers; rental companies offer short-term rental agreements for drivers who wish to start driving for Uber and build the record they need in order to qualify for the option WesBank is offering. The weekly payments for this lease deal will be collected directly from Uber by WesBank according to a cents-per-kilometre model. An Uber driver I spoke for who happened to be driving his own car reckons the cents-per-kilometre model is placing drivers at more of a disadvantage than when they were partner drivers. While this may be so, at the end of these thirty-six months, if they have managed to build up a credit record as per the idea behind this, partner drivers will be given the opportunity to buy the car at a value that takes into account depreciation.
The option to rate your Uber driver is now used as more than a tool for Uber to ensure their drivers deliver a quality service; these ratings play a role when a driver wishes to apply for this lease agreement. For this reason I always rate the service of a good driver. If there is a chance to enable a driver to drive for themselves and empower them, even a little, all avenues need to be pursued in order to ensure this happens. Uber may be a self-serving capitalist monster in the eyes of those who suffer under it but it’s not leaving for the time being and if a glimmer of hope is there to develop entrepreneurs in a suffering economy then we need to be part of that solution, albeit within a skewed system. There will always be a dark side to Uber but maybe, just sometimes, resilience can win out.