Working in a Tinderbox

In the wake of the murder of a techie by a cab driver recently, it is imperative that the Tamil Nadu government intervenes and regulates all ride-hailing apps. Labour issues that drivers face must also be addressed, as it has become an issue of public safety.
Representative image
Representative image

CHENNAI: Underpaid, overworked and working at the behest of Artificial Intelligence with no human guidance or interaction, a cab driver’s office is the world’s most compact toxic workplace. Add to it, the city traffic, harassment by traffic enforcement, an average cab driver is at the threshold of volatility, most of his working hours.

In a nationwide survey on the working conditions of gig workers by Fairwork India, Ola and Uber scored a zero out of ten in 2021. It is into this working space that we, the general public, are walking in and out every day and it’s high time the labour issues of the drivers are addressed as it is also an issue of public safety, say experts.

There have been widespread protests across the country by gig workers, asking for better allowances. They have taken the legal route too, but to little avail.

“We need a legislation to address the concerns of workers in the gig economy,” said Ma Foi K Pandiarajan, former TN minister for Tamil development. He also pointed out that Sunday’s incident should not be generalised to the workforce at large, but the simmering unrest among the workforce should be addressed.

“Human resources should be an essential part of any company, be it for the permanent workers, flexi or like in the case of Ola and Uber, ‘gig’ workers. There are 2.5 crore workers in the Indian gig economy. New labour code 2022 addresses their concerns and acknowledges their line of work,” added Pandiarajan, chairman and director of CIEL HR services, one of the largest staffing solution providers in India.

Apart from employing a major workforce, the platform economy is part of the service sector with interactions to the public. But these firms have underwhelming HR practices.

Several cab drivers that DT Next spoke to said that they have never had any human interaction with any personnel from Ola, be it when they join as a driver or when they have to address their grievance.

“Everything is through the app. We are required to submit our documents — Aadhaar, RC book, insurance, etc, and are required to send a selfie every day for the first week,” said A Saddam, who has been driving an Ola cab for the past 3 years.

The major grouse among drivers is that the ‘app’ charges 35% commission for each ride even during the fuel price hike. After riding for 10-12 hours a day, they end up being underpaid, with no health insurance and other benefits. There is no redressal mechanism for their grievances either. “Even when there’s a drunk customer or an unruly passenger, we can only register it in the app,” Saddam said.

There are no physical orientation programmes for the drivers either. “We’re required to complete watching a pre-recorded video on customer service, after which the drivers will be given rides,” a driver said. But experts say that it’s not enough.

“From complete assessment of the individual to psychological counselling of the drivers, if required, companies must extend services that a firm would do for a permanent employee,” Pandiarajan said. “Gig workers work under a lot of stress, as their services are time-bound.”

The ride-hailing apps have become an inevitable part of society and it’s the responsibility of the companies to ensure public safety too, say regular users. M Patel, a techie who used a cab last week, told DT Next that his driver shared with him how some of them carry a wooden log or a rod for self-defence as there have been cases of gangs trying to steal from the drivers or attack and steal the car itself.

Mental health experts point out that the impolite behaviour of some cab drivers to passengers is a defence mechanism known as displacement.

“Sometimes, when an individual is angry with his boss, they cannot show his anger or frustration out in the work because he knows the consequences are going to be even bad. So, the moment he comes out of that place, he shows it on his subordinates. If he’s unable to do that, he vents it out at the family in his house. But even this, we cannot generalise it for everyone,” said Dr Vasanth Renganathan, consultant psychiatrist.

DT Next sent a detailed questionnaire to Ola seeking clarifications about antecedent checks on the drivers, orientation programmes they have for their drivers.

— With inputs from G Jagannath and Shweta Tripathi

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