A Bolt car in Riga, Latvia. Picture: REUTERS/INTS KALNINS
A Bolt car in Riga, Latvia. Picture: REUTERS/INTS KALNINS

As part of growing global pressure against the gig economy,  hundreds of drivers for ride-hailing platforms Uber and Bolt took to the streets of SA cities on Monday to protest against working conditions and to demand regulation of the industry.

The marches in Gauteng, the Western Cape and the Free State highlight long-standing criticism levelled against the platforms for building businesses on workers who are not classified as employees eligible for benefits such as paid leave and pension and other perks.

The demonstrations in SA, in which the department of transport is also urged to produce laws to regulate the industry, come about two months after a judge in California, US, ordered Uber and rival Lyft to stop classifying drivers as independent contractors.  Both companies are appealing against the ruling.

A spokesperson for the drivers, Vhatuka Mbelengwa, said the drivers want protection “for the domestic investment into this industry. We’ve seen billions running through but drivers are getting more poor. We’re struggling to understand how a business can have such high volumes of money flowing through it but drivers are just getting poorer. There’s something wrong from a managerial perspective.”

As drivers and operators, he said “we must see shared development, we must see shared profits, we must see shared responsibility”. On shared responsibility, he said: “We believe that it falls on us to have a safe industry. But can we have a safe industry if we don’t have a proper, effective app partner?”

Though Uber denied that any of its drivers were part of Monday’s strike, Mbelengwa said: “Uber is very much part of the strike action.”

“These issues are not exclusive to Bolt only. This is across [Bolt and Uber] platforms. We’ve decided to address Bolt first because we find Bolt to be the most notorious app at the moment.”

Mbelengwa said through a recently launched service called Bolt Go, Bolt has reduced the trip rate per kilometre from R7.50 to R5.50. This is too low for the drivers to make a profit.

“Bolt has refused to engage with us up until this point. What they’ve agreed to is that tomorrow [Tuesday] we can bring in blocked drivers and they will begin to unblock those drivers. All along drivers have been getting blocked without any platform to represent [them] or any right of reply.”

He accused Bolt of arbitrarily blocking drivers. “We don’t think this is right considering the amount of money that it takes to be on the platform.”

The strike by the drivers, who are not obliged to work specific hours and choose when to sign in and out of the app as independent contractors, has had little effect on operations, Bolt said. Gareth Taylor, country manager of Bolt SA, which until 2019 was called Taxify,  said his company was aware of “a small number of drivers choosing to stay offline” on Monday.

“Apart from slightly longer waiting times, the protest has not impacted riders’ ability to hail a ride through the platform, as there are enough drivers who have chosen to stay online to meet demand.”   

The company has about 10,000 drivers in SA. It did not say how many were taking part in the action or what the financial impact is likely to be.  

Uber,  which has 13,000 drivers, said its services remain reliable for both riders and drivers. “Uber’s dedicated team is closely monitoring this and based on the information we have, this protest is not directly related to Uber,” a spokesperson said.

The company rebuked Mbelengwa for speaking on behalf of its drivers, saying he is not an active Uber driver and has not used the app in three years. “He cannot speak for Uber and we struggle to understand how he can speak for so many diverse drivers who use Uber,” the company spokesperson said in a statement.  

This is not the first time drivers have protested against their working conditions or pay. Two years ago Uber and Bolt drivers staged a protest against their fares remaining the same despite the increases in the petrol price and VAT at the time.

The protests underscore the political and business risks facing ride-hailing services as drivers’ demands for labour protection and other regulations could find a receptive ear at the government, potentially upending their business models and eating away at their commercial viability.  

gavazam@businesslive.co.za

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