Between a rock and a hard place: “For Uber and Bolt, we are nothing but slaves”
Note from LeftEast editors: This article originally appeared in Radnička Prava. The English translation is part of a collaboration with Eastern-European leftist media platforms ELMO – East Left Media Outlet. In honour of international labor day, May 1st and May as a month dedicated to workers’ struggles, this article signals the start of an ELMO series titled “Gig work in CEE’s platform economy”, a series of texts about the gig economy and platform work in various Eastern-European countries. ELMO plans to hold a panel discussion on the topic at the end of the series.
Up until 2018., everything was relatively fine, but shit started hitting the fan around 2019… If you want to make any money you have to work 12 hours on average. This is capitalist exploitation at its best – the first stage of capitalism. For Uber and Bolt, we are nothing but slaves. They are trash. The driver’ complaints would always fall on deaf ears.” This is how one of the drivers describes these platforms. All around the world the requests of those wanting to regulate platform work and recognize drivers as workers are getting stronger and stronger. Since the recent establishment of the Union of Drivers Croatia has also been placed on the global map of platform workers’ fight for better work conditions. Dunja Kučinac talked to the drivers about the reasons for Union’s establishment, but also their work conditions in general.
For the last ten days local couriers and taxi drivers working through platforms such as Uber and Bolt could probably sense that somebody was thinking of them. They’ve been the talk of the town – everybody, from the media to the unions and ministers have been talking about them. Not only did the topic of platform work transcend the several non-profit websites which usually covered it, but the story finally no longer revolves around publicity and promises of entrepreneurial “revolutions” coming from the mouths of Uber and Glovo’s regional CEOs. Light was shed on the other side of the coin of this “innovative” model of work: false classification of workers as independent contractors, high lever of precariousness and law evasion. Trigger for this seems to be recent news on fines for four food delivery platforms in Italy. The fine in total amounted to 733 million Euros and companies were fined for breaching the norms of worker’s right and job safety. They were also ordered to hire 60.000 couriers by giving them permanent contracts.
And while these numbers which can make one dizzy and our neighour’s “dramatic” legal actions are obviously managing to shake up even our Minister of labour, as well as the unions, who so far haven’t shown any real interest in more serious discussions and regulations of platform work. The voices of our platform workers did not have the same effect, even though they managed to get some media coverage. A month before we heard the news from Italy, on February 9th , a protest was organized in front of the Bolt headquarters in Zagreb. It was organised by the newly founded – then unknown – union called Independent Union of Taxi Drivers (Nezavisni sindikat vozača taksija). It was a small protest – a gesture of warning about the terrible work conditions of taxi drivers. Even though Uber and Bolt drivers were not the only participants, but other taxi drivers as well, this protest can be seen as the first public appearance of platform workers in Croatia.
Union, which at the time of protest was still in legal procedure of its formal establishment, is operating throughout Croatia and has 103 founders. They are currently organizing drivers of all platforms and domestic companies, as well as independent drivers using the taximeters, from Dubrovnik, Split, Zagreb, Rijeka, Čakovec, Karlovac.
Prices in free(market) fall
The initial reason for starting the union was the platforms’ lowering of prices, which the drivers say, has fallen only on their backs. This means that the drivers are barely making ends meet.
In October Bolt introduced the so-called Economy option, that is the cheaper option through which the passengers can order a 20-percent cheaper ride. As one can expect, two to three weeks later Uber ushered the same tactic and introduced the UberX Saver option. One female driver tells me that by doing so Uber made a better move because the Saver option was only available during periods of lowest demand, while Bolt Economy was available at all times.
Of course, it was this stimulation of demand, or so called “market adjustment” during the pandemic, which was the reason for price reduction. Bolt was open about their opposition to regulation and they feel that the “free market can determine the minimum price by kilometer by itself”. The same kind of logic is used by Uber, but not in so many words: cheaper options, they say, are for the good of the passengers, but also the drivers, since Uber “enables them to make money even during the hours with low demand”. But few have reasons to believe such an obvious attempt to present dumping as a gesture of generosity towards the passengers and drivers.
First and foremost, one driver tells me that the business did not grow. Passengers using Economy and Saver only managed to save a couple of kunas (HRK): nothing out of the ordinary, which would motivate them to take a taxi if that was not their original intent. At the same time, if they were offered identical service for a smaller price, it was completely rational for them to take it. On the other hand, dumping is a big financial hit for the drivers. Economy and Saver, say the drivers, effectively drop the price from more than 3 kuna to 2,8 kunas per kilometer. For the drivers this is completely unsustainable. After paying 20 to 25 percent provision to the platforms, tax, pensions and health fees, expenses such as gas and car maintenance, they are left with pennies.
But drivers are already used to the fact that their complaints will fall on deaf ears. When the Economy option was introduced last autumn, Bolt drivers said that they received a notification through the application that a survey had been conducted among the drivers about their attitudes towards the cheaper options. But, my source never got the survey and neither did some of her colleagues. Those who did get the survey mainly stated they were against the Economy option. At the same time Bolt told the drivers that this was a temporary measure implemented for a period of three months in order to overcome the worst crisis period. Those three months are long gone now and my source tells me that Bolt has been giving generalized and automatic answers to questions about shutting down the option. They say that the Croatian branch of the company is not responsible formaking these types of decisions.
If you decline working for a lower price, well, then you won’t drive
In addition to being dependant on calls of center, platforms defend themselves from the critics with an argument that they are not forcing their drives to do anything: the decisions is on every driver, they say, to decide if they want to turn on the Economy/Saver option while they are logged in the app or if they want to drive using the standard rate. However, that choice is a false one and it serves the purpose of keeping the illusion of nominal autonomy of the driver in his relationship with the platform. Everyone I talked to said the same thing: “Platforms tell us that we can choose to turn off the Economy option, but they know that in that case we simply won’t get any rides”. That is why even those who in the beginning decided not to go with the cheaper option, were after some time forced to accept the lower price in order to keep their jobs.
Even before any talk of starting a union, drivers themselves decided to revolt against the Economy option through a coordinated act of turning off the option in the beginning of February. Calls for sabotage spread through Facebook, but flyers were also distributed – placed on cars and handed out – in order to, as my source informed me, reach the drivers who either don’t have a Facebook account or don’t use it often – students, pensioners, weekend drivers. “Some drivers did not know that the Economy option was cheaper than the standard one and some simply did not know how to turn it off. The biggest problem is the fact that we are not connected and we don’t know each other, so it is very hard to coordinate people, but also assess the number of those who are turning off the option.” Still, my source estimates that the first week of the action 30 to 40 percent of drivers really did turn off the option and “you could see in the app that Economy option wasn’t as available”.
The union itself contacted the state representatives. They demanded that prices be regulated and set at a minimum price of HRK 4 per kilometer, because most of the other European countries resolved the issue exactly this way. Because of this the prices of similar, “cheap” Economy options offered by the platforms in those states aremuch higher than here. Tihomir Jaić, president of the Union, says that there is no point in putting pressure on the platforms: “Management of Uber and Bolt in Croatia is just fictional- they are here just to push the politics of the centrals”.
Besides demand for minimal price regulations, the Union has two more: lowering VAT rate on taxi services to 13% and to stop announced reductions of the allowed age of vehicles from seven years to five. Union also warns aboutthe fact that in Austria and Germany the age limit for the vehicle is even higher, up to ten years. Neither Uber, nor Bolt did not respond to any of these demands, Iva Filipović, secretary of the Union told me. But as the Union says, they are planning to increase the pressure and are also working on a proposal of changes in Law on road transport.
Platforms benefit from a surplus of drivers on the job market
While we are waiting for the reactions from Uber and Bolt, but also the announced regulations of platform work through changes in the Labor law, the drivers are trying to keep their heads above the water while driving for pennies. As a result of the pandemic business shrank up to 70 percent – no bars, no parties, no hospitals, no tourists, airports or stations. Since there are no celebrations and night parties, Goran Češnjek from the Union says that more drivers have opted out for daytime work, which means that an already reduced number of rides in now being divided on more drivers. Due to lack of work, most drivers are working parallely through both platforms: at the same time they have Uber and Bolt apps on. While one is working, you turn off the other until the end of the ride.
Iva Filipović believes that one of the reasons why there isn’t enough work for all the drivers is the fact that Uber and Bolt don’t do any research of the domestic market in order to estimate the sufficient number of driver-partners, so they don’t refuse anyone. At the same time there is no regulation in the number of taxi licenses – the market has been liberalized (which is a direct result of Uber’s pressure) in the latest Law on Road Transport and now every firm needs just one license regardless of how many drivers they employ.
That fact that Uber and Bolt don’t decline new drivers does not come as a surprise. They don’t employ anyone, the drivers pay for the gas and car expenses themselves and they do not make the minimum wage, but are rather paid per ride, so they are not an expense to the platform in anyway. It is precisely the logic of transferring more and more costs onto the drivers, as well as the risks of lower demand, that lie behind the business strategy of these platforms, as well as the food delivery ones. This has been discussed for years all over the world, as well as written about in the local media.
Dancing to the algorithm’s tune
Even though they are not the drivers’ employers, but they rather “rent” the app to them, both Uber and Bolt dictate the working conditions. Starting from the price of the service, as we showed, the dumping of which pushed many drivers over the edge. They (meaning the drivers), as independent contractors, should have the power to determine the prices for themselves, but actually they have no say in that. Price is being changed all of the time, not only by the Economy option. The rhythm of those changes is determined by the app’s algorithm based on demand. But the “power” of algorithm goes beyond the price itself – if a taxi driver declines a certain number of drives assigned to him by the app, which means that his “productivity rate” goes down and if his “rating” goes down, which is generated by the feedback of passengers, platform disables the use of the app (meaning working) for a certain period of time. The drivers are not satisfied even with the platform’s customer service, which they use if there is something wrong with the app. One of them says: “Treatment of the app towards the driver is awful. You can barely reach them when you need something, and even if they do reply, they are usually automatically generated answers.”
The Union’s Iva Filipović tells me that there is a very negative atmosphere around Bolt, while Uber seems to be more fitting to their needs. Bolt is primarily fighting for domestic customers using huge promotions and discounts, while Uber, she thinks, is counting on tourists who recognize it as a global brand.
But, despite these nuances the drivers’ dissatisfaction is growing. One driver, a sole proprietor, tells me that he drives for whoever he can and has been doing it for years – Bolt, Uber, working independently through a taximeter. He tells me that he would not survive without the help of the state, he would not be able to pay all the fees. “Up until 2018, everything was relatively fine, but problems started 2019… If you want to make any money you have to work 12 hours a day on average. Too many drivers and not enough work. This is capitalist exploitation at its best – the initial stage of capitalism. In the eyes of Uber and Bolt, we are nothing but slaves. They are trash. The driver’ complaints would always fall on deaf ears.. I would never recommend anyone to even try this job out”. Let this worker’s view be a sort of introduction for all the new articles that will be written about platform workers and judging by the state of things – there will be plenty of material. All the planned legal regulations of platform work should, of course, start (and end!) with the workers’ opinions and needs, but unfortunately we know that when it comes to this we cannot be too optimistic.
Translated from Croatian by Matea Grgurinović and Marjan Klišanin
The original article was reprinted in Serbo-Croatian in Mašina and in English in The Barricade. A Bulgarian translation is available at Baricada as a part of the cooperation between the member platforms of ELMO – East Left Media Outlet.
Dunja Kučinac (1989) is a cultural worker from Zagreb. She’s a member of the curatorial collective BLOK and Platform „Za K.R.U.H.“ (For BREAD) that gathers cultural workers and artists in a fight for better working conditions and sustainable public funding for culture. She regularly collaborates with portals like Bilten and Radnička Prava. Most of her journalist work has been focused on precarious work in platform economy and culture.