Coimbatore auto drivers challenge Ola, Uber in midst of Covid pandemic

In the midst of the stressful Covid pandemic autorickshaw workers in Coimbatore have come up with an innovative model for improving incomes of gig workers by forming their own cooperative. They have developed their own app and are executing gig work on their own without having to pay any commission to any corporate-backed, third-party coordinating platform.

The Federation of Indian Trade Unions (FITU), associated with the Welfare Party of India, had organized the auto workers in Coimbatore even before the pandemic. The police harassment, under different pretexts, of auto workers used to be endemic in the city and the union became popular as it used to offer them protection and get the arrested workers released.

When the workers started working for aggregators like Ola and Uber, the union also took up their problems with the companies. Then they simultaneously organized the union workers into an informal cooperative, which started a call auto service of their own similar to call taxi services.

“Beside a union to fight for their rights, we felt the workers also needed an arrangement to cope with the pandemic distress and some guarantee for livelihood without any exploitation, or somebody bossing them on a day-to-day basis” says A.Rahman, the National General Secretary of FITU.

COVID Response Watch LogoSpeaking to Covid Response Watch he said that auto workers have had to suffer very much during the lockdown as there was no income. They barely survived through mutual help and help from relatives and friends in the community. Even when the lockdown was relaxed, the earnings did not improve as people were not stirring out like in pre-Covid days. The economic and social life in Coimbatore did not return to normalcy immediately. But many people, especially sick people, the elderly and pregnant women and those going to hospitals etc., badly needed the auto service.

“Initially we launched a WhatsApp group and popularized it among our customers and whenever they needed an auto service they used to send messages. Whichever worker was nearer to the customer would respond and attend to that call while informing the group that he had taken the call. Apart from serving the WhatsApp group members, the auto workers were also carrying unregistered passengers. Gradually, the share of passengers registered with the WhatsApp group swelled” says Rahman.

The union then developed an app called Labo App, the name clearly implying that it is an app for workers. It then advertised it among customers and the general public through leaflets and cards and the workers themselves were trained to demonstrate to the customers how to download the app on their phones and use it to summon a nearby auto.

Since the people of Coimbatore were already familiar with the call taxi services, they quickly adopted the app for their autorickshaw requirements.

“Since the service from major taxi aggregating services was a bit irregular and they had also increased their rates, people found our auto service relatively more economical, with efficient service quality and started using it” says the FITU National General Secretary.

According to him, right from the beginning, the union emphasized among workers that credibility was important and they should create a good image among the customers. They were also infused with the spirit that they should be doing a model social service.

As a result, cooperative workers never refused a call even if it came from remote far-flung areas or at odd times. They also resolved to never charge a single extra rupee over and above the meter reading. Gradually, the autos became popular among users and were known as ‘meter autos”, or as the autorickshaws which charged strictly as per the meter reading and did not tamper with the meters.

If the union got a complaint that any driver had misbehaved with a customer, it would immediately conduct a detailed inquiry and make the worker mend his behavior through education. Drunken driving was strictly prohibited. When the union leadership came to know that one worker was engaging in drunken driving and was misbehaving with the customer, he was summarily expelled. Workers were educated that drunkenness harms not only their own personal health but collectively the cooperative’s image also.

This approach started paying dividends. The cooperative workers started getting more calls through the app than they used to get earlier. Seeing that workers who were members of the union seldom remained idle and were able to earn more, other auto workers also became interested and started joining the union-cum-cooperative.

Moreover, the union did not charge any money from the workers for this caller app service. In fact, operating the service did not involve any big expense either. A couple of union members themselves volunteered to do the necessary coordination through the app from the union office itself and sort out the problems that arose.

The union members started earning around Rs.1500 per day, much more than they used to earn before becoming part of this call-auto service. While working for aggregating companies, they had to part with a good portion of their income as commission to the companies. For example, the companies were collecting up to 30% of the collection as commission from taxi drivers.

Initially, to popularize their auto service, the big companies had reduced the commission to just 10%. But they subsequently started deducting money in the name of some fee or the other. The total fee paid by the auto worker came to another 10%. So effectively it became 20% in total. This meant auto workers who are earning Rs.1500 per day now would have had to shell out at least Rs.300 per day to the aggregating company. Thanks to the union’s initiative now they take the entire money they earn home.

Another praiseworthy feature about this experiment is that it has emerged as a good model of communal amity and harmony and inter-community cooperation among the working people. Though launched through the initiative of the Welfare Party, which is mainly a party backed by the Muslim community, the majority of members of the union-cum-cooperative are non-Muslims. People from different religious backgrounds work harmoniously together and their identity as auto workers dominates their consciousness.

Currently, 180 auto workers have become part of this union-cum-informal cooperative.  Gradually, they have expanded their operation to two other small towns, Ambur and Vaniyambadi. 25 auto workers have come together in Ambur and 50 have joined in Vaniyambadi. Both are towns dominated by leather goods industries where a major chunk of workers are women. This call auto service has come as a boon to women workers commuting for work from nearby villages and returning in the late hours of the night after doing overtime work. Their safety is assured.

Hearing about the success of the Coimbatore experiment, the auto workers from Chennai and other cities in Tamil Nadu are also urging the union to launch a similar service in their respective cities. The FITU is also planning to expand the venture covering all of Tamil Nadu.

The best thing about this experiment is that it is a self-organising social enterprise of the workers themselves. The spirit of cooperation and sharing is the main binding force. In general, gig workers are precarity personified. There is no security in their work or stability in their lives. They toil hard but legally they don’t even have the status as workers.

Typically, these on-call workers survive from one call to the next. This experiment has lent some stability to their work and lives and improved their incomes. It is a good model for how informal workers could successfully cope with the distress caused by the Covid pandemic.

B.Sivaraman is a researcher based in Allahabad

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