Ride-hailing motorbike taxi drivers stuck between rock and hard place

By Nguyen Hang, Quang Huong   November 8, 2023 | 11:36 pm PT
Ride-hailing motorbike taxi drivers stuck between rock and hard place
A GrabBike driver at work in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy
Incomes are falling for motorbike taxi drivers working for ride-hailing services, but for most there are no other viable occupations.

Le Huu Trong, 71, of HCMC keeps the Grab app open on his phone every day from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. but earns a mere VND200,000 ($8.20) for his effort.

With the number of drivers increasing, he says his income as a deliveryman has fallen by around half from a few years ago.

"For example, I have to get 400 points a day now to get an extra VND50,000. But I can no longer do that; I can only get 200-300 points a day at most."

Besides salaries decreasing and bonuses becoming harder to attain, Trong said drivers also have to face the risk of losing money when customers refuse to accept delivery of goods.

Also in HCMC, Pham Mi Sen, vice president of the Binh Tan District ride-hailing motorbike taxi drivers, is grateful for his job with Grab since he became unemployed nine years ago. But he says his salary and standing have kept decreasing despite his unflagging efforts.

"I first did this job in 2015. At that time, the shortest ride would fetch VND9,000, and I would keep all that money."

"But now, after nine years, for that same ride, I would get 27.27% of that money deducted, leaving me with VND8.889. And over the last nine years prices have increased everywhere: fuel, vehicles, everything."

Drivers' salaries have been severely impacted ever since the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, he says.

"Recently [Grab] announced that in July, according to their calculations, drivers' average incomes have increased by 8% compared to July last year.

"But our group saw that our average working time for each person has increased by 30-50%. It means working 10-12 hours a day, and there are those who work 14 hours a day, including at night."

But drivers don't have many choices when it comes to switching careers even if the job pushes them to the brink.

"They say they don't force drivers to work for them. If we are willing to work, we can; but if we don’t, we have the right to quit and do another job.

"The majority of us who do this job are people with vulnerable positions in society who currently have no opportunity to get a job with an income that adequately satisfies their needs... For example, those with low education, no skills, weak health, or students still in school," Sen said.

"So it makes them totally dependent on this job, no matter how much resentment they may have, no matter how unfairly they may feel they are treated... It is like an invisible string that ties them."

For people like Trong, there is no choice but to accept the growing disadvantages the job brings.

"I return home at around 6-7 p.m. now since riding at night takes a toll on my eyes. I used to do 12 hours, but now, with fatigued eyes and the fact that riding in the night is dangerous, I don’t any more."

Now that he is older, it would be hard for him to get a different job with his current skill set, he says.

Do Hai Ha, a researcher from Fairwork Vietnam, said the number of workers associated with platforms is quickly rising. But they have to pay for their vehicles, phones, even medical insurance, from their own pocket, he says.

Tran Viet Quan, founder of digital transformation company Tanca, says tightening of policies by ride-hailing services is an inevitable trend.

"When tech startups and other companies control a superapp, they face the risk of having their funding sources cut off.

"When that happens, they will have to tighten their purse strings.

"Every party (companies, partners and drivers) will be put into a situation where there needs to be more revenues and less spending. And so, workers’ rights will be affected."

The fact that legal systems cannot keep up with the breakneck growth of tech platforms is also an issue.

"Tech companies usually need to develop and test several different models. There are models for which there are no mechanisms available to manage them properly when they first appear.

"This is not only in Vietnam; other countries are also dealing with two problems: how to use laws to manage more things and how companies grow their revenues by trying even more things," Quan said.

A survey on socio-economic issues affecting Grab drivers done by the General Labor Confederation of Vietnam and the Center for Health Consultation and Community Development, with cooperation from Oxfam, found the average monthly income of a motorbike taxi driver was VND7 million.

Around two-thirds of drivers said they have families of their own, and 60% of them are supporting at least two family members.

Some 95% of drivers said they have to work six to 12 hours a day without any days off.

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