Thousands of Drivers Unionizing Uber in Bangladesh

12 Apr 2022

In 2019, three youths in Bangladesh murdered an Uber driver. This spurred ‘app-based’ workers to move from protesting to forming unions in multiple cities and a national organization, The App-Based Drivers Union of Bangladesh. This nascent union demands ride-hail reform for workers’ rights in the face of hostility from app-based companies, abuse by riders, and the indifference of the state. Today, union members share the origins of their struggle and their bold, careful organizing to improve socio-economic conditions.

A photo of dozens of drivers marching with a banner that reads, Modern Technology Depended Professionals are also workers - and a list of six demands

A protest only goes so far. In September 2021, drivers presented their demands in cities across Bangladesh. Now 35% of the 250,00 drivers in the country have joined their union. / Source

The Worker’s Perspective

By The App-Based Drivers Union of Bangladesh

In 2019, one of our fellow drivers was murdered. This murder changed everything for us, but before getting to this turning point, we should start at the beginning, in 2016, when Uber first entered the Bangladesh market.

Before we began working for Uber in 2016, we were involved in other types of “offline ridesharing,” driving taxicabs and private hire vehicles. We moved to “online ridesharing” because of bonuses. We were told that we would be able to earn up to 80,000 Bangladesh Taka or BDT, approximately USD $930. Many of us have not had the benefit of a high level of education and were in low-income occupations, so we were lured in by this sum. We should have known that it was too good to be true. Perhaps our momentary greed prevented us from realizing this, for which we feel guilty. Now we know we were misled.

Structural Traps and the Wheels of Change

We come from different backgrounds and joined Uber for different reasons. Some of us had been working other jobs; a few of us had returned from long spells working abroad and were looking for new opportunities at home. We saw our friends work for Uber, learned about the bonuses, and decided to give it a try. One of us even had a corporate sales job at a bank, but the terms of Uber and Pathao, a local motorcycle ride-hailing company, meant that they could earn more than in an office job. To begin working for these app-based companies, we took out loans and even bought cars and motorcycles. We spent millions of Taka for a car or between 150,000-200,000 BDT for a motorcycle. Everything seemed to be going well.

However, after about the first year, in late 2018, we saw losses. Bonuses dried up and transaction fees spiked to 25-30%. Commissions fluctuated from week to week and some drivers’ low level of literacy meant they couldn’t keep up with these changes. Fees began to eat into our profits, and in Bangladesh, vehicle taxes and maintenance costs are high. Nowadays, they also pay us a week to 10 days late, using the local money remittance service bKash. This means that the transfer costs of 1.85% per ride and all emergency upfront expenses, such as sudden repairs, have to be paid out of our own pockets. By collecting and aggregating all of our earnings, even for a short period, Uber accrues a significant amount of interest. In the name of digital payments, we are being turned into serfs, where they are exploiting our hard-earned money and labor to enrich themselves.

We’ve sent complaints to Uber about issues like these, but we receive nonsensical replies from offices in India and California. The Uber representatives in Bangladesh are not helpful at all and try to avoid responsibility. It wasn’t just Uber, of course, that was guilty of this: all app-based companies were doing similar things. While it is possible to go to the Pathao office who seem to share ‘national interests’, there isn’t much of a difference between these app-based companies.

You have to understand, it’s very hard to live in a city like Dhaka on 30,000 BDT a month, not to mention maintaining a vehicle in good condition. Some of us work from 6am to 1am to make a living, not seeing our children and not speaking to our parents. We just eat and fall asleep. If at the end of the day we still have zero money, how can we continue living like this? But because of what we’ve already invested and the debts we’ve accrued, we can’t extricate ourselves. Lured in by bonuses, discounts, and other incentives, we end up 90,000 BDT in debt on average per year. We know this is theft, but what can we do?

Starting in late 2017, some of us drivers in Dhaka brought complaints to these app-based companies and shared our frustrations online. On social media platforms like our Facebook page and on messaging apps, we found other drivers who shared our grievances and worries. We decided, initially, that we would organize a movement, rather than a union, and protest in front of the Uber office and the National Press Club in Dhaka. Our protests drew some attention from local media. In 2019, some of us sat down with representatives from the app-based companies to discuss our concerns. It quickly became clear that they didn’t care about our health or wellbeing.

Our Fellow Driver was Murdered, and Uber Offered a Pittance

In June 2019, tensions came to a head. One of our fellow drivers, Md. Arman, received a ride request on Uber from a remote location in the outskirts of Dhaka. Three youths got in the car, but the Uber account holder did not, a fact we complained about later. These youths had been repeatedly ordering and canceling rides, until they saw Arman’s expensive, valuable Toyota Allion. In the cover of darkness, the three youths attempted to hijack Arman’s car. In the struggle, they pulled his hair, slit his throat, and collided into a tree. They escaped, and though they were soon arrested, our friend was still murdered. Subsequently, litigation was brought and a demand was made for 5,000,000 BDT as compensation for Arman’s family — Uber offered just 200,000 BDT, around USD $2,325. This is a grossly inadequate sum for someone’s life and it fell on us to take care of Arman’s family.

Arman’s death was the catalyst for launching the Dhaka Ridesharing Drivers’ Union (DRDU) on August 31, 2019. In order to change attitudes towards us and our work, and hopefully change ourselves, too, we needed a permanent representative organization instead of sporadic protests. We’ve brought our demands to local app-based companies in the past, but their business is not doing well or their business model is not very different from Uber. We’ve also expressed concerns to relevant government authorities and have begun exploring avenues for legal action.

There was, and continues to be, extremely asymmetrical treatment of drivers and riders by Uber and other app-based companies. Drivers cannot change destinations on our smartphone application and we have to take photos to show that we are driving, but riders do not have to prove anything. Some of us have been kicked off motorcycle ride-hailing applications because we turned down three rides — which we do because the trip is not worth the pay. When fares on the app are higher than expected, we face verbal and physical abuse from riders. For example, one of us, M, went on a trip in October 2019 that initially showed 250 BDT on the application, but was ultimately 550 BDT at the time of drop-off. The trip was to an isolated, uninhabited area. M tried to explain that the reason for the higher fare could be a problem with the application’s GPS. The rider responded by threatening the driver with a pistol. M pressed the emergency button in the application, but there was no response. M begged for the rider to leave, without paying, but the rider did not leave. M called the police but it took over half an hour before they arrived. Later, M called the Uber office and requested they investigate — and 2.5 years and many follow-ups later, there is still no response. We deal with wealthy riders that are unruly, inebriated, and possessing illegal substances who often get us hard-working people into trouble.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, especially at its peak, our income dropped to zero. We saw no government subsidies or support. There have been more murders, but they still do not budge. Uber hasn’t helped, and the government hasn’t taken any steps either. New enlistment requirements in 2017 put the burden on drivers, including for our own safety. When we complain, they tell us to call the police through the national emergency line 999, but given the state of our police, our corpses may rot before they arrive.

Instead, we have to look out for one another. Although DRDU operates on social media platforms and doesn’t have formal registration as a union, we’ve created an online group to allow drivers to tell each other about their whereabouts at night, sometimes sending voice messages instead of texts. Since the founding of DRDU, we’ve organized informal unions in other cities, namely Chattogram and Sylhet, and arranged physical protests and sit-ins. The last major protest was in September 2021 and took place in multiple cities. We are now organized nationally under the umbrella of The App-based Drivers Union of Bangladesh, where representatives from DRDU and the unions in Sylhet and Chattogram are present. Having a national-level organization allows us to formulate uniform demands, while still being responsive to the particular needs and concerns of city-level unions.

In September 2021, our unions announced 6 demands: (1) ending police harassment, (2) recognizing of app-based drivers as workers under local labor law, (3) lowering the transaction fee of rides to 10% from 25%+, (4) organizing parking space for ride-hailing vehicles in Chattogram, Dhaka and Sylhet, (5) exempting listed ride-hailing vehicles from Advance Income Tax (AIT) and (6) returning the AIT collected from listed vehicle owners previously. The transaction fee is an important one for us as with a lower transaction fee, we will be able to manage financially. Other concerns were about the gaming of consumers’ and workers’ ratings, which occasionally led to drivers experiencing physical harm.

Modest Wins, Immense Solidarity, and the Work Ahead

You should know that we still have a long way to go. Unfortunately, Uber has not been at all responsive to our demands and in some cases even charges up to 35% of our fare in transaction fees. When these companies decide to deplatform us, they still don’t tell us why they are punishing us—who complained and what the alleged offense was to block our access to the app. There isn’t much of a difference between suspending us from the application and hanging us.

While the number of registered ride-hail drivers in Bangladesh has recently declined from 400,000 to around 250,000, that means we are growing in both absolute and relative terms: more than 35% of drivers now are involved in our unions, up from 30%. Yet, like many other informal unions, we are struggling to be registered and recognized as representatives. Firstly, this is due to the fact that we are not considered Uber employees. Secondly, we struggle to find legal counsel who appreciate the nature of our work. Thirdly, we have been informed that trade unions’ registration is district-centric, not national. There are substantial consequences of not being registered. We filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh that our human rights have been violated by these app-based companies, which was then brought to the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority, but they dismissed our arguments on the basis that we are an unregistered entity. It is perhaps for the same reason that the government hasn’t been receptive to our demands for parking places and reforming AIT. Nevertheless, despite these obstacles, we’re still pushing forward with our ambition of being formalized: we’ve submitted a form with details of our members and we will continue working on this after the end of Ramadan in May 2022. We continuously increase our membership and ideally we’ll cover 60% of all ride-hailing drivers in the country. Despite regulatory and financial obstacles, we serve our members and communities by organizing safe driving courses and even blood drives.

There have been some modest gains following our strike action. Now, after every five completed trips out of 10 requests, the Uber app indicates the rough location of where the next trip will be. This allows us to better plan our workday and navigate the considerable traffic in Bangladesh. Pathao has also reduced their transaction fees, with certain conditions, to 15% during peak hours (7-10 AM and 2-6:30 PM) on weekdays (Sunday-Thursday), while the transaction fee of 25% remains during off-peak hours. We have been approached by local app-based companies that wish to charge us around 10%-12% in transaction fees. We are cautiously observing their activities and we have told them that for us to work for them, they have to give us full pay for our work (i.e., deductions for payment transfers) and provide us with insurance. We have also said that there has to be more due process and involvement of the App-based Drivers Union when deciding to fine or suspend a driver. We have also suggested that their app deduct small amounts from our payment for each trip and then return these deductions in three lump sums, during the two Eids and in January, when we have expenses for our children. We have requested this as the reality is that we have difficulty in keeping cash in hand, as we always have immediate expenses to pay.

We are not against ride-hailing. We do not want to deprive anyone of their livelihoods. After all, when the drivers’ wheels are turning, the economy’s wheels will turn, too. We want Uber or Pathao to meet our demands and reduce their fees. We want a “win-win-win” situation. If steps are not taken to address our grievances, we will go on strike again. We think our demands are reasonable, as we have seen Uber reduce transaction fees in India. If we are not able to exercise our workers’ rights, then the gig economy is a curse for us. As it has turned out to be for Arman’s family, for whom we are still seeking justice.

We want to close by expressing solidarity with our comrades in other countries. We have coordinated international strikes with some fellow drivers in the UK and New York City, but have not been in touch with workers in other industries in the so-called ‘gig economy’, like on-demand cleaning.

Finally, we want to take this opportunity to share our perceptions about gig economy terminology. In our view, data entry, graphic design, and the like, all outsourced to countries like Bangladesh from the rest of the world, are the real ‘gig’ workers as they do such activities to top up their income and aren’t invested. In contrast, we have to pay for vehicles, maintenance, taxes, and more; our livelihoods depend on the application. There is a difference between inhaling smoke while sitting in congested traffic and sitting in front of a computer. ‘App-based’ is an adequate description. Please do not describe our 12-14 hours of full-time, hard labor as gig work. Companies call us gig workers, and use the language to exploit us. But we are real, full-time workers with no labor rights, which is why we’re organizing.

We welcome allies around the world to reach out via the DRDU Facebook page and organize with us in this struggle. We extend our thanks to Morshed, Danny, and Tamara for the discussions and editing that resulted in this piece.


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Surveillance Capitalism, Borders, and the Police

April 14, 2022 at 6pm Pacific Time, on Zoom - RSVP here

What is surveillance capitalism, how does it harm us in different ways, and what can we do to stop it? Join us for a free community panel to explore the implications of surveillance capitalism in the border region and beyond. We’ll discuss the current intersection of the police state and private tech corporations, and learn strategies to build public safety without surveillance and beyond policing.

Panelists include: Science fiction author Cory Doctorow, Sarah T. Hamid of the Carceral Tech Resistance Network, Khalid Alexander of Pillars of the Community, and Pedro Rios of American Friends Service Committee.

This event is organized by the Tech Workers Coalition San Diego, Democratic Socialists of America San Diego, Groundwork Books, Chop Shop Economics, and the American Friends Service Committee. Help us promote the event by forwarding this email or retweeting this tweet.