Come what may, your ride is on the way!

Despite working rigorously and relentlessly in this brutal summer, taking up multiple jobs, bike taxi drivers scramble to earn a decent income.
Bike taxi riders are often compelled to accept orders from 11 am to 3 pm, the harsh hours of heat, daily to secure meagre incentives.
Bike taxi riders are often compelled to accept orders from 11 am to 3 pm, the harsh hours of heat, daily to secure meagre incentives. (Photo | Ashwin Prasath)

CHENNAI: Donning a lightweight full-sleeve shirt and a sturdy helmet, 25-year-old Hariharan faces the scorching sun every day as he sets out for work. Despite the discomfort of layering up in the heat, he resigns to the fact that there’s little one can do to avoid sunburns in his line of work. As a full-time gig worker, he’s had to adapt to the summer’s intensity by shifting his working hours.

“Earlier, I used to work continuously from morning to night. Nowadays, even though I want to do it, I can’t. So I have shifted my work timings from 2 pm to 12 am on most days,” he shares. But the reality of relying solely on bike taxi rides for income means that sometimes there’s no choice but to brave the morning hours.

Enduring the sweltering heat under their helmets, this summer, gig economy workers like Hariharan trudge through the streets. Despite their longing to be under safe working conditions, they find themselves trapped in the grind of the gig economy. While bike taxi riders provide a swift means of transportation to combat the traffic, they are often compelled to accept orders from 11 am to 3 pm, the harsh hours of heat, daily to secure meagre incentives.

“In this summer, the most vulnerable group includes gig workers, construction staff, and outside vendors. For gig workers, they don’t have any rules or policies from the company or the government. It is very essential to address the issue of every person,” says Prabhakaran Veeraarasu, environmental engineer of Poovulagin Nanbargal, an environmental movement in Tamil Nadu.

Too harsh for incentives

The struggle persists, particularly during peak hours. “In some apps, if you work during the peak hours like 7 am to 9 am or 12 pm to 2 pm, you might get incentives. It is because working in those hours can be dangerous. Since that’s the only option to earn extra money, most of the workers continue to do that,” says Rajiv, a part-time bike taxi driver of two years explains, bringing attention on the precarious balance between earning a living and risking one’s well-being.

For 36-year-old Solomon, supporting a family of eight adds extra pressure. “Mostly there is no option of not working during the hours of intense heat,” he explains. Despite striving to complete 30-35 rides a day, earning a decent income remains a challenge. “Rapido itself takes 30-35% of commission and after paying the fuel prices, whatever is left for us is very less. So we have to work too many hours to earn a decent sum per day,” he says.

Suresh, who works part-time as a bike taxi driver, echoes, “When customers book rides from 2-3 km apart, we might usually take some time to reach. In this heat and traffic, it will be really difficult to reach the location in the given time. Most of them cancel the rides while we are late and often we are left with no cancellation amounts,” he shares.

Amid these struggles, the placement of green nets at traffic signals in Puducherry to shield motorists from the summer sun has inspired the Chennai corporation to install similar nets at eight traffic signals in the city. While acknowledging the initiative, Hariharan remains skeptical. He says, “The green sheets are a good initiative, but it won’t reduce the trouble to a great level. Moreover, it is only installed in a few places.” Relief also comes in the form of shaded areas in the city.

Pandiyarajan who works part-time says, “If we get rides in areas like Anna Nagar, RA Puram, it is a great relief as there are trees and shades there. Comparatively, the heat is less but I do end up picking rides all around the city.” Applauding other initiatives of the city corporation like the availability of drinking water in most areas of the city, he adds “Clean drinking water is kept for free. And there are also a few areas were you get moru. Aana evlo thanni kudichalum pathathu ma (No matter how much water we drink, it is not enough).” He also highlighted the constant vigilance required in securing rides, as customers opt for bike taxis only when share autos or buses are unavailable. “There is a compulsion to be alert all the time, select orders, and reach there as soon as possible,” he adds.

Seeking support

To make ends meet, drivers like Rajiv have diversified the efforts, trying their hand at courier, and food delivery services. “There are no incentives for working so hard in this summer. Some food delivery apps promise incentives in harsh weather conditions,” he reveals, hinting at the lack of support for gig workers like himself. Yet, amid these challenges, Rajiv emphasises a need for change. He argues that while corporates benefit from the services of bike taxis, the workers themselves receive little support. “Corporates are the only ones getting benefitted from these bike taxis,” he asserts, underscoring the necessity for collaboration between the government and private entities to ensure the safety and well-being of the working community.

Even though there are organisations like The Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers (IFAT), a trade union formed in 2019, that represents workers of service aggregators such as Ola, Uber, Swiggy, and Zomato at the national level and The Tamil Nadu Platform Based Gig Workers Welfare Board under the Labour Welfare and Skill Development Department, most of the riders aren’t receiving support. Hariharan says, “We don’t know about any unions as there is no help coming our way, especially for bike taxi drivers. I am aware of a few Whatsapp groups where drivers discuss their problems but I am not part of any.”

Underscoring the intersectionality of environmental issues with gender, class, and caste dynamics, Prabhakaran says, “Even though the temperature rise is a common issue, the impact is much more for the weaker section of the society,” he remarks. Highlighting the disparity in access to resources, he notes, “Those who can afford an air conditioner, closed vehicle with air conditioning, they have a minimum chance of exposure.” Prabhakaran stresses the need for the labour department to address the specific challenges faced by gig workers.

In a proactive effort to address these concerns, Prabhakaran and members of Poovulagin Nanbargal have drafted a set of demands aimed at the inclusion of gig workers in the Heat Action Plan. “As stated in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme Rules, workers under this scheme should receive training on do’s and don’ts during heat waves and be provided with adequate shelter and safe drinking water,” the draft emphasises.

“Under Factories Act, time and work style regulation need to be done for gig workers,” Prabhakaran asserts. Additionally, he calls for the enactment of separate legislation prescribing working conditions and hours specifically tailored to gig workers’ needs.

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The New Indian Express