E-hailing drivers divided over Uber, Bolt app shutdown

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 17 Jul 2023

E-hailing drivers are divided over today’s planned nationwide e-hailing protest, with many shutting down their apps, while others continue working.

The protest was expected to see scores of customers stranded today, as drivers go offline in protest of poor working conditions, safety and security concerns, and low wages.

According to drivers who spoke to ITWeb, while most have heeded the call to shut down their apps, e-hailing vehicles remain available in some parts of the country.

E-hailing drivers and operators have held protests over the past few years, marching to the Gauteng Transport Department and Uber and Bolt offices, to call for the introduction of a regulatory framework that would improve working conditions for the industry.

At the centre of their grievances are low earnings, which they say have been further exacerbated by the rising inflation and increased petrol prices.

Thato Ramaila, chairperson of the Soweto United E-hailing Association, told ITWeb that most drivers are participating in the nationwide protest.

“We want to frustrate the companies operating in the local e-hailing industry. We are hoping that after this shutdown, they will start engaging with us and adjusting their commission, and add new safety features on their apps. If they ignore our demands, then they would be forcing us to mobilise on the streets and hold a massive strike action,” explains Ramaila.

Bolt drivers are charged 20% commission, with an additional 5% booking fee deducted from each trip. Uber takes a 25% commission, with a booking fee of 3%.

Since inception, the industry has been plagued by violence, with many drivers being victimised and harassed over the past few years by metered taxi industry rivals and criminals. Others have also been hijacked and killed in the line of duty.

A memo distributed on social media to mobilise the drivers for the shutdown warns: “Passengers are urged to be cautious of their safety during the shutdown. All passengers are urged to make alternative transport arrangements to reach their destinations safely. We are not responsible for any violence and vandalism on any passenger and their luggage.”

Thato Ramaila, chairperson of the Soweto United E-hailing Association, and the memo distributed on social media.
Thato Ramaila, chairperson of the Soweto United E-hailing Association, and the memo distributed on social media.

Takura Malaba, regional manager for East and Southern Africa at Bolt, tells ITWeb that Bolt is aware of the protest by ride-hailing drivers. He says the company respects every driver’s right to protest legally, peacefully, and without impacting the rights of other drivers who are choosing to continue to operate.

“Bolt is constantly looking for ways to increase driver earnings, including incentivising passengers, launching new categories and marketing the Bolt platform to attract passengers.

“Crimes against ride-hailing drivers continue to be a national issue of great concern. The safety of passengers and drivers utilising the Bolt platform is of utmost importance to us. Bolt continuously develops safety features and tools that directly address drivers’ safety concerns. This includes an in-app integrated SOS emergency button and an audio recording feature.”

According to Malaba, most recently, Bolt introduced new categories that aim to positively impact drivers’ earnings. The new categories are Bolt, Go and Go Sedan.

“Bolt drivers will have higher hourly earnings as trips are priced higher in the Bolt category. But only a small portion of riders will be able to afford these trips,” notes Malaba.

The E-Hailing Partners Council (EPCO) says its members will not be participating in the protest because it was not formally/directly notified about the strike. Furthermore, the e-hailing body raises several concerns relating to the protest.

“The strike organisers remain unknown and faceless; as a result, there is no accountability nor direction. We don’t know if it is a strike, protest or a stay-away,” notes Melithemba Mnguni, EPCO secretary.

“We have not seen the memorandum of grievances and if there is any, where will it be submitted? We don’t know if the strike is legal or not, nor do we know how it is coordinated. We don’t know how long it is planned for.

“While we share the pain and suffering caused by lower fares, high commission and deaths brought about by the platforms not vetting both riders and drivers, it is for the above noted concerns that we are not convinced of this strike’s success and we as EPCO resolved to disassociate ourselves from it.”

Responding to ITWeb’s questions, an Uber spokesperson says the e-hailer holds continuous engagements with drivers through surveys and face-to-face roundtables. These have helped the company to understand the issues that earners face while operating on the platform.

“Through these engagements, we have, over time, implemented various measures and solutions to help improve earner experience on the Uber app,” says the spokesperson.

“We recently introduced a variable service fee in Durban, with a plan to roll this out to the other cities Uber operates in. In reviewing the fare policy, Uber takes into consideration the economic climate. Where fares are too high, there could be a risk of fewer or no requests from riders.”

The service fee, according to the spokesperson, ensures the running of the Uber app, and it also helps make continuous investments to enhance the technology designed to meet the needs of riders and drivers.

“We continue to invest heavily in technology and have launched several safety features over the years dedicated to the South African market. Drivers on the platform continue to enjoy all of the safety features available to them, such as the in-app emergency button, 24/7 in-app support and the Ride Check feature.”