Chennai: On October 19, 2019, Hyderabad’s transport came to a screeching halt as 60,000 drivers of Ola, Uber and local cab aggregators joined the 50,000 Telangana State Road Transport Corporation (TSRTC) employees demanding job security and better pay for two weeks to observe a statewide strike.
The joint action committee of the unions of cab drivers demanded better working conditions, higher per kilometre payment and compulsory KYC registration of customers to ensure their safety.
Traffic came to a standstill as the protesting cab drivers and the TSRTC employees clogged the main roads. Telangana governor Tamilisai Soundararajan, who got stuck on way to the airport, was provided the name and number of the person behind the strike.
“People are really struggling. Pleases understand,” Soundararajan said to the person at the other end of the line. “First, the government must meet our demands,” replied Shaik Salauddin, chairman, Telangana State Taxi and Driver Joint Action Committee (TSTD-JAC).
“I was under a lot of pressure that time. I am involved in a lot of cases with Ola, Uber, Swiggy and Zomato,” a proud Salauddin says. “Later, the governor called me to Raj Bhavan and requested to call off the strike. I convinced my companions to call it off.”
Recounting his early days as a cab driver and the frequent convener of demonstrations against the working conditions of drivers, Salauddin says, “Many troubled drivers approached me thinking Salauddin can help them get justice.”
Listing the “success” of the worker unions and associations he founded—Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers (IFAT), Telangana Gig and Platform Workers Union (TGPWU) or the Telangana Four Wheeler Driver’s Association (TFWDA)—Salauddin mentions his commitment to amplifying the growing chorus of the employees of Zomato, Swiggy, Ola and Uber against the “poor” working conditions.
Zomato’s latest announcement of delivering food in 10 minutes has raised safety concerns among its delivery partners and the TGPWU.
Soon after the announcement of ‘Zomato Instant’, TGPWU in a 500-word statement slammed the move: “These companies are arousing fantasy of instant delivery amongst the customers. But at the same time, these platforms wash off their hands by concealing the way they structure the work to portray as if delivery workers independently engage in traffic violation and hazardous driving conditions, risking themselves and the other pedestrians. However, it is the incentive-driven work conditions that these platforms actively shape which incite the delivery workers to chase those incentive targets.”
“I am no white-collar worker. I drive daily from 6 pm to 8 am and also manage the union,” Salauddin says adding that he sleeps mostly for only three to four hours. During weekends, he listens to the grievances of drivers from several districts and connects them to district officers, commissioners or ministers who can help.
“I don’t spend a lot of time with my wife and daughters Tanya, Sanya and Zainath.” But despite all the “sacrifices”, Salauddin is “satisfied because of the impact” of his efforts.
Salauddin was only in class 10 when he understood the meanings of hard work and struggle. His mother promised to buy a car if he passed the Board exam so that he could drive and earn for the family. However, he flunked the exam. Later, with his mother’s help, he purchased a Fiat and upgraded to an Ambassador and finally an Indica which he used to ferry government officials before founding TFWDA.
“Once, 3,000-4,000 drivers came to me with their problems in 2016. They all had problems with Ola and Uber. I found that their problems were genuine but they were trying to fight the companies in small groups. I knew something was wrong.”
Salauddin, who soon held a roundtable of every association representing the interests of gig workers, observed how every time they protested, newspapers termed them “scattered” or “small”. Determined to erase the description, he formed TSTD-JAC, which all private and government drivers under one umbrella.
“Today, we have 20 big associations representing thousands of drivers under the JAC. Now, private drivers who earned Rs 8,000 a month get Rs 20,000. Even the salaries of outsourced drivers have increased.”
Salauddin frequently tags ministers or CEOs in his tweets calling out the “hypocrisy and falsehoods in companies”. When a delivery partner meets an accident under pressure to deliver or a cab driver is exploited by Ola or Uber, he amplifies his cause and organises demonstrations—but under one condition.
“Only if more than 50% of our surveyed drivers agree to a strike, we go ahead. We’ve had this rule from the start,” says Salauddin says. “We will keep fighting. Our work is our identity and that is how our movement will grow.”
The writer is a postgraduate student at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.