The unemployed and small business owners turn to ride-sharing apps to pay their billsMany who have lost jobs or are incurring huge loss in their businesses have joined the gig economy to earn a living, with the vast majority of them opting to work as riders on ride-sharing platforms.
Sitting on his parked motorbike beside an upscale restaurant in Lazimpat, Uttam Kumar Rai, his head bowed, stares intermittently at his smartphone’s Pathao app, a ride-sharing app.
It’s almost noon, and Rai has just completed a ride request from Boudha to Lazimpat. And until he gets a new ride request on the app, all Rai can do is wait.
After around 10 minutes of waiting, a ride request pops up. Rai is quick to accept it, and he speeds away.
On any given day, Rai, a full-time Pathao rider, takes anywhere between 12 to 15 rides. He starts early, around 8 am every day, and by the time he gets home in his rented accommodation in Kapan, it’s usually 7 pm.
Until a few months ago, Rai’s daily routine was completely different. He held a 9-5 job at a financial investment company, and it was only during his free time that he worked as a Pathao rider to make extra money.
But in February this year, says Rai, a disagreement with the company’s HR left him with no option but to quit. “I was told by the company’s HR that upon completing two years at the company, I would get a better contract. But when the time came, the HR reneged on the promise,” said Rai. “I felt disrespected and unappreciated, and I decided to resign.”
After putting in his papers, Rai started applying for jobs but before he could land one, the pandemic hit, and for months, Rai was left without a source of income.
When the lockdown loosened, Rai left for his village in Khotang and returned to Kathmandu only a month ago, and he has since been working full-time as a Pathao rider.
Rai’s case isn’t an outlier.
Ever since the lockdown loosened, many who have lost jobs and owners of small businesses that have been hit hard by the pandemic have joined the gig economy to earn a living, the vast majority of them opting to work as riders on ride-sharing platforms.
Data from ride-sharing apps like Pathao and Tootle show a huge surge in the number of new applicants wanting to sign up and work as riders in the midst of a pandemic.
Starting from June, Pathao, says the platform’s senior manager Shashank Shumsher Thapa, was inundated with queries from people wanting to sign up on the platform.
The situation was similar at Tootle.
“We were seeing anywhere between 80 to 100 new applicants daily,” said Sixit Bhatta, co-founder of Tootle.
But during the first few weeks following the lockdown, with many people reluctant to step outside their homes, demand for rides on ride-sharing platforms was low.
“Given the low demand, it didn’t make sense for us to accept new applicants because that would mean existing riders on the platform would end up getting much fewer rides,” said Thapa.
But soon, Pathao, says Thapa, started receiving messages from people saying how they have lost jobs, their businesses have suffered immensely and that they desperately need the gig as a rider to make a living with.
“So for the first few weeks after the lockdown, we decided to screen and accept riders on a case-by-case basis to ensure that those who were financially struggling due to the pandemic have a chance to get on board the platform and at the same time not significantly disrupt the supply-demand balance,” said Thapa.
When the nation-wide lockdown was announced in March, Roshan (name changed) didn’t think it would last that long. In January, he and his friend had started a small restaurant. “We spent Rs 400,000 in setting up the place and business was doing okay and we were hoping that things would pick up,” said Roshan. “When the lockdown hit I wasn’t very worried because I thought things would return to normalcy in a few weeks and the whole thing would just be a minor setback.”
But as the lockdown stretched for months, fear and worry began to creep in.
“Despite remaining shut for four months and with no business at all, we still had to pay rent, and that crippled us financially. When the lockdown loosened in July, we reopened but business was very slow,” said Roshan.
In September, out of desperation, Roshan started working as a rider for a ride-sharing platform.
“Last year, I signed up on Tootle and Pathao and worked as a rider for a few months. But when my mother came to know about it and she got worried and asked me to quit,” said Roshan.
But this time, Roshan says he has no option but to work as a rider and keep it hidden from his family.
Roshan now divides his time between his restaurant and ride-sharing platform.
Until 9 am, Roshan helps his partner at the restaurant in getting things ready for the day, and by 10 am, he is out ferrying passengers on the back of his scooter.
“I make sure I am back at the restaurant before six in the evening because things get slightly busy at the restaurant around that time,” said Roshan. “I manage to do around eight to 10 rides in a day and after my expenses, I save around Rs 700.”
Since the lockdown loosened, says Thapa, riders on Pathao are also taking twice the number of rides they used to before the pandemic.
“This trend clearly shows that the number of riders who rely on the platform for their livelihood has increased significantly,” said Thapa.
Both Rai and Thapa say that they are grateful that ride-sharing platforms are providing many like them a source of income at such an economically volatile time in their lives.
“To be honest, I am making more money working as a rider than I used to work at the financial investment company. My salary then was Rs 19,000 a month. But now I make that amount in around 20 days,” said Rai.
But it’s a hard job, says both Rai and Roshan.
“Riding a motorbike in this cold isn’t easy and after riding for hours, in the evening, your back hurts a lot,” said Roshan.
For Rai, the biggest drawback of working in the gig economy as a rider is the risks involved.
“When you are riding for hours on a daily basis, you are obviously more predisposed to auto accidents. And if a rider injures himself/herself, they are on their own. That’s a huge risk for riders,” said Rai. “But then in the present scenario, those who are doing it full time are doing so out of desperation. The bills have to be paid.”