February 14, 2022
ISLAMABAD – The ‘gig economy’ has taken off in Pakistan in a big way. But while tech start-ups continue to make news for securing millions of dollars in investment, the riders — the cogs turning the wheels of these companies’ ambitious visions — are not seeing the benefits of this growth. As this sector continues to become a pivotal part of the economy, creating even more job opportunities, how can the riders be protected?
Rubia Nadeem always dreamt of learning how to ride a bike. Her childhood wish was finally granted a couple of years ago when her husband taught her how to ride. Being in the driver’s seat — or rather rider’s seat — changed her life. She could pick her children from their schools and colleges. Run errands. Do so many things that she would previously have to rely on her husband to do.
Her husband had been struggling with tuberculosis and their bills were piling up. Their kids had grown older — their oldest daughter was pursuing a bachelor’s degree, while their other children were in grades 12, 10, five and four — and their expenses were increasing.
So, in September last year, Rubia decided things had to change. Her ability to ride a bike and her fearless attitude made her the perfect candidate to join a bike-based ride hailing and parcel delivery service. She is now one of the few women in the trade, riding on the streets of Lahore.
Rubia’s has become a success story. The company got her a bike. She has gotten media attention. She has worn a pink shalwar qameez and a mask with a skull on it, and spoken to an online publication. And, most importantly, she has been able to support her family financially.
The odd jobs that she would previously do translated to the meagre pay of 4,000 rupees a month. “Teaching jobs would also pay about that much,” she tells Eos. Today, Rubia makes about five times that. Driving 4-5 hours a day through the streets of Lahore, she is now able to earn around 500 rupees daily, after accounting for fuel expenses and commissions. There were many ride hailing apps that she could choose from. Of course, after doing her research, she chose the one with the biggest payday.
Being a female rider comes with additional challenges. Rubia tries to work only during the day and sometimes male customers cancel their trips because they do not want to sit behind a woman. “There have also been instances when a customer asked to ride the bike himself and I had to sit behind,” she shares.
However, for female ride-hailing customers — who are much fewer in numbers — Rubia’s presence provides a sense of security and comfort.
This identifies the need for expanding cheaper means of commuting to women who often have to rely on the much more expensive car-hailing services because of cultural or safety reasons.
Both Careem and Bykea have previously announced programmes, in partnership with Women on Wheels, to train female riders. The former even introduced an in-app button for women customers to book a female captain. However, not much seems to have come out of these initiatives, as evidenced by the negligible number of female riders.
Rubia wants to see more women such as herself enter this line of work. She knows there is a demand for women riders. “Khawateen clients tau hain [There are women clients],” she says. One woman Rubia dropped even asked her for her number to arrange for a pick and drop. “They would obviously prefer women riders,” she says.
Rubia’s is the kind of success story Pakistani technology companies would like you to read. The kind of stories that have helped them produce pitches featuring faces of those they have empowered. The kind of stories that keep attracting thousands to join in. But these tales, while true, are not the full story.
Over the past few years, Pakistani tech companies have emerged from the shoddy towers of Karachi’s Sharae Faisal, and have swiftly moved from exporting software services to becoming a daily part of an urban citizen’s life. Whether you want to buy a new phone, call a cab to commute to work or order food from a restaurant, there is a start-up simplifying these tasks for you.
Look at some of the biggest household names operating in the country’s tech space and what do you find? Is it their search and prediction algorithms which are driving this growth? Far from it. Their customer service? Most definitely not. Then what [or rather who] is behind this growth?
The engine of the Pakistani start-up ecosystem is the rider, equipped with a bike, a worn out smartphone and an arched back due to long working hours. These men, and some women such as Rubia, are helping the country move to the digital economy.
However, despite being the true enablers of Pakistan’s transition towards this new economy, they are hardly talked about, unless some tragedy befalls one of them. Every now and then, the story of a rider struggling to make ends meet, or not even having a single moment to eat a proper meal between delivering meals to others, goes viral on social media. The social media accounts of the specific app service immediately go into damage control mode — asking for the specific rider’s details, feigning surprise and ignoring larger patterns.
The posh app founders from elite schools and colleges continue to give speeches in their foreign accents, telling stories of grit at conferences and talk shows. But the people who are actually turning that vision into reality toil ride after ride for, more or less, 100 rupees apiece.
Much like the rest of the world, Pakistan has been witnessing the rise of the ‘gig economy’ — where temporary jobs and indepedent contractors are more common than full-time workers — which started with the success of ride-hailing services. In order to make their way into the local market, these platforms started incentivising car owners to list themselves on the app, offering take-home pay that went as high as 100,000 rupees a month. And then came bike-hailing, which took this idea to a much broader market.
A few years later, the market players have increased and the companies have opened new economic frontiers by combining a smartphone with a bike. But the incentives and take-home packages have decreased.
According to a survey by RestofWorld.org, gig workers are worse off in South Asia than in other parts of the world. In Pakistan, gig workers make around 6.64 dollars per day (or 1,156 rupees at the applicable exchange rate as of February 8). According to the same survey, 34 percent of the riders in Pakistan have a university education and 13 percent have a postgraduate education. Still, people continue to join this workforce because it is better than the alternatives.
Every now and then, the story of a rider struggling to make ends meet, or not even having a single moment to eat a proper meal between delivering meals to others, goes viral on social media. The social media accounts of the specific app service immediately go into damage control mode — asking for the specific rider’s details, feigning surprise and ignoring larger patterns.