On a busy Thursday afternoon in downtown Bangkok, 800 motorcycle delivery drivers clad in iconic green vests converged to protest in front of Grab headquarters on Phetchaburi Road to air their frustration towards its new policy which requires drivers to book a time slot and area to work in.
The protests of these delivery-motorcycle drivers have become a semi-frequent occurrence in recent years largely due to their status as informal gig workers or independent contractors who have no legal protection or social welfare benefits under Thai labour law.
A brief look at past protests reveals complaints ranging from a lack of accident insurance coverage, drivers being forced to purchase company equipment, creation of city zones stipulating areas where drivers cannot stray from for customers, as well as frequent changes to their earnings structure. Without protection guaranteed by law as is the case in employee-employer relationships, protest has become the main channel for drivers to voice frustration and initiate dialogue. But is that really the best way?
In this latest show of discontent, drivers blocked traffic during rush to draw attention to the issue. Many argue the company's changed policy is the result of a glut of motorcycle drivers enlisting to work using the platform, which has reduced income per head, making it tough for these concession drivers to make ends meet amid rising living and fuel costs.
The protesting Grab riders also claimed they are no longer free to make their own schedule, a major perk of the gig economy they previously enjoyed. This is a troubling development as having delivery riders compete for limited opportunities creates a dangerous environment as the pressure to work harder for the same or less can lead to increased stress.
With the economy still recovering after the pandemic, the country cannot afford to have more people unemployed. Corporate management's failure to show up further agitated these riders. It was not until they were finally promised a response within 14 days that the protest subsided.
Since coming into the market a decade ago, app-based service providers have scaled rapidly on the back of gig workers. According to the International Labour Organization, the market value for food delivery and ride-hailing services such as Grab and Lineman is expected to reach US$7 billion (260.4 billion baht) by 2025, up from just $1.1 billion in 2020.
Prior to the pandemic, many Thais worked for these app-based services as a sideline to earn extra money. However, the pandemic and ensuing lockdown saw many who lost their job flock to the platform to make ends meet.
Delivery motorcycle drivers were hailed as heroes who worked tirelessly and risked contracting the virus to bring goods to people who were unable or afraid to leave their homes.
But like always, the good times don't last. While app-based services were able to handle the surge of new drivers during the pandemic thanks in part due to the surge in demand from consumers, the workload has now decreased. However, people have become tighter with their purses as the economy has tanked.
But will reclassifying gig workers as employees fix the problem? Though it might in the eyes of delivery drivers, it will also increase the overheads of app-based providers, and unless more funding is pumped in by investors, any additional cost will be passed onto consumers who are already price-sensitive.
So, it could counterintuitively result in fewer users and order volumes, a situation that will ultimately negatively affect drivers the most in terms of earning prospects.
A better approach to resolve uncertainty faced by drivers would be to assist in up-skilling gig workers to prepare them for opportunities where demand and stability co-exist. Also, the government should at least intervene to define minimum standards of working conditions and ensure guaranteed minimum pay and maximum allowable hours.
Let's remember that delivery motorcycle drivers are an integral part of the city's economy. It's almost impossible to go outside without seeing drivers zipping around with passengers, food, or other items. App-based companies should respect their contribution to their huge profits so they don't feel obliged to disrupt city areas to have their voices heard. At the very least, there should be accessible channels for them to communicate. It's the first step which the government should insist the app companies take, instead of letting these gig economy workers go it alone.