‘Fifty drivers fight for one order’: Gig economy slammed by virus

Drivers waiting for work in Jakarta, Indonesia. Demand is down in Southeast Asia’s largest economy due to lockdown restrictions. (AFP)
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Updated 12 June 2020

‘Fifty drivers fight for one order’: Gig economy slammed by virus

SINGAPORE: Indonesian motorcycle taxi driver Aji chain-smokes and checks his smartphone constantly while waiting for orders by the roadside in downtown Jakarta on a hot June morning, but is staring at the prospect of another fruitless day.

Before the coronavirus outbreak hit, the 35-year-old father of four would ferry at least 20 passengers for a daily income of between $13 and $20 as a driver for homegrown ride-hailing app Gojek.

But when transportation services halted under a city lockdown, Aji considered it a good day if he got more than two food delivery orders, which pay him $0.70 each time. On some days, he has had none. Even with restrictions eased this week, he is struggling to feed his family.

“The situation is that there are many drivers but orders are few,” he said, asking to be identified only by his first name.

Eleven drivers for Gojek and Grab, which is backed by SoftBank Group, in Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand told Reuters they’ve similarly struggled, with income slashed by more than half as the pandemic batters Southeast Asia.

And, disappointingly, for both drivers and the companies, an increase in food deliveries — forecast as a major growth area for both firms — has come nowhere near compensating for the losses in transport.

Even in Vietnam, seen as a recovery success story, drivers are reeling.

“The pandemic may cost me and many colleagues our vehicles, which we had bought using borrowed money,” said Grab car driver Tung in Hanoi, fearing that lenders may repossess the vehicles.

Unions representing Gojek and larger Singaporean rival Grab, Southeast Asia’s most highly valued startup at $14 billion, say thousands of drivers are in the same situation, especially in Indonesia, both firms’ largest market.

Their plight threatens a core promise of both companies: that they can improve the lives of tens of millions of people across Southeast Asia even as they provide big paydays for their blue-chip corporate and financial investors.

Southeast Asian governments have warned millions could end up jobless as a result of the outbreak.

The two firms said they are supporting drivers with measures ranging from food packages and vouchers to low-interest bank loans and car rental rebates. But the crisis has also led them to cut the subsidies that have fueled their growth.

Doubts have also crept up about the ride-hailing model globally and on whether investors will continue pumping in massive funds into the startups.

Even before the pandemic, Grab and Gojek — like Uber and Lyft in the US and other ride-hailing firms around the world — were operating at a steep loss.

Grab co-founder Tan Hooi Ling has warned the company may potentially face a “long winter.”

Both companies still have plenty of cash. One source with knowledge of the matter said Grab has $3 billion in reserves. Sources familiar with Gojek’s finances said it was finalizing an over $3 billion investment round at a $10 billion valuation; Facebook and Paypal announced investments in Gojek’s fintech arm just last week, and it also counts Google and Tencent among its backers.

Each has avoided major layoffs so far, though Grab is implementing voluntary unpaid leave for staff and Gojek is reviewing its services. In the US, Uber, whose Southeast Asia business was bought by Grab, said it would cut 23 percent of its workforce. “Transport has fallen off a cliff, food has held steady, while logistics went through the roof and online payments are high . . . so having a portfolio of products helps,” said Gojek Chief Operating Officer Hans Patuwo. “If we were only a transport company, I’d be quite bowled over.”

Executives and investors at both firms point to the resurgence of orders at Chinese ride-hailing company Didi Chuxing as cause for optimism.

“The rate of recovery will be mostly dependent on when government lockdowns end,” said Grab Operations Managing Director Russell Cohen, noting Grab’s transport business had previously been profitable in several markets.

The crisis has revived speculation among investors about a merger of the two firms, which sources say has been discussed in early 2020, but not led to serious talks.

Gojek said any reports of a merger are inaccurate. A Grab spokesman declined to comment.

Grab and Gojek have long touted the fast-growing food delivery industry as a big opportunity. But with platforms taking only a 20-30 percent commission that is shared with drivers, margins are slim. And growth did not materialize in every market during the lockdowns.

A restaurant chain CEO in Jakarta said that food delivery had not picked up in Southeast Asia’s largest economy due to people cooking more at home and as most orders traditionally consisted of lunches for office workers, who are now at home.


Motorhomes come of age as Europe relaxes lockdowns

Updated 29 min 47 sec ago

Motorhomes come of age as Europe relaxes lockdowns

  • This form of transport means freedom — and health and safety into the bargain

PARIS: After months of working on the frontline in the battle against COVID-19, Spanish nurse Yone Alberich was ready for a holiday, but the question was how.

Going on holiday generally meant flying abroad — but with the virus still very much in the air, she didn’t want to take a plane. 

Nor did Alberich want to stay in a hotel or be around crowds of people. So she and her husband rented a motorhome.

“The idea was to keep away from people to avoid getting infected,” said the 32-year-old, who has a toddler and lives in the Valencian coastal town of Castellon.

“And with COVID, what could be better than traveling around with your house on your back?“

With social distancing the new norm in Europe to avoid any fresh outbreaks, there has been a shift in thinking about holidays, with a recent survey showing 90 percent of Spaniards would remain in Spain rather than traveling abroad. And 83 percent planned to use their own car over public transport.

Fabrizio Muzzati, who runs specialist Spanish travel agency Aquiestoy Caravaning, said that many people who never thought about a motorhome holiday are now considering it.

“At a time when the whole world is very much looking for a sense of security, there are a lot of people who are going to give it a go because of the circumstances.”

And as travel restrictions were eased, motorhome rentals resumed “intensively,” the Spanish mobile home and campervan association ASEICAR said last month, suggesting it may be “key to reviving tourism this summer.”

And it is not just in Spain. “Since the rollback, there’s been a real craze for motorhomes, everywhere,” says Francois Feuillet, president of the European Motorhome Federation. “The motorhome means freedom, savings and being green. Now we can add health and safety and for us, that’s a real boon.”

Across Europe, there has been growing interest in the sector and today there are five million users and two million vehicles in circulation, industry figures show. In Germany, Europe’s main market, more than 10,000 new motorhomes were registered in May, an increase of 32 percent year-on-year, while France added 3,529 new registrations — up nearly 2 percent.

And in Spain, a much smaller market but where interest is growing rapidly, there were 1,208 new vehicles registered in June — up 20 percent on last year, ASEICAR figures show.

There has also been a jump in demand in the rental market.

Yescapa, a peer-to-peer rental platform, registered more than 32,500 bookings across Europe in June, with requests for July and August 60 percent higher than in the same period last year.

Of that number, just under a third — or 9,435 — were in Spain.Despite the reopening of Europe’s borders on June 15, most people are reluctant to go abroad, Yescapa co-founder Benoit Panel said.

“Since COVID, there have been almost no cross-booking rentals,” he said, referring to travelers booking outside their country of origin, who usually constitute 20 percent of reservations.

First-time renter Jose Pascal Guiral, who runs a ceramics export business and always holidays abroad, took a motorhome as soon as lockdown ended, spending a week touring scenic mountain passes in the Spanish Pyrenees.

“It’s so much nicer than going in a plane or a hotel, it gives you a real sense of freedom. You go for a week and you feel like you’ve been on holiday for a month,” he said.

Julio Barrenengoa Gomez, director of Caravanas Holidays, said that the crisis has increased interest in national tourism.

“People tend to want a motorhome to travel around Europe but this year, they’re looking to stay here in Spain. With all our desire to visit Europe, it seems like we’ve forgotten just how beautiful Spain is. This year is going to boost national tourism.”

Others believe the health crisis will accelerate a shift away from the mass tourism of resorts, cruises and package holidays.

“This pandemic will change people’s habits because they’ll be less likely to stay in crowded places,” said Fernando Ortiz, director of established Spanish motorhome brand Benimar.

“Not necessarily because of the risk — they will find a vaccine — but because people like being able to change their plans from moment to moment while traveling,” he said. “And that is likely to last.”