The Big Read: Private-hire drivers face roadblocks as they seek way out of once-lucrative industry

The Big Read: Private-hire drivers face roadblocks as they seek way out of once-lucrative industry

Private-hire drivers, dogged by meagre incentives and earnings, face difficulties in finding another job as many have few transferable skills.

GrabCar
A Grab Singapore ride. (Photo: Grab's Facebook page)

SINGAPORE: Two years ago, Grab driver Muhammad Syahmi joined a ride-hailing industry brimming with rosy prospects.

Buoyed by generous incentives dished out by firms, drivers cashed in on the lucrative business, where earning a decent wage was a relative breeze. “It was … easy money (then),” said Mr Syahmi, 25.

For many drivers like him, however, the tide has since turned: Dogged by meagre incentives and fares in recent months, those bolting for the exit have found themselves in a quandary, as they struggle to land jobs after years in the driver’s seat.

And they cannot say they had not been warned.

It was not too long ago that observers and experts cautioned that providing a private-hire car service could harm drivers’ job prospects. It did not add to their resumes and offered little in the way of skills-building, they had said.

But few were prepared to listen then, as ride-hailing firms such as Grab and Uber grew rapidly in Singapore after muscling into the point-to-point transport sector in 2013, and turning the industry on its head.

A view of Uber and Grab offices in Singapore
A view of Uber and Grab offices in Singapore on Mar 26, 2018. (File photo: Reuters/Edgar Su)

These fears are now being lived out by drivers, as some — seeking a way out for months — have been met with nothing but rejections.

Since Grab’s acquisition of Uber’s regional operations in March, Mr Syahmi has fired off no fewer than 50 job applications.

The polytechnic graduate, who has a diploma in outdoor and adventure learning, went after openings in areas ranging from customer service to hospital patient service.

He was called up for four interviews, but has yet to bag a job offer.

The soft-spoken young man cited a depleting wage, and concerns over advancement as the main reasons he is searching for greener pastures.

“At my age, I should be doing other jobs for stability and (better) prospects,” he said.

IN THE SAME BOAT

There are many existing or former private-hire car drivers in a similar predicament, including the thousands who recently left the industry following the new licensing regime.

In July, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) said nearly half of the private-hire car drivers — 20,900 out of 42,900 — who received a one-year concession to attend a course and pass a test to obtain their vocational licence failed or did not attempt the test. Those who received the licence numbered 22,000.

Drivers who applied for the Private Hire Car Driver’s Vocational Licence (PDVL) before July last year had to undergo the course and pass the test by Jun 30 this year to continue offering the service. The licence was introduced last year to ensure that drivers had the requisite skills to provide the service safely.

private hire care decal
The decal that all private-hire cars drivers have to display on their vehicles.

The Employment and Employability Institute (e2i), one of the test centres for the PDVL, has also been helping drivers without a licence find jobs.

Its spokesperson said drivers are still employable in other sectors, but noted that those who have provided chauffeured services for the past two or three years “may not be familiar with the current employment landscape or know how to go about seeking new employment”.

“As such, they will need time and effort to transit into full employment, and therefore, we are helping with these interventions,” the spokesperson added.

The institute did not provide figures for drivers who have approached it for such help, nor did it specify how many drivers had been matched to jobs.

READ: Who are the winners and losers in Grab-Uber deal in Southeast Asia?

READ: Flawed to think the Grab-Uber merger will lead to monopolistic prices, a commentary

INCOMES HIT, POOR ADVANCEMENT

In the wake of the Grab-Uber deal, many drivers cried foul as their incomes took a battering after Grab slashed its drivers’ incentives, which until then served as a considerable boost to their earnings.

Drivers were hit in the pocket, as they reported lower earnings even after investing longer hours on the road each day.

For Grab driver Edmund Chua, 60, driving for at least 10 hours a day now nets him up to S$2,000 monthly. By contrast, in 2015, drivers who hit the roads for less than eight daily could earn S$2,500 quite easily with incentives, he said.

As recently as last year, drivers could snag weekly incentives of at least S$500 for completing a certain number of trips. Grab has since cut these to S$150, drivers said.

singapore traffic
File photo of traffic in Singapore. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Mr Chua, a former contract teacher in secondary schools, said he plans to return to adjunct teaching, “in case I cannot drive anymore because I can be tired”.

“If private-hire drivers lose their jobs, they need to have a plan B. I don’t think this will be sustainable as a profession,” said the father of two daughters aged 13 and 15.

But the anxieties faced by drivers go beyond plummeting incomes. The lack of career prospects also weighs on the minds of some.

“When you drive for too long, maybe people think that you only can drive and you don’t have a lot of skills,” said Mr Syahmi, whose flurry of job applications were sent via various online portals, including Monster and JobStreet.

Nevertheless, he said driving has taught him soft skills, such as controlling his emotions when dealing with irate or demanding passengers. 

“We tend to be more patient or calm … skills that are quite important if we want to work in the customer-service line,” said Mr Syahmi, who added that he would leave straight away if a job offer lands.

Another driver, who wanted to be known only as Mr Sim, 38, stopped driving for Grab in June. His “long-term prospects” were the main consideration, he said, so he jumped at an opportunity in logistics operations when it emerged.

“Based on my age, I feel that driving can be something (I could do) towards retirement. It’s not a job I look forward to doing until the end of (my) days,” Mr Sim said.

The prospects for drivers, he added, were not as good as before and the dearth of benefits — such as contributions to the Central Provident Fund savings scheme — was a drawback.

For others, like Ms Vanessa Tiffany, 43, driving is not their only source of income. Apart from running a children’s events company, she is a relief teacher at a playgroup.

She cautioned drivers against relying on full-time driving as their rice bowl. 

“You’re not (going to) get anything. (You’ve to spend) 18 hours on the road every day to get S$4,000-plus (each month). In the end, you’ll fall sick,” the mother of three said.

FILE PHOTO: Commuters walk past a Grab transport booking service app advertisement at a train stati
Commuters walk past a Grab transport booking service app advertisement at a train station in Singapore February 10, 2016. (File Photo: REUTERS/Edgar Su)

READ: Ride-hailing apps – consumers have to ‘suck it up’ as larger issues are tackled, a commentary

Asked how the company was dealing with drivers’ concerns over reduced incentives and earnings, Grab Singapore head of transport Andrew Chan said its focus was to keep its drivers’ operating costs low, and to support them and their families.

Mr Chan noted that Grab was expanding its Better 365 programme, which improves drivers’ experience and welfare.

Apart from fuel discounts and free personal accident insurance coverage, Grab recently introduced a three-day rental subsidy for top drivers when they take time off from driving, said Mr Chan.

Other initiatives include discounts for medical services for drivers and their families, and education bursaries for their children.

“While the freelance nature of the gig economy often results in higher turnover rates than other industries, we continue to find more ways and opportunities to maximise our driver-partners’ earnings through better technology, more ancillary revenue streams through GrabAds, and Better 365,” Mr Chan said. 

“This model is more sustainable and improves overall income in the long run for our driver-partners.”

It is understood that Grab also has a partnership with government agency SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG), under which workshops are conducted to help drivers identify their skills-upgrading needs and how they can better tap the resources available. There is also a set of training courses curated for drivers.

Meanwhile, home-grown ride-hailing service Ryde said its drivers’ earnings have been “healthy”. They earn an average full-time income of S$5,500 monthly, after deducting commission fees, its spokesperson said.

Ryde takes a 10 per cent cut from its private-hire car drivers, lower than the 20 per cent commission Grab levies on its drivers.

File photo Ryde app
File photo of a person using Ryde's services.

ALTERNATIVES: FOOD DELIVERY, CHAUFFEURING VISITORS

While many drivers are looking to get out of the ride-hailing industry, some have found other ways to make ends meet.

These include taking on bookings from tourists — mostly from China — and chauffeuring them to and from the airport as well as between major tourist sites.

Others have switched to become delivery-partners under Grab’s food-delivery service GrabFood, for example.

Mr Ong Boon Piew, 56, who has failed at least 10 attempts at the PDVL test, said he was left with no choice but to become a GrabFood delivery-partner.

Armed with a motorcyclist’s licence, Mr Ong bought a motorcycle of more than 10 years from a friend in July for about S$3,000.

The former lorry crane driver said food delivery was less stressful than driving a private-hire car, as he did not have to pay rental.

Right now, he clocks between eight and 10 hours a day, receiving about two assignments every hour. On good months, he can earn more than S$3,000.

He acknowledged, however, that he could earn more as a private-hire car driver, although this entailed clocking longer hours on the road.

Mr Ong said he will reapply for a Taxi Driver’s Vocational Licence, which allows licensees to drive both taxis and private-hire cars. But for the moment, he said in Mandarin: 

I have no choice. Without the option of (private-hire car driving), I’ve to find another job as a substitute.

GrabFood crew can deliver food on bicycles, motorcycles, personal mobility devices including electric scooters, and even on foot. Those who wish to use cars must ensure that they are not using a private-hire chauffeured motor car or station wagon, Grab said.

GrabFood delivery
File photo of a GrabFood delivery. (Photo: Grab)

Under the LTA’s regulations, taxis and private-hire cars are meant to carry passengers for hire and reward, and cannot be used for the conveyance of goods for reward. Drivers accepting such jobs may have their vocational licences revoked, said an LTA spokesperson.

The spokesperson added that owners who use their private vehicles to carry out a business for the transportation of goods must ensure that their vehicles have appropriate insurance cover for such additional uses.

Grab’s spokesperson said last month that it has helped the majority of its drivers who did not obtain their PDVL by Jun 30 and were keen to explore other career options. This included converting them to GrabFood delivery-partners and referring them to e2i.

“For those who wish to retake their PDVL, Grab continues to support these drivers with their reapplication process and provides free revision classes to help them better prepare for the exams,” added the spokesperson.

Meanwhile, drivers such as Mr Chris Koh, 51, are devoting the bulk of their time to fulfilling bookings from tourists largely from China. For them, Grab rides have been relegated to a secondary source of income.

These drivers shuttle tourists between the airport and their hotels, or to tourist attractions, such as the Merlion, Gardens by the Bay and the National Gallery Singapore.

Linking up with riders via China-based applications such as Hi Guides and Yun Di Jie, drivers said that at peak travel seasons, such as during China’s recent summer school holidays, they earned nearly twice as much as what they drew from Grab rides.

Prices are fixed by the apps, where users can choose from a range of car types, said Mr Koh, who began taking on these bookings about a year ago and knows of 80 to 100 drivers doing the same.

Drivers in five-seat cars earn S$30 to S$35 for a journey from the airport to downtown Singapore, compared with about half (S$18) on Grab, before deducting commission fees, he said.

china tourists in singapore
Chinese tourists taking pictures against the iconic Merlion statue in Singapore. (File photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

Mr Koh has cut down on Grab bookings significantly, doing just 20 rides a week now, compared with 80 to 120 trips previously.

He also gets more satisfaction from interacting with the tourists. “We get to know people from overseas, mainly … from different parts of China. We’re like ambassadors (of Singapore) as well,” he said.

Mr Koh said it was “optional” for drivers to show their guests around the attractions and they do not get paid for this, recognising that tourist guides must hold a licence granted by the authorities.

Another driver, who wanted to be known only as Mr Lim, 50, said he gets at least four such chauffeured bookings daily, including airport transfers and trips to take in the sights. He also takes on limousine services for business guests. 

Apart from China, his customers are from Korea, Japan, Russia, the United States and the Middle East, among other places.

Ms Ong Ling Lee, the Singapore Tourism Board’s director of travel agents and tourist guides, said that the agency monitors such practices and has contacted some platforms to tell them about Singapore’s legislation on guiding services, where necessary.

Ferrying tourists does not constitute guiding, said Ms Ong, but she added that individuals must hold a valid tourist-guide licence if they provide guiding services to one or more tourists for remuneration.

Mr Koh said that he was mulling over taking up a tourist-guide licence in the longer run. However, juggling the course, which lasts about half a year, with his driving commitments would be cumbersome, he said.

HELP AVAILABLE

Members of Parliament (MPs) from the labour movement urged drivers to gain new skills even while on the job, so as to prepare themselves for other jobs should the need arise.

Mr Desmond Choo, an assistant secretary-general with the National Trades Union Congress, acknowledged that re-skilling and re-training can be difficult at times for many of these drivers, especially those who are older.

READ: People ready to retire later but preparing older workers will require more than reskilling, a commentary

Security guard Singapore
A security guard in Singapore. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

But he urged them to seek help from the National Private Hire Vehicles Association (NPHVA), which can work with organisations such as e2i to help workers gain new skills under the Government’s Adapt and Grow employment-support initiative.

For instance, the Place-and-Train Professional Conversion Programmes, where workers are hired by employers and trained to take on new jobs, will allow drivers to make the transition, said Mr Choo, an MP for Tampines Group Representation Constituency (GRC).

“This process will take some time, so it’s important that the workers have to start this journey earlier,” he added.

Mr Choo said that through the relevant agencies, drivers can also be matched to industries for which they have more “transferable skills”, such as the automotive sector as driving instructors or the public transport industry as bus drivers.

It is also key for younger drivers to avail themselves of career-planning resources such as the NTUC’s Youth Career Network, which helps workers keep in step with industry trends and skills in demand.

With better career planning, they are able to see other career opportunities rather than just driving for Grab.

There is also a need to help drivers gain transferable skills, said Mr Choo. In this regard, modular, bite-sized training — conducted online, for instance — that could count towards a diploma or certificate will become increasingly important.

“While they may not be able to go to classes full-time, they can learn during their free time and then (attend) a few days of classes and … over a certain period of time, they can get a certificate,” he said. “This must be the new direction.”

Besides help from e2i and government agencies SSG and Workforce Singapore, Mr Ang Hin Kee, executive adviser to the NPHVA and the National Taxi Association, said that both associations have asked and will continue to call on the LTA to allow private-hire car and taxi drivers to be allowed to deliver parcels, in order to “monetise their time”.

Taxis plying the road in Singapore
Taxis plying the road in Singapore. (File photo: Francine Lim)

At TransportSG, a division of e2i, drivers are coached on job opportunities and the employment landscape. Employability coaches can also guide them to pick up new skills.

e2i’s spokesperson said drivers stand a much higher chance of landing a job through job matching or career fairs if they are “job-ready”. In July, the institute had 14 employers engage drivers who were seeking other driving-related positions, for instance.

It also designed a new Career Trial-cum-Place and Train Programme to help drivers without the PDVL find jobs. Under the Career Trial, drivers will be placed for a month with employers, who are encouraged to recruit them as full-time staff members at the end of the stint with a wage support scheme.

The programme is not confined to certain industries or job types, although driving-related positions are among the options. “We will assess the applicants’ transferable skillsets and work with them to match job positions according to their best fit,” said the e2i spokesperson.

Mr Choo said the gig economy is a permanent and growing part of the workforce not just in Singapore but globally, as app-based work becomes more common.

“It’s not a bad thing … because it does allow people to transit to industries to find new sources of income more flexibly,” he added, though concerns remain over how to better protect such self-employed workers and ensure their long-term financial security.

Agreeing, Mr Ang reiterated that disruptive technologies will create new job opportunities for workers, but also disrupt existing ones. “As a global phenomenon, we are better off finding a way to manage it than to reject it,” said the MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC.

As for Mr Syahmi, he recognises the benefits of picking up new skills as he looks for a new job. He said: 

We’re quite used to being our own boss… (but) we can’t be drivers our whole life

He is thinking of learning another language, such as Mandarin, which will come in handy for jobs in customer service, for example.

However, he will not be approaching e2i for help for now, as he would like to secure a job on his own. “I just want to discover where I should go myself,” he said.

Source: TODAY/nr(sl)

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