Uber drivers seek to join taxi firms, as tide turns after merger with Grab

On March 26, Grab announced it had bought over Uber’s business in South-east Asia — including in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand — after a bruising battle for market share and months of speculation. — Reuters pic
On March 26, Grab announced it had bought over Uber’s business in South-east Asia — including in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand — after a bruising battle for market share and months of speculation. — Reuters pic

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SINGAPORE, April 12 — In the latest twist to the topsy-turvy point-to-point transport sector, traditional taxi operators — which had suffered an exodus of drivers to ride-hailing firms — are now reporting a jump in the number of Uber drivers seeking to join or return to them.

This comes just over a fortnight after Grab announced it was acquiring Uber’s regional business.

Citing commercial sensitivities among other reasons, most of the operators TODAY approached declined to disclose figures, although electric-taxi operator HDT Singapore Taxi saw a 20 per cent spike in enquiries about its taxis since the Grab-Uber deal was made public on March 26.

James Ng, managing director of the operator’s parent company HDT Singapore Holding, said that “quite a number” of these drivers were from Uber, and some already hold a Taxi Driver’s Vocational Licence (TDVL). Apart from driving taxis, TDVL holders can operate private-hire cars.

Asked if it has seen more enquiries from Uber drivers wishing to rent its taxis since the Grab-Uber deal was announced, ComfortDelGro — the Republic’s largest taxi operator — said it has “seen a rise in the number of drivers renting our taxis in the last two months”. “There has also been an uptake in the number of TDVL applicants,” said Tammy Tan, ComfortDelGro’s group corporate communications officer.

Trans-Cab has also received more enquiries from not just Uber but Grab drivers since the announcement. Some have committed to renting a taxi, said its spokesperson. She cited the long hours on the roads and low fares on the ride-hailing platforms, and taxi drivers’ ability to pick up commuters on the kerbside as among the reasons drivers were looking to switch. “For taxi companies, it’s good news,” she said.

Nevertheless, Prime Taxi deputy general manager Neo Chee Yong said the impact of the Grab-Uber deal was “inconclusive” and the operator is monitoring the situation closely. SMRT Taxis and Premier Taxis did not respond to TODAY’s enquiries.

On March 26, Grab announced it had bought over Uber’s business in South-east Asia — including in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand — after a bruising battle for market share and months of speculation.

Responding to TODAY’s queries, Lim Kell Jay, head of Grab Singapore, reiterated the dynamism of the point-to-point transport market. “Be it private-hire cars or taxis, drivers can choose their preferred services based on their lifestyle needs and preferences. We are here to support them and are open for any drivers to leverage the Grab app for bookings,” he said.

Several former cabbies who had switched to Uber told TODAY they were planning to return to the taxi industry.

Kwan Kar Wai, 51, had driven taxis for more than a decade with ComfortDelGro and later SMRT Taxis, before crossing over to Uber last July.

He pointed out that driving for a ride-hailing platform means relying only on app bookings, which is an issue if Grab’s app is down. “Last week, the Grab app was down three times. If I’m a Grab driver, I totally can’t do any jobs, which means I have no income,” he said, pointing to the string of disruptions which hit the ride-hailing app last week.

Taxi drivers, on the other hand, have alternatives. “I can still do street pick-ups or queue at the taxi stands or any of the hotels or Changi Airport,” he said.

Potentially lower incomes was also an issue, said Kwan. He noted that a journey from Aljunied to Jurong in the west could cost S$19 (RM56.22), or about S$15 after deducting the 20 per cent cut Grab takes from its drivers. “It’s considered quite low. Price-wise, Uber’s a bit higher than Grab,” he said.

Former Trans-Cab cabbie-turned-Uber driver, Lau Kok Bin, 50, said he moved to the private-hire car sector in the middle of last year in hopes of snagging higher earnings.

However, he has been faced with the opposite. As a taxi driver, he took home around S$4,000 a month after deducting rent and petrol, compared with about S$2,500 presently. He lamented that much time is spent on the roads reaching customers, only to find that they have cancelled their bookings. “I should go back to taxis again. I still can pick up customers outside and by the metre,” he said.

Both Kwan and Lau have several months left on their contracts with Uber’s vehicle rental subsidiary in Singapore, Lion City Rentals (LCR), and they are attempting to return their cars early. “I asked my friend to see whether he can help me to write in to return the car early so that I can go back to drive a taxi without these problems,” said Kwan.

‘Contracts not binding anymore’, argue some Uber drivers

For now, Uber drivers who are adamant that they will not switch over to Grab are locked in a stalemate with LCR.

Grab has said that drivers who have signed on with LCR — typically on a six-month or one-year contract — will be able to accept Grab bookings. After their contract expires, they can opt to rent a car from GrabRentals.

But part-time Uber driver Alvin Chiam, 46, said the “lack of incentives makes it very hard to justify driving (for Grab)”. He noted that there are “too many negative comments” on Facebook about Grab’s “low fares and infrequent surge (pricing)”.

Other issues that some Uber drivers have against Grab are the perception that they can get penalised for slight infractions, and that it will be difficult for them to claim fares owed to them should payment disputes arise with the firm.

On Monday, Chiam, who works in the security line, was among a group of drivers who unsuccessfully tried to return their cars to LCR.

“They want us to pay a termination fee,” said Hamzah Mohammed, an Uber driver who had only been with the company for a month before the acquisition was announced.

Chiam said he argued against paying, citing a clause in his contract that explicitly stated he could only drive for Uber. “The whole point is not whether Uber still exists or not,” said Chiam. “The point is the contract has been changed, and I am exercising my right to terminate the contract.”

While the group of Uber drivers was initially told by LCR that it would look into their concerns, Chiam told TODAY on Wednesday that he received a text message from an LCR senior staff member that he would be “required to fulfil the contractual obligations till the Uber app shuts down”.

When contacted, Uber referred TODAY to the updated frequently-asked-questions (FAQ) section on LCR’s website.

Regarding Uber drivers who do not wish to continue driving for Grab but are concerned about breaching their contract, the FAQ states that it may review requests on a case-by-case basis “in exceptional circumstances”. It also provides an online form for such drivers asking them for their reasons, among other things.

Doris Chia, a lawyer with David Lim & Partners, said the affected Uber drivers may have a case. While she does not have all the necessary information, she noted that it “may be possible for a hirer to argue that the car rental contract he signed with (LCR) continues to apply except that he no longer needs to drive for Uber as it would have exited the Singapore market”. She added: “I am not sure that (LCR) can terminate the car rental agreement or ask the hirer to pay a penalty if it is terminated on the basis that he does not agree to drive for Grab instead.”

Ang Hin Kee, executive adviser to the National Private Hire Vehicles Association, said the association and the Government engaged LCR and Uber on the matter last week. On its part, LCR has committed to addressing the contractual issues as a “top priority”, he said.

Urging the affected drivers to discuss their situation with LCR, Ang — who is also a Member of Parliament for Ang Mo Kio group representation constituency — said the Land Transport Authority (LTA) has agreed to be the mediator. “When the rental operator is given approval to operate, contractual fairness must prevail,” he said.

Meanwhile, Uber’s app will operate until Sunday, after a one-week extension to facilitate the Singapore competition watchdog’s investigations into the deal.

Asked about the levels of customer support and safety for riders who continue to use Uber’s app, a Grab spokesperson reiterated that the Uber app is functional until April 15. “Uber’s call centre will continue to be in operation until then, and will be managed by a small team to address any queries,” the spokesperson said. — TODAY

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