One of the more familiar sounds of Dhaka — “Ai khali” (loosely translates into “Hey empty!”) — is also a ride hailing call from passengers out on the streets trying to catch the attention of rickshaw or autorickshaw drivers. Ebbing and flowing, these calls, to the gravitational pull of the work day, or weekends, holidays, supply and demand. An act similar to raising your arms to call a yellow cab in New York, each place generating collective tendencies, a habitus coalesced from everyday practice and need. “Ai khali” isn’t Dhaka culture any more than a raised arm is New York culture; it isn’t culture in that voyeuristic, slightly ordered understanding of the term. In an unkempt use of the word, something specific to a place but without design — at some point people started using it and others picked up, hence that organic familiarity — an attachment, “ai khali” is of Dhaka.
Like many other cities, the entry of Uber and other ridesharing apps are about to usurp this interaction in Dhaka, a piece of urban ephemera, with algorithm-driven, seemingly frictionless encounters between the ride and rider. Using this phrase to call attention to a driver has not always been a feature of Dhaka streets, nor is it universal and would-be passengers use other phrases and gestures too, but it is common enough to register as significant. With time “ai khali” could disappear just as it emerged, unheralded, but ridesharing apps resurface landscapes and encounters
in the monotony of an algorithm so these encounters, or at least their process, feels the same no matter where one is. New York isn’t obviously Dhaka, but in an algorithm imaginary many of these differences are attractive for disruption. For Dhaka, that disruption is replacing the messiness of hailing and bargaining with app-mediated interactions with drivers. But there is a cost to engineering away unpredictability of human relationships no matter how transient, whether in ride hailing or dating. Sold as convenience and data-driven matchmaking to reduce friction, these mediations may also as Frank Pasquale writes in “Two Narratives of Platform Capitalism” (2017) lead to customers experiencing “loss of agency when serendipitous or unpredictable options are effectively hidden or obscured.”
Uber’s entry into Bangladesh in November 2016 was underlined with confusion as the country’s road transport authority declared its operations illegal. They said the company did not seek or have permission to operate but this decision was reversed in less than a week. After a meeting with Uber’s South Asia representative, the regulatory body announced to the media Uber could function as long as the vehicles were registered for commercial use. But Uber itself does not own or operate any of the vehicles, leaving the company out of any effective oversight. In this soft focus regulatory haze, Uber and other ride hailing apps have established themselves as popular transportation options for residents starved of a reliable, safe, accessible public transport infrastructure in a city of almost 14.5 million people.
So, when autorickshaw workers’ union announced a strike in late 2017 around Uber’s one-year anniversary in Bangladesh, among their demands, a ban on ride hailing apps, commuter displeasure turned hostile against autorickshaw drivers. On social media, siding with ride hailing apps, riders called for an autorickshaw boycott, accusing drivers of fare gouging and meter tampering. “It is quite justifiable that no one has any sympathy for them,” one passenger was quoted in the media and most media reports echoed similar sentiments — hapless passengers versus conniving drivers. Here for example is a letter to the editor: “The commuters also appear to have taken a strong stance in support of the app-based services. Many common people are of the view that Pathao is a great way of avoiding traffic gridlock in the city while Uber is a means of passenger-friendly transport.” What could be an occasion for political solidarity curdled into antagonism against the drivers with implicit, sometimes direct, resentment towards the working class. Telling, that the notion of “common people” did not include autorickshaw drivers figuring perhaps only as service providers who could not or should not have had any demands of their own.
A city infamous for traffic congestions, its most memorable experience being stuck in traffic, commuters in Dhaka are desperate for some relief. When ride hailing apps entered the fray convincing Dhaka commuters of their virtue was easy, their selling point was convenience. But what is sold as convenience is in fact exploiting a terrain without much resistance because in contrast to other cities, these apps did not have to displace existing safeguards or infrastructure. In the absence of a mass transit and strong labor protections, the apps were not displacing a public transport system nor razing through labor laws since labor conditions and wages are already precarious. While “one-size-fits-all model” of algorithm driven “platform capitalism cannot do justice to local norms, values, and cultures” (Pasquale, 2017), the gradual dissolution of “ai khali” from the city’s soundscape along with chance encounters for example, paradoxically they also deepen existing inequalities and biases.
Missing from public discussion about the strike was any consideration of the drivers’ labor conditions. In particular, when making a living wage was already impossible, app-driven services further shrunk their chances for
survival; especially when most drivers rent the autorickshaws and are obligated to pay a portion of their daily income to the owners. In capitalism, the notion of public is always stripped off any working-class ethos; what remains instead is the public as consumer. In the equation between rider and driver, it is that public — the rider as consumer — and their convenience, which overshadowed all else. And with ride hailing apps, a tech-utopian notion of progress interested in individual consumer entitlement has crept more into what should be collective struggles for fair wages and better transportation infrastructure.
Centuries of colonialism, decades of dictatorships, and ostensible democratic rule with autocratic tendencies have rightfully nurtured distrust for state and state institutions in Bangladesh. But that has also meant ideals of neoliberal governance found a steady wind to land and spread without much challenge where private sector whether nonprofit or profitable organizations cast themselves and are easily seen as public-friendly. As an extension of individuals as primarily economic beings (bodies), the working class is constructed against their relative value to others. Valorization of the working class when they occur in this climate, it is because of their economic contribution to the nation. In parallel, migrants and garments workers as remittance and export dollar earners in service of the country’s GDP growth. When any other understanding is precluded, restrictions forged in violence, demands such as the ones autorickshaw drivers made, appear unreasonable and illegitimate. Ride hailing apps, on the other hand, do not allow unionization and self-employed drivers who, like their autorickshaw peers, mostly rent the cars rather than own them, are bereft of any means of organized protest. Which makes them ideal service workers for the consumer-as-public. In “Reversing the Lies of the Sharing Economy” Brett Scott writes:
We have a hard time seeing systems. We find it easier to see what’s tangible and in front of us. We see the app, and we see the driver’s car icon moving along the streets on their way to pick us up. What we can’t see is the deep web of power relations that underpins the system. Instead, we are encouraged to fixate on the flat and friendly interface, the shallow surface layer of immediate experience. (Brett Scott, 2017).
In that immediate experience, autorickshaw drivers stand accused of arbitrary pricing to the detriment of consumers even though the surge pricing of app-based services does not register as arbitrary. It seems the former’s original sin is transgressing the boundary of merely service providers and staking a space for collective protest — striking. Since a neoliberal-mediated space favors start-up friendly solutions, autorickshaws will likely become available through ride hailing apps in Dhaka. As a price of inclusion, will they be forced to sacrifice their protest and organizing rights further diluting spaces for organized dissent? Or can they sway the wind in opposite direction in wrangling unionization for ride hailing service drivers?