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GroundUp: Uber and Out in Cape Town 0

“Make good money. Drive when you want. No office, no boss.” This is Uber’s enticing pitch to new drivers, but the reality can be very different. 

The BP garage parking lot at Cape Town International Airport has space for more than 60 cars. It is full from before dawn until midnight all weekend, but not with customers. Motorists seldom need to queue for the station’s ten petrol pumps. The Express convenience store, with its bright-lit Wild Bean Café counter, rarely has more than five clients inside at a time.

Out in the lot, tucked against the scrubby verge, drivers lean against their vehicles — polished Toyota Corollas, Hyundai Accents, Honda Accords — or rest with their doors open and seats reclined. When it rains they shut the doors and their windows mist up. A BP security guard with a badge and clipboard paces the tarmac, monitoring how long each driver has been parked. Until the guard tells them to move, or until their smartphones chime like slot machines, or until the late flights arrive and the airport empties, the drivers do not leave.

On a recent Sunday morning, Arthur*, a 29 year-old immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), sat at a table inside the store, eating fries drenched in mayonnaise. His eyes were bloodshot after less than two hours sleep, and less than two hours the night before — the naps he’d snatched between trips, hunched up in his rented vehicle, amounted to perhaps three additional hours each day. His phone, lying face-up on the table beside him, displayed a map of the airport with a countdown clock. The waiting time until his next ride, it indicated, was “60+” minutes.

“We have no choice,” he said, watching the screen. “We have to sit here and wait. We have to work these crazy hours to bring in enough money.”

An Uber driver like the rest of the men in the parking lot, Arthur had woken at 3am that Friday and arrived at the airport an hour later, his usual strategy on weekends. Squeezed by lower rates and sluggish off-season demand, Cape Town drivers target the airport because it practically guarantees long rides back to the city. Shortly before midnight, after 18 hours online and only four trips — worth less than R600 in total, before deductions — he left the airport and drove to town, where he ferried clients from Long Street, Kloof, and Bree. He arrived home in Mowbray, where he currently lives with his mother and siblings, at 4am; he doesn’t recall what time he woke up.

“When you’re that tired you don’t keep track,” he said. “You just wash, eat, sleep.”

He was back at the airport for another 20-hour shift by 7am on Saturday, remaining online until three the next morning. It was approaching noon when I met him on Sunday; he’d been working for seven hours. He told me he was “feeling fine.”

Records from Arthur’s driver app reveal that he worked a total of almost 95 hours that week, grossing R4,625. From this figure, Uber subtracted its standard 20% cut, equal to R925. Arthur paid R2,500 towards car rental. He estimates his fuel cost him another R1,000. Mobile data, essential for running the app, cost R100. He also paid to have the car washed and vacuumed three times — it is important to keep Uber vehicles spotless to ensure good ratings from clients — at R75 a service.

In all, he spent approximately R125 more than he earned that week, working an average of 13.5 hours for seven consecutive days.

Continue reading on The Daily Maverick

by Kimon de Greef

Photo Credits: Kimon De Greef

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