After graduating from a private university, Mahbubul Alam Masud started teaching at a kindergarten school in Chattogram. He lost his job when the pandemic hit the country.
After spending some anxious days unemployed, he bought a motorbike by mortgaging his wife's jewellery and started a ride-sharing service.
Motorcycle ride-sharing is not an easy job and one can barely make ends meet through daylong hard labour. Even then Masud was doing all right and was able to provide for his family until the fuel price hit him.
He told The Business Standard (TBS), "During the jobless days of the pandemic, ride-sharing came to me as a lifesaver. Having just become a father, my expenses had also increased. I was doing all right. But the government suddenly doubled the price of fuel oil and everything seemed to be falling apart."
"You can't imagine how much hardship we are facing right now. It feels as if the terrible memories of the pandemic era have come back," he said.
Azad Hossain, another ride-sharer in the capital, told TBS, "Aside from working in a private company, I share rides for 3-4 hours in the evening just to make a little extra cash. I used to earn Tk500 per day, excluding costs, before the fuel price hike. But now I can barely make Tk200 a day. It has become very difficult to survive in Dhaka."
Like Masud and Azad, the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of families in the country now depend on ride-sharing. The fuel price hike, coupled with soaring living costs, has thrown them into deep water.
"Currently, around 12 lakh bikers are transporting around 50 lakh passengers across the country through ride-sharing. These riders are getting fewer passengers now, which has made life difficult for them," said Mozammel Haque Chowdhury, Secretary General of Bangladesh Passenger Welfare Association.
With ride-sharing fares going up, more passengers have turned to CNG-run auto-rickshaws as they are charging fares as usual. Riders say this profession has been gripped by loss and uncertainty and many are searching for alternatives.
Taking advantage of the chaotic situation, many ride-sharers are now transporting passengers on contract instead of using the apps, which is a threat to public safety.
Ride-sharers usually make Tk500-700 a day, excluding fuel and other costs. On a good day, it even goes up to Tk1,000. But their daily income has nearly halved since the prices of octane and petrol have gone up by more than 50%, according to riders of various ride-sharing platforms like Pathao and Uber.
Expressing his discontent, Md Jamil, a ride-sharer in Dhaka, said, "After buying a bike for Tk2 lakh, paying service charge, road tax, and Tk135 for per litre of fuel oil, we are still not getting any respite. I feel like begging at this point."
Rafiqul Islam, formerly in the Bangladesh Army and now a ride-sharer in Chattogram, told TBS, "This motorcycle is my main source of livelihood after retiring from service. Family maintenance and children's education expenses are met with this income. But since the increase in fuel prices, my livelihood has been threatened."
"A litre of octane can provide a 40-km ride. Accordingly, we used to charge the passengers Tk10 per km. But now the price of octane has increased by Tk46 per litre but passengers are not willing to pay that extra money," he added.
Meanwhile, the ride-sharing platform Pathao has increased fares from Tk12 to Tk 15 per km in Dhaka. In Chattogram, the fare has risen from Tk10 to Tk12.5 and in Sylhet, from Tk 6.5 to Tk 8.5. Ride-sharers are not happy with this decision by Pathao.
Belal Ahmed, President of Dhaka Ride Sharing Drivers Association (DRDU), told TBS, "Motorcycle ride-sharing services were introduced to give relief to commuters from traffic congestion, public transport crisis, and fare anarchy. The rise in petrol and octane prices has made our livelihood precarious. Recognising the ride-sharers under labour laws is the need of the hour."
"Although Pathao has increased the fares, Uber has not taken any such measures. As a result, many riders are picking up passengers on contract instead of using the app. We will see one more week and if the benefits of app-based services are not extended to drivers then we will all together announce the app boycott," he said.
Dr Sayema Haque Bidisha, professor of the Department of Economics at Dhaka University, said, "There is no regulation for the ride-sharers in the structure of the gig economy. It is first necessary for the government to bring them into the regulatory formation and have a list of them prepared.
"They are also a part of our economy and so structural reforms are needed in these areas. The government needs to keep an eye on the owners to see if labour laws are being followed to some extent in the case of the workers here," she said.
Besides, there is no regulatory body to which ride-sharers can go to lodge a complaint. Fares of ride-sharing services, like bus fares, should also be fixed by a committee so that only riders or passengers do not face additional losses due to fuel price hikes. If there is a loss, it should be equally distributed among owners and workers," the DU professor said.
Fahim Ahmed, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Pathao, said: "The operating cost for our riders has increased with the rise in fuel prices. Accordingly, we have adjusted the fares to ensure seamless availability of rides for users on our platform. We request the kind cooperation of our valued users and riders in implementing the revised fares, in line with the fuel price adjustment by the government."