Dubai: For two years, Uber driver Mukesh sat in his white Lexus, transporting passengers around Dubai for upwards of 20 hours every day.
He was desperate to pay for the home he was building for his wife and five-year-old son in the southern Indian state of Kerala.
Then his body began to break down.
Mukesh, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, was soon diagnosed with a number of serious illnesses that put him at higher risk of heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes.
The news came as a shock to Mukesh, who had moved to Dubai in 2008 to work as a hotel limousine driver, and later as a driver for ride-hailing companies Uber and Careem.
He was told to immediately reduce the number of hours he drove in a day, or face potentially irreversible damage to his health.
Now, he works just 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
But while Mukesh says he has since realised the stark dangers of working such long hours, some drivers still work well over the legal limit in desperate pursuit of financial gain.
Living away from their families and without the disposable income for a social life, drivers often choose to work perilously long days, eking out an existence behind their steering wheel.
Many say they are saddled with debt, with hopes of one day saving enough money to return home.
This problem is endemic to both Uber and Careem, according to interviews with more than a dozen current drivers, UAE employment lawyers and road safety experts.
At the centre of this story, according to these individuals, is a system of commission-based contracts that fuel longer working hours, a lack of regulatory oversight, and companies eager to avoid responsibility altogether.
Taken together, they argue, these factors create a permissive environment for drivers to work as many hours as they want, with little concern for their own wellbeing, or that of their passengers and fellow drivers.
A particular duty of care
“Businesses that can impact public safety have a particular duty of care to ensure that their workers are complying with the law,” said Omar Al Nuaimi, the UAE’s assistant under-secretary of labour, in a statement to Gulf News.
“[They] should not be offering incentives to encourage significant overwork.”
He warned that the government “will investigate any violations that are brought to our attention.”
The law on working hours in the UAE was clear, Al Nuaimi said: Legally, employees are allowed to work eight hours a day, or 48 hours a week.
But while the law might be clear, it is not being sufficiently monitored or enforced, critics argue.
The problem at the moment is the policing of this [law]. It’s not being policed adequately enough.
“The problem at the moment is the policing of this [law],” said Shiraz Sethi, regional managing partner and head of employment at DWF, a multinational law firm. “It’s not being policed adequately enough.”
Sethi argued that people in many industries felt obliged to work illegal hours for fear of losing their jobs if they didn’t comply.
“They’ve got really no choice,” he said. “Their bosses don’t care what the law says, and they have to accept it if they want a job.”
Uber and Careem claimed to have little influence over how many hours individuals worked when contacted by Gulf News, given that neither company actually employs any drivers.
They declined to provide any details related to the number of accidents that had occurred involving drivers working on their platforms at the time.
Responsibility and reputation
Both firms act as middlemen, allowing drivers employed by private limousine businesses to use their apps to find passengers. In return, they take a commission equivalent to around 20 per cent of the total fare.
In a statement, Uber said the responsibility for driver welfare lied squarely with such limousine businesses, who often own hundreds of vehicles and employ hundreds of drivers.
“Drivers who use the Uber app in the UAE are employed by limousine companies that have full visibility on working hours and bear responsibility for ensuring drivers are operating lawfully,” a spokesperson for Uber said.
A number of prominent fleet operators - who employ as many as 500 drivers each - declined to speak to Gulf News for this piece.
When reached by phone, an executive at the Al Nadha-based company Private Limousine, who identified himself as Sachin, said that none of the fleet’s drivers ever worked more than 12 hours.
He suggested that drivers may claim to be driving upwards of 18 hours to elicit sympathy from passengers in return for greater tips.
Private Limousine signed a fleet management agreement with Careem in December 2018.
The Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) - which oversees the granting of licenses to limousine companies - declined to comment, referring questions to the labour ministry.
Legally, experts said, the limousine businesses that employ the drivers are liable for them working within the 12 hour work limit, not Careem or Uber.
Informal arrangements that erode legal rights
The faceless companies that Uber and Careem use for their fleets of cars typically hire drivers with the promise of an assured salary, only to later introduce steep commission targets that incentivise extremely long hours, according to one Dubai-based employment lawyer familiar with the industry.
This assurance of a salary is often given simply to appease the labour ministry who will only grant a visa to someone who can show they are guaranteed to earn a certain level of income, the lawyer said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect his professional relationships.
Once the visa has been granted, it is not uncommon for the employer to deviate from this arrangement, entering in to a second, more informal contract between the company and the driver. It may be more difficult for the driver to assert their rights in this instance, the lawyer said.
These arrangements may take on a number of forms. One driver that Gulf News spoke to said he paid a flat daily rate of Dh250 to the limousine company to lease his car, and then was allowed to keep any money he made from fares, minus the commission paid to Uber or Careem.
Some, however, said they were paid on a commission basis, with huge targets that needed to be hit in order to receive any money at the end of the month.
This commission system, the lawyer argued, encouraged drivers to work longer hours, often at risk to themselves, their passengers, and others on the road.
And while the legal liability may rest with the limousine companies, the reputational risk sat firmly with Uber and Careem, said Thomas Edelmann, the founder of Road Safety UAE, an advocacy group.
If an Uber or Careem driver had a fatal accident involving a pedestrian, Edelmann said, the public would have no idea that the driver was employed by a limousine company. “Reputationally it will damage Uber or Careem, not the limousine company.”
The brand visibility of the two ride-hailing businesses is such that few people are aware that neither actually employ any of their own drivers in the UAE.
This ambiguous chain of responsibility, and lack of oversight by a state regulator, has led to a vacuum in which driver’s are able work as many hours as they want, despite the dangers.
In an effort to combat this issue, Uber introduced a feature last year that restricted drivers from working more than 12 hours on its platform. The company at the time said it was attempting to reduce the number of fatigue-related accidents involving Uber drivers.
But experts say this feature, while a positive step in the right direction, is insufficient.
The limit of 12 hours only accounts for time spent on a job, or driving passengers to their destination. In reality, drivers say they usually spend at least another four hours travelling through the city looking for those passengers - time which isn’t included in Uber’s limit.
Road safety experts also point out that Uber’s feature is made redundant by the fact that drivers could complete their 12 hours of paid driving time on Uber, and simply switch over to Careem, where they would be able to continue working.
Careem, the Dubai-headquartered company which was acquired by Uber for $3.1 billion in March, said it was working to implement a similar system to the one used by Uber, allowing it to log drivers out of its app after they had completed 12 hours of paid driving.
A more effective fix, Edelmann said, was to force three drivers to share one vehicle, working in shifts of eight hours each.
But while some limousine companies continue to turn a blind eye to the law, safety advocates, lawyers, and drivers say, temporary solutions will never be truly effective.
“It’s about the entire ecosystem,” he said, “not just one part.”
An urgent need for oversight
In an interview, Edelmann called for greater oversight of the industry, and stricter measures to protect drivers.
“We have to fight for a law here that regulates the maximum number of driving hours for all commercial drivers,” he said, adding: “There is an urgent need to have legislation in place.”
Dismissing the 12 hour limit on commercial drivers as “just too much,” Edelmann argued that all taxi drivers should work standard eight hour days like other industries.
We have to fight for a law here that regulates the maximum number of driving hours.
Driving for extended periods of time without rest can lead to microsleeps, typically defined as a period of seconds in which an individual momentarily nods off, or slips in to a state of unconsciousness.
During a four-second microsleep, a car travelling at 100 kilometres per hour will travel 111 metres while completely out of the driver’s control, according to research conducted by the government of New South Wales in Australia.
A 2014 AAA Traffic Safety Foundation study found that 37 per cent of drivers in the US reported having fallen asleep behind the wheel at some point in their lives.
Research from the same group found that an estimated 21 percent of fatal crashes involve a drowsy driver.
“We have to have a proper legal framework that regulates commercial driving hours” to ensure that drivers are not fatigued when using commercial vehicles, Edelmann said.
Changes to the UAE’s employment environment were necessary to achieve this, lawyers said, highlighted by the system’s failure to protect the most vulnerable members of society.
“Flexible working arrangements and long working hours are now commonplace and so it would be helpful if the UAE labour law was formally amended to reflect the realities of the modern workplace,” said Ben Brown, a legal director on Clyde & Co’s regional employment team.
When the UAE’s labour law was enacted in 1980, working practices were very different to what most employees and employers are familiar with today, he added.
Sethi, the managing partner at DWF, said that regulators should be stricter in policing companies.
Employees should also have access to a platform where they can whistleblow on employers who are forcing them to work extremely long hours, he argued.
“When I ask people why they would work like that when it’s contrary to the labour law, they just tell me that their boss doesn’t care.”
Now a number of years removed from those gruelling 20-hour-days, Mukesh says he has sympathy for his fellow drivers who still work long shifts.
“I understand why they do it. They have to make money,” he said. “But I feel sorry for them.”