At midnight on 14 March 2022, Grab Myanmar announced that it was reducing food delivery drivers’ pay from 800 MMKs (0.38 USD) to 600 MMKs (0.28 USD) per drop.1 In response, Grab riders, who had been alerted on the app, went on strike by logging off from the application. More than 300 Grab workers in Yangon participated in the strike by not opening the Grab app.
In February 2021, the Myanmar military seized power in a coup. Since then, wages and working conditions in the country have deteriorated. There is restricted space for worker organizing. However, workers in Myanmar continue to organize and strike. I would like to detail the 2022 strike by Grab Myanmar delivery riders to sketch out the horizons, in all its opportunities and limitations, of worker organizing in the country under military rule.
At the time of the strike in March 2022, one rider told Myanmar Labour News that he usually had ten or fewer delivery orders per day. This was financially adequate when the drivers received 800 MMK per order. But following the reduction to 600 MMK, riders were struggling to survive. For comparison, a bottle of drinking water costs 600 MMK.
It was a year after the 2021 coup and the country’s economic situation was in turmoil due to the junta’s policy changes aimed at controlling the mass movement against the coup. Meanwhile, the price of the goods had increased as a result of post-coup economic collapse and inflation. The Yangon Grab strike lasted two and half days. In the end, the riders received what they had demanded: that the basic delivery fee not be reduced to 600 MMK per order.
During that same week, on 16 March, foodpanda delivery riders also boycotted foodpanda Myanmar to demand an increase of the delivery fee per order from 400 MMK (0.19 USD) to 670 MMK (0.32 USD). They also demanded that foodpanda use Google Maps to calculate distances correctly, reduce managerial control over workers, and take responsibility for drivers’ accidents during working hours. This strike became a protracted struggle, lasting five months and ending with uncertain promises from the company. As a result, hundreds of riders moved to Grab.
These actions by Grab and foodpanda delivery riders raise questions about the motivations and possibilities for worker organizing in post-coup Myanmar. In the remainder of this article, I outline the working conditions of Grab riders, how the Grab labour process works, and how Grab riders organized strikes under the restrictive conditions of post-coup Myanmar.
Being a Grab Rider in Myanmar
During Covid-19, working as a delivery worker became a popular way to earn income. Food delivery platforms, especially foodpanda and Grab, grew rapidly in Myanmar. There are five main food delivery services in Yangon: Food2U, Yangon Door2Door, Hi-So Mall, foodpanda, and GrabFood. However, foodpanda and GrabFood have an effective monopoly.
Grab entered the Myanmar market as a taxi service in 2017, expanding to food delivery in November 2019 in Yangon and in July 2020 in Mandalay, the country’s second largest city. Grab also started GrabMart during the pandemic, providing grocery delivery. There are around 550 riders working for GrabFood, with the majority in Yangon and around 50 in Mandalay.
Ko Aung Lwin (a pseudonym) took part in the foodpanda boycott. He decided to join Grab after his foodpanda rider account stopped giving him the usual jobs. “I worked a two-hour shift but did not receive one order. Not only did the company refuse riders’ demands, but they also manipulated the system by not giving any work to the protest leaders.”
To become a Grab rider, Ko Aung Lwin needed to submit a CV with a photograph, his National Registration Card, his household registration form, and the contact information of another Grab rider as a reference. New riders also need to pay Grab 80,000 MMK (38.095 USD) as a deposit; 50,000 (23.8 USD) is paid up front, while the other 30,000 MMK (14.28 USD) is deducted from the driver’s wage at a rate of 1,000 MMK (0.476 USD) per five orders.
In practice, this means Grab deducts 1,000 MMK per day for 30 consecutive days they work until the total 30,000 MMK (14.28 USD) has been paid off. Riders can officially get this deposit back upon leaving Grab. To do so, however, they must officially resign from Grab – most riders do not do this, but simply switch off the app when they no longer wish to work.
Ko Win Aung (a pseudonym) is a 45-year-old motorcycle courier in Mandalay. He joined GrabFood six months after the company launched their service in the city. He needed to use his friend’s driving license to get the job as he did not have his own license. As a new rider, he had to deposit 50,000 MMK (23.80 USD), with an initial installment of 20,000 MMK (9.52 USD). The rest was deducted from his pay.
In addition to the delivery fee, riders in Yangon receive 200 MMK per 1 kilometer traveled. If customers tip the riders, Grab passes 100 percent of the tips to the driver. If two deliveries are made on a single route, drivers earn an extra 200 MMK.
In Yangon, full-time Grab drivers earn around 60,000 MMK (28.57 USD) to 150,000 MMK (71.42 USD) per week and 400,000 MMK (190.47USD) to 600,000 MMK (285.71USD) per month. A Grab courier in Mandalay usually earns around 80,000 MMK (38 USD) to 150,000 MMK (71.42 USD) per week and can get at least 300,000 MMK (142.85USD) per month.
For the couriers in Mandalay, kilo kyay (the bonus for travelling additional kilometers) is lower than riders in Yangon. According to Ko Win Aung,
“kilo kyay is 100 MMK per kilometer. So, I will receive 300 MMK for travelling 3 kilometers and 500 MMK for travelling 5 km. 2,600 MMK is the highest basic order fee I can earn for an order. If I ride 11 kilometers, there will also be other bonus fees, and I will receive more than 4,000 MMK (1.9 USD) for that delivery. Grab transfers our wages twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There is no pressure to work as a Grab rider. But we need a good mobile phone. Unlike foodpanda, there is no batch system.”
Foodpanda’s batch system is a ranking system based on the performance of riders. Batch 1 is for riders with the top performance and Batch 6 is for new riders. Batch 1 riders can choose to work whenever they want and receive higher bonuses than other riders. Compared to Myanmar’s minimum wage of 4,800 MMK per day (last increased in 2018), the daily income of Grab riders is higher.
Grab uses a credit system that serves to regulate workers. If a rider has under 50,000 credits, they will not get any orders. When this happens, they must call a hotline and the company will add 1,500,000 or 2,000,000 credits. At night after their working hours, a rider must transfer to Grab the money they received from customers via KBZ pay, a local money transfer application.
Grab does not have shifts or performance indicators, but they have order acceptance rates. Riders are prioritized for jobs based on their order acceptance rate. If a worker’s refusal rate is high, Grab will close their account for three days. Other reasons for closing riders’ accounts are refusing to transfer money to Grab, and finding another person working on the account.
Riders can work from 6:00 am to 9:00 pm and can choose their working hours depending on their availability. Riders just need to close the application if they cannot work. Unlike foodpanda, Grab riders don’t have special hours (from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm in Yangon and Mandalay, and from 5:00 pm to 7:00 pm in Naypyitaw and Kalaw). According to Ko Win Aung, “We need to be careful not to reject orders if we are online. Monday is important for us because if I cancel the first order on Monday, the week will end with no orders or fewer orders.” After 9:00 pm, riders can refuse orders without being penalized.
The vast majority of drivers are young men. Ko Win Aung only knows three women riders in Mandalay. He also said that most riders in the city are around 20-30 years old. There are 15 women riders in Yangon.
Protests, Boycotts, and Strikes by Grab Riders
Grab riders’ collective boycotts usually involve logging off and leaving no active rider in the system if successful. Customers can still order, but there will be nobody to deliver the food.
On 3 November 2020, more than 100 Grab riders protested in front of the Grab office in Yangon due to a reduction in the basic order rate from 1,200 MMK (0.57 USD) to 800 MMK (0.38 USD) per kilometer. This change had been announced on 1 November. Prior to that, a rider received 1,200 MMK per order and 300 MMK as a bonus if they chose to work at night. One protesting rider said, “I normally receive 10 orders per day, which was okay before. But since the reduction, I don’t have enough income. If they had [only] reduced the rate to 1,000 MMK (0.476 USD), it would have made sense for us.”
Police arrived at the protest and asked riders to leave. The police attempted to solve the problem by facilitating negotiations between Grab and the riders at the labour office. Then the police brought three riders to the labour office to represent the protesting workers in a meeting with Grab. However, the company did not show up. Due to the involvement of the police and government administrators, other riders left without obtaining any information. In this dispute, the company won and the delivery rate was reduced to 800 MMK. Since then, the affected riders have been struggling to make ends meet.
Sixteen months later, on 14 March 2022, there was a second major protest, as discussed above, due to Grab attempting to further reduce the basic order rate from 800 MMK to 600 MMK per kilometer. On this occasion, all the riders logged off. Their collective strike put significant pressure on Grab. As a result, the negotiations went well. In the end, drivers were successful, and the company did not reduce the rate. At the time of writing, the basic delivery rate for Grab riders is still 800 MMK.
Ko Kyaw (a pseudonym), a Grab rider who joined the strikes in both 2020 and 2022, said, “We can say that we won in the second strike because the company could not decrease the delivery fee. But they added a cancel rate measurement to control riders more.” Grab also introduced more restrictions for riders in their system. Specifically, Grab required that riders accept almost all of the delivery orders that they receive. Grab now closes a rider’s account for three days if the rider’s daily order cancelation rate is over 10 percent, or if their weekly order cancelation rate is over 10 percent.
In Mandalay, there has never been a strike of protest by Grab delivery riders.
During the November 2020 boycott, riders also demanded that Grab provide health insurance and take responsibility for workers’ accidents during working hours. At the time, Myanmar Labour News reported that Grab did not take any responsibility for riders’ accidents. Riders had to pay their own medical fees and related costs. This is a common problem for Myanmar platform workers who must work on dangerous roads. Riders from foodpanda also raised the same demands in their March 2022 protest, alongside their demand for an increase in the basic delivery rate.
However, almost two years later, it seems that Grab riders have finally received what they demanded regarding medical insurance. Ko Aung Lwin said, “I witnessed a case where a rider received 60,000 MMK (28.57 USD) for 3 days off because of an accident. If a rider needs to rest a week for medical reasons, he or she will receive around 100,000 MMK (47.61USD).” In contrast. Ko Aung Lwin said that when he worked as a foodpanda rider, he did not receive any financial support from the company for healthcare. Ko Win Aung also said, “Grab pays medical costs when we have an accident. One of my friends had an accident and the company covered his costs.”
Challenges for Organizing
For platform workers, the risk of losing their income is the major concern. This risk makes riders vulnerable during a strike against their platform company. This is especially the case during the present situation of military rule. The 2021 coup also created a more restrictive situation for worker organizing. For example, riders cannot publicly protest to put pressure on their employer. The military administration is ready to crack down on any form of public strike or protest in the streets.
That is why Grab riders just log off from the system rather than engaging in a visual, public protest. The lack of an organized union is also a weakness when bargaining with Grab. It is perhaps the main reason why Grab currently has the upper hand in controlling working conditions.
Grab employs riders as “partners”. This means that riders are considered freelance workers, not employees. The company has a service contract with workers, who will be dismissed if they are judged to have broken it. This makes it hard for workers to have legal labour rights. Ko Aung Lwin said, “I had to sign a contract, avoid doing anything which impacts the company, and collaborate with the employer to solve problems. We need to read the contract carefully to see if it makes sense for us. But some riders just sign the contract without reading it properly.”
“Way leaders” are assigned to manage different areas. They are key in supervising riders and solving problems. Way leaders operate as agents between riders and the company. Way leaders are also formal Grab employees, rather than partners. Therefore, they have not gotten involved in the two riders’ strikes. Ko Kyaw said, “A way leader informed us when Grab planned to decrease the delivery fee to 600 MMK. We got a chance to discuss with each other about how we should respond… Way leaders will lose their jobs if they join the strike.”
If there is an accident, a rider must inform both the way leader and the Grab hotline. The way leader will then meet the rider and take any necessary actions. If a customer provides an incorrect location, it is the way leader’s responsibility to resolve the issue. To manage these issues effectively, there are group chats on Viber with riders and the area way leader.
If there are disputes on the ground, the company immediately arranges a meeting with way leaders and riders to solve the problem. Way leaders then negotiate with the riders. In some cases, way leaders report problems directly to management and the dispute is resolved quickly. It is difficult for Grab riders to organize a union because there are few riders, and many riders think that a labour union is needed only when the employer violates labour rights.
Ko Win Aung said, “I accept that we should have a union. But we bikers don’t need a union now, because Grab takes responsibility for us.” He believes that riders will need a union at some point in the future. Ko Kyaw said, “We don’t need to organize a union, because we are already in unity. In each township, there are informal leaders who can represent [riders] and who can make decisions about what riders should do.” This informal social network played an important role in mobilising riders during the second strike in March 2022.
Ko Aung Lwin also said that Grab has better facilities for riders compared to foodpanda. He would prefer it if foodpanda treated its riders in the way Grab does. However, even for Grab riders, wages and working conditions are inadequate to support their livelihoods. Ko Kyaw stated that Grab does not provide decent wages, citing his experience of borrowing 200,000 MMK (95.23USD) from his friend to support his family during Myanmar’s third wave of Covid-19 a year ago, which he is still repaying now.
Even before the 2021 coup, the official labour disputes settlement mechanism was very weak. It has not been effective in protecting workers from labour law violations. Moreover, there is no specific law to protect platform workers in Myanmar. In both Grab rider strikes, resolution of the dispute depended on the relative bargaining power between Grab and the riders.
During the first strike in 2020, police arrived and got involved in the settlement. However, although the police were able to put pressure on workers to leave, they could not, or at least did not, put pressure on Grab to agree to riders’ demands. During the second strike, Grab riders chose an alternative tactic. They collectively logged out from the application. This put significant pressure on Grab. After two days, Grab agreed to not decrease the delivery fee. However, it added a restriction relating to the order acceptance rate.
The case of Grab riders in Myanmar shows that organizing a union is crucial for effectively responding to exploitation and restrictive management in the platform industry. Grab riders understand now that they can only put significant pressure on Grab if they are united. However, the military administration has been trying to ensure a tranquil situation in the country. This has created a significant challenge for riders.
After the coup, labour unions took a lead role in the anti-coup movement. The military responded by persecuting unions and labour organizers to prevent them from engaging in anti-military politics. Despite these challenges, workers in Myanmar, especially in the industrial zones around Yangon, have continued to organize and strike for improved wages and working conditions, and for an end to labour rights violations. These actions are significant.
However, so long as military rule persists in Myanmar, there will be limited space for deliver riders, factory workers, and other labourers to organize, strike, and negotiate with employers over the difficulties they confront.
(Photo: Myanmar Tech Press)