A Brief History of Grab in Southeast Asia: transnationality, dominance and resistance

Platform companies operate transnationally. Should labour movements respond transnationally, too? Over the next few months, we will be publishing a Special Series on Grab in Southeast Asia to understand how Grab operates in different contexts, and what forms workers’ organising and resistance have taken in each context.

Editor’s Note:

Most platform companies operate transnationally. How can the labour movements respond transnationally, too? Over the next few months, we will be publishing a Special Series on Grab in Southeast Asia. For this series, we picked the most dominant app-based platform in Southeast Asia: Grab. We asked activists and researchers to analyse how Grab operates in each country, the conditions of Grab drivers and the form of their organising and resistance. We hope this series can help form the basis of transnational comparison that feeds back into discussions on organising.

As an introduction to this series, our Special Series Editor, Joe Buckley, explains the context and history of Grab in Southeast Asia, and our plan for publishing this series.

One of the major trends in work and labour both globally and in Asia over the past decade has been the rise of digital labour platforms which “mediate and facilitate labour exchange between different users, such as businesses, workers, and consumers”. This includes both cloudwork, which can be done entirely remotely, from anywhere, and gig work, which is geographically tethered as it needs to be performed in a specific location.

In Southeast Asia, the most iconic form of the latter is app-based driving, especially ride-hailing and food delivery. And the most iconic platform is the Singapore-headquartered regional behemoth Grab, whose green logo has become omnipresent in cities across the subcontinent, lauded by governments and consumers around the region as a symbol of digital development, modernisation, and the “smart city”.

Grab was initially established and launched in Malaysia in 2012 – later relocating its headquarters to Singapore – before expanding to other countries in the following years. Its rise, and indeed the rise of the app-based driving sector in Southeast Asia as a whole, was initially characterized by the ride-hailing war with global behemoth Uber (which launched in Singapore in 2013 and subsequently expanded throughout the region).

Uber made some business errors – including being slow to introduce cash payments in countries where cash payments were dominant and being slow to introduce motorbike ride-hailing in countries where those vehicles are dominant – and eventually threw in the towel in 2018, exiting Southeast Asia in exchange for a 27.5% stake in Grab. That deal was subsequently investigated by several Southeast Asian governments for suspected breach of antitrust legislation, as it left Grab with a near-monopoly over the ride-hailing market.

The rise of app-based driving also destroyed the livelihoods of many of those who drove in the traditional ride-hailing economy. Across the region, there were violent, and sometimes fatal, clashes between informal motorbike drivers, who would find jobs by waiting on street corners and negotiating prices directly with customers, and app-based drivers.

The former group saw both their customer base dwindle, as increasing numbers of people opted to call rides on apps instead, and their earnings per job reduced, as prices set by apps were driving down the cost of rides and consequently the amounts that traditional motorbike taxi drivers were able to negotiate.

Traditional car taxi firms, and their drivers, were also hugely affected, seeing their businesses very quickly begin to lose money due to what they deemed to be unfair competition. In one infamous episode, a taxi company in Vietnam furnished its vehicles with bumper stickers calling on Grab and Uber to obey the law; stickers that were quickly removed once authorities voiced displeasure, with the company attempting to blame drivers for the action.

In recent years, Grab’s regional dominance has started to be challenged by other platforms. In ride-hailing, Grab’s most notable rival is the Indonesian platform Gojek. In 2021, Gojek merged with e-commerce firm Tokopedia to become GoTo, and now has enormous amounts of capital to pump into expanding and competing with Grab. In food delivery, Foodpanda, owned by the German giant Delivery Hero, is also aggressively competing for market dominance.

Despite this, Grab is still currently the market in both ride-hailing and food delivery across Southeast Asia as a whole. The company operates in eight countries: Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. In addition to its core ride-hailing and delivery services, Grab has now expanded to become a “superapp”, including grocery shopping, hotel bookings, and financial services. It went public in December 2021 on the Nasdaq platform with a valuation of US$40 billion; the largest ever US-listing by a Southeast Asian company (although shares fell 21% on the first day of trading).

Despite all this, Grab is not a profit-making business. On the contrary, it has seen eye-watering losses, such as $3.6 billion USD in 2021. The company announced a new push for profitability in 2022, partly by reducing driver incentives. Losses did indeed narrow significantly, with the delivery part of the business managing to break even by the third quarter. More cost cutting measures are planned for 2023.

The idea that the company has been spending too much on its drivers may be greeted with sarcastic laughter by many of those who perform ride-hailing and food delivery through the platform. Grab drivers notoriously work long hours for low pay in hazardous and precarious conditions, with few labour or social protections.

Grab classes its drivers as “partners” rather than workers or employees to avoid having to provide minimum wages, benefits, and other basic labour rights to which some formal workers across the subcontinent are entitled.

But drivers are by no means passive in the face of this. Due to what Ford and Honan call the “semi-formalisation” of the industry, in the case of motorbike drivers especially Grab has become “a pseudo-employer against which workers can organise”; previously, when motorbike driving was entirely informal and unregulated, no such target existed.

Drivers have made the most of this, and have been very active in organizing, striking, and protesting against the company to demand better wages and conditions. Drivers have organised around a wide range of demands, including the rates of commission taken by Grab, bonus policies, tax rates, petrol prices, social protection, and others.

They have formed mutual aid groups to assist each other and strategize together. In some cases, drivers have joined existing unions, while in others they have established new unions and labour associations to defend and progress their rights and interests. In still other cases, driver organising takes unofficial forms, absent of any formal organisation. Governments around the region have begun to pay attention, beginning to think about regulation of the sector.

While there have been substantial numbers of news reports and some in-depth research into app-based driver organizing in Southeast Asia – including in Asian Labour Review – there has not yet been a collated set of articles focusing on organizing against one single platform across the region.

In this special series of articles, activists and researchers from different countries in which Grab operates reflect on the labour politics of Grab in that specific country. The articles focus on who the Grab drivers are, the working conditions they face, and, of course, driver organizing and resistance.

Once all the articles in the series have been published, a final article will assess the similarities and differences in the types of activism undertaken by Grab drivers across the region, and how these relate to existing traditions of militancy.


Joe Buckley is an Asia-based labour researcher and practitioner, who has written, consulted, and taught widely on labour issues and labour organising in the region. He is currently Program Development Coordinator with Solidarity Center’s Cambodia office. He holds a PhD in International Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) with a dissertation focused on Vietnamese labour activism, and is the author of “Vietnamese Labour Militancy: Capital-labour antagonisms and self-organised struggles”.