Muzzling ride-hailers for public safety

09:00 | 28/04/2020
The lack of contractual ties between ride-hailing service providers and their partners and that of criteria in selecting drivers have raised concerns about safety risks for both passengers and the larger community.
muzzling ride hailers for public safety
Major gaps in ride-hailing regulations do little to protect vulnerable people, Photo: Le Toan

Most recently, a rider wearing the uniform of Vietnamese transportation technology startup beGroup, which operates the Be ride-hailer app, was accused of raping a homeless woman.

At the District 5 police in Ho Chi Minh City, the rider confirmed that he borrowed the bike and Be account of his friend, who had returned to his hometown in the Central Highlands region, to earn money during the pandemic.

The rider was accused of attempted rape and beating the woman with a screwdriver in an alleyway on April 18. The charge was brought against him by a witness who interrupted the alleged act.

The alleged assault drew nationwide outrage, with people taking to social networks to call it “depraved” and “sick”, with many demanding heavier penalties citing the victim’s disability and reduced capacity to defend herself. Others called for a general boycott of beGroup.

Nguyen Viet Linh, PR director of beGroup told VIR, “The licence plate of the attacker does not match any vehicle registered on our system. The company permanently locked the account of the driver who lent his account to be used in his absence. The company is co-operating with authorities to supply information to clarify the incident.”

The group reaffirms that its terms of use strictly prohibit drivers from either selling or lending their accounts to ensure the safety of passengers and the community. Be has issued strict punishments for violations, banning and blacklisting related accounts in order to prevent them from creating new accounts.

It is not the first time that alleged incidents of harassment have related to ride-hailing. In May 2018, a GrabBike driver in Hanoi was accused of verbally harassing a pre-teen girl he was hired to take to school. After investigating, the Tay Ho district police office could not bring charges against the driver, but imposed a VND200,000 ($8.80) fine for offending the girl’s dignity through improper words.

A representative of Grab Vietnam visited the girl at her home, expressing the company’s full regret over the incident and offered psychological assistance and assigned a driver to ferry the girl to school until she recovers from the distress. Grab banned the driver from using the app following the accusation.

Although the culpability of ride-hailers was not brought to question by official agencies for the incidents, there have been public denunciations and calls for boycott after every case.

While the law generally ascribes heavy responsibility to the employer for acts employees commit in the course of executing their duties, it remains a question how much employers can do to stop them from willfully committing atrocities, knowing full well that they go against the law and company policy – especially when the context of employment can be argued to be largely immaterial for the crime.

In the case of the alleged assault of the woman in Ho Chi Minh City, there was no apparent driver-passenger relationship in evidence. The matter is further muddied by the uncertain relation between beGroup and the rider, who used the service in full knowledge that he was not supposed to.

It highlights the need for stronger oversight over who uses the software, but it is difficult to claim the crime was a foreseeable consequence of this lapse.

There is an initiative to better formalise relations between driver-partners and ride-hailing service providers by signing standardised labour contracts, with great expectations that this would improve the safety of passengers and the community.

“We are looking forward to regulations on signing labour contracts with its partners and has been co-operating with the authorities to complete the legal framework guiding our operations. However, the lack of labour contracts is a general problem for the sector,” the beGroup representative said.

According to law firm LLA Legal, labour contracts are of urgent need in the sector as they not only ensure the rights of drivers but also clarify standards for payment, working conditions, as well as the rights and obligations of the parties.

While there is Decree No.10/2020/ND-CP dated January 17 on business and conditions for auto transport business, there is no legal framework specifically for tech-based motorbike taxis. “Thus, we cannot assess the legality of a tech-based motorbike taxi like Be recruiting a rider,” lawyer Lai Ngoc Thanh said. “In Vietnam, motorbikes are still much more popular than cars, so a legal framework for tech-based motorbike taxis is essential to prevent unexpected incidents.”

However, a contract signed by both parties is thin protection against physical or verbal assault that carries a definitive element of intention and further deterrents may be required.

It is difficult to say to what degree ride-hailing firms (or employers in general) can prevent employees from committing criminal acts that go against the terms of their employment. One possibility, said insiders, could be to extend oversight of the actual user of the driver software, for instance by installing a face recognition feature to verify the account is used by the registered driver.

Ultimately, this is no more protection than the few pages of paper of a labour contract, but having a picture taken of one’s face every time before giving someone a ride (or even randomly on the route) could give both drivers and passengers a sense of being observed to keep them in line.

By Kim Hara

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