LAST_UPDATEMon, 23 Jul 2018 8pm

'Why Should We Make Foreigners Rich?': Taxi Drivers Are Taking On Uber And Grab

Pic: BIPic: BI

If I get my ass kicked by a gang of taxi drivers, I thought in May, that will have been the dumbest car ride I ever took. I was walking up to a taxi stand off a popular surfing beach in south Bali with the intent of asking what might be the most sensitive question on the island.

As I stood in front of the thatched wooden hut and my translator, a Balinese engineer named Ketut Parikesit, made introductions to the dozen drivers resting in the shade, I worried one might recognize me. The night before I had been the source of their outrage.

The previous night, like a lot of tourists in the beach town of Caangu, I had been partying at Old Man's, a popular beach bar. At 2 a.m., I got tired and drunkenly wandered home. A taxi driver at the stand quoted me a price of 200,000 rupiah ($14) for the ride back. I tried to bargain with the self-righteousness of a western traveler used to being treated like a money tree. The driver refused to budge, pointing angrily to a wall-size board on the back of the hut printed with locations and prices. As I walked away, a driver called out, "I guess you'll be walking home tonight."

I didn't.

I walked until I was out of their line of sight, ordered a Grab - the Southeast Asian equivalent of Uber - and paid a tenth of the fare.

Visiting any developing country is a persistent exercise in identifying the line between supporting and exploiting the local economy. The line can sometimes be easy to draw: Most people would agree that it is better to eat the grilled fish at the fisherman's shack rather than the bouillabaisse at the pricier expat-owned French restaurant.

But technology has blurred the line.

When I refused the taxi driver and called the Grab, getting picked up by a Balinese man named Kadek, was I siphoning off tourism dollars or supporting a different local?

Nearly 5.7 million tourists visited Bali last year - many of whom stay for months at a time - and the island has a growing community of expats from the US, Europe, and Australia who either work as digital nomads or make businesses to serve them. The number of tourists is only expected to go up in the coming years.

Like everywhere else, ride-sharing apps like Uber, Grab, and Indonesia-based Go-Jek have increasingly become the most popular way to way to get around.

But in Bali, the resistance from taxi drivers has been uniquely tenacious, frequently exploding into violent confrontations, as happened last year when an Uber driver was beaten to a pulp by four taxi drivers. Harassment and threats from the so-called "taxi mafia" are a common occurrence for both drivers and the tourists who use the apps, or so I'd heard.

As I rode to my hotel in Ubud, a city in central Bali known for its proliferation of spiritual healers, yoga retreats, and vegan cafes, I spotted signs with red x's over the logos of the most popular ride-sharing services and a plea to "Support the local economy."

At the taxi stand in Caangu, I met Wayan Tono, the stout 50-year-old head of the Caangu Batu Balong Beach Transport, a taxi cooperative made of 165 drivers from the banjar of Batu Balong.

Tono, a proud man with a white button-down opened halfway to his puffed chest, explained that ride-sharing apps disrupts the system that has dictated Balinese culture for hundreds of years.

Each village in Bali is subdivided into multiple banjar , or sub-villages, that are often not bigger than a square mile and maximum of 500 people.

Each banjar acts like a co-operative where the residents determine nearly every aspect of daily life at mandatory community meetings - everything from building local roads and land use to punishment of local crimes and administering religious ceremonies. The drivers in Tono's co-op were all natives of the Batu Balong banjar .

When Tono said that they were locals - which he and his fellow drivers said repeatedly - they didn't mean Balinese. They meant the literal ground we were standing on.

The tension between ride-sharing apps, their drivers, and taxi drivers has been present since the apps launched in Bali in 2015.

In the months after the launch, taxi drivers erected signs marking their banjars as no-go zones and then began to aggressively enforce those territorial lines. Taxi drivers protested repeatedly in Denpasar, the capital, to call for the governor to ban the services, which they argued were unfairly charging fares so low they couldn't compete.

In Tono's eyes, Uber and Grab profit off their community and give nothing back. His drivers, he said, had built the road we were standing on when the provincial government wouldn't. Ride-sharing drivers are even worse because they should know better, at least the Balinese. Many of the drivers hail from other Indonesian islands like Surabaya or Java.

"It's simple. This is my village. I work here. I respect this place," Tono said. "We all work together. That's money we share and use together."

While rules vary from banjar to banjar , nearly everyone follows one tenet that has exacerbated the pricing issue at the heart of every clash between taxi and ride-sharing drivers across the world: Drivers are only allowed to pick up passengers in their own banjars , which means that for a one-way fare, they must drive and pay gasoline for a round trip.

Further, each banjar has its own taxation structure.

The Batu Balong banjar , to which Tono and his drivers belong, dictate that drivers net only 70% of each fare, with the rest going back to the community: 10% for road maintenance, 10% for religious ceremonies, and 10% for the pecalang , or Balinese traditional police who handle issues the official police won't deal with - basically everything except serious crimes. Another 10% goes to the taxi co-op that all the drivers belong to, money which is used for lawyers, car insurance, and loans for drivers in need. If there is a profit, drivers are paid out at the end of the year.

No wonder a ride through Grab or Uber is a tenth of the price.

Many tourists and travel bloggers have written about their experiences with the so-called "taxi mafia."

Kate Alvarez, a Philippines-based lifestyle journalist, described in a February blog post how a group of taxi drivers followed her around Ubud as she waited for an Uber to pick her up. Eventually, she hid in a cafe, cancelled the ride, and called a private driver whose number she had. When that driver showed up, the taxi drivers interrogated him.

Pic: BIPic: BI

Budi, the Uber driver, told Southeast Asia Globe in May that he has been threatened and chased by taxi drivers repeatedly. In one particularly harrowing incident, Budi recounted how a taxi driver tried to pry open his car door when he picked up a passenger. When he refused, the man and three of his friends carved a "U" on the back of the car.

These days, he starts working at 4 a.m., as he is less likely to have run-ins with other drivers.

And as Parikesit explained, in many parts of Bali, it's not just the banjar getting squeezed. In Bali, it is not uncommon for popular areas like shopping malls, beaches, or tourist attractions to be controlled by local thugs.

If a taxi driver wants to operate in the area, he or she has to pay a fee of sometimes thousands of dollars to the men, who give the drivers a kind of ID that allows them to operate there.

Further, many areas are controlled by keluarga besar - large gangs that control "security" for certain villages and have their hands in a variety of legal and illegal activities. One can imagine that when ride-sharing drivers trespass those groups, retaliation is brutal.

In some sense, I too felt the drivers were fighting an unstoppable force. On my last day, I contemplated getting a taxi to the airport, but the prospect of dragging my luggage a few blocks to the taxi stand to pay two or three times the fare wasn't appealing. I felt bad - then I ordered a Grab.

My driver was a 20-year-old university student studying hospitality named Made. His father had been a taxi driver for decades in Bali, but had taken up with Grab as soon as it launched. His father had encouraged him to drive when he wasn't studying so he could earn some money and practice his English with tourists.

Made's father was invested as anyone in Bali's banjar system - he had established the taxi co-op in Jimbaran, a fishing village south of Kuta. But his father sold his car in 2014 because he was tired of the headaches and payoffs that came with the system. When Grab arrived in 2015, his father bought a new car and started driving again. In his father's eyes, Made said, ride-sharing apps leveled the playing field.

When Made was old enough, his father showed him the unspoken banjar territorial lines that dictate where he could and couldn't pick up passengers. Most ride-sharing drivers, he said, respect the banjar lines, but arguments still happen from time to time.

Besides, he said, the half of taxi drivers whose cars were new enough to be eligible for ride-sharing - apps usually won't allow cars older than 5 or 10 years - now work for the apps. The rest, he said, are just angry that they aren't eligible.

At the time, Made's explanation assuaged my guilt over using Grab. But now, looking back, it seems that when it comes to the question of which locals benefit, it's the ones that have more money - enough for a newer car - that are getting paid. Those from the poorer banjars - 35% of Balinese live below the poverty line - are the ones getting screwed.

- Business Insider