business

Why Uber Drivers Fear for Their Lives in Istanbul

Updated on
  • Uber drivers say violence on rise in Turkey’s biggest city
  • Taxi operators file court cases to ban ride-hailing company

Traffic on the highway in the Levent business district of Istanbul.

Photographer: Ismail Ferdous/Bloomberg

An Uber driver keeps a metal rod close at hand during his daily drives through Istanbul.

Alarmed by violent attacks in recent weeks allegedly carried out by angry yellow cab drivers who want Turkey to ban the ride-hailing company, Levent says he’s even considering carrying a gun and asked that his last name be withheld for safety reasons.

“I work with the fear of getting physically assaulted by cab drivers every day,” he said inside the van he drives, a Mercedes Benz Vito, popular among Istanbul’s Uber ilk.

He’s among the more than 5,000 Uber drivers in the city of 15 million waiting to learn their fate as an Istanbul court considers two legal cases, filed by taxi associations, arguing the app-based service undermines competition and breaks the law.

Hundreds of Turkish cab operators and drivers protest against Uber in front of Istanbul Courthouse on March 12. 
Photographer: Cagan Koc/Bloomberg

Yet while Uber is fighting for survival in cities like London, which revoked its license last year, discontent has rarely taken as aggressive a turn as it has in Turkey’s largest city.

On March 10, shots were fired at an Uber vehicle on its way to pick up a customer in the crowded Istanbul district of Kucukcekmece. Local media have reported incidents where groups of taxi drivers posing as customers gang up and assault Uber drivers after hailing them to quiet street sides.

“My drivers are scared. Cab drivers harass and attack them everywhere in Istanbul,” said 56-year-old Bekir Cambaz, who owns 52 Uber vehicles and two yellow cabs. “One of my drivers was just hospitalized due to brain concussion after getting beaten up at the main bus terminal.”

In many ways, it’s more of the same for Uber. In Europe and North America, traditional cabs are the most virulent critics of the service, which expanded quickly beyond its home base in San Francisco partly by disregarding local regulations. This has spurred protests by cabbies—including some in Paris that turned violent—and led to run-ins with national authorities and new laws aimed at reining in the gig economy.

Fed up with what they deem unfair competition, hundreds of taxi drivers protested outside the Istanbul Palace of Justice on Monday to call for an Uber ban. One of their primary gripes is that Uber drivers dodge the hefty fees they pay.

Istanbul has issued about 17,000 taxi license plates, a figure that’s barely changed in two decades. They’re a hot commodity, now costing about 1.69 million liras ($434,000) each, according to the website of Kale Ticaret, which trades them. Cabbies rent licences for 7,000-8,000 liras a month, so they need a steady stream of customers to make ends meet.

“My profit fell by 30 percent since Uber started its operations in Turkey” in 2014, lamented Mehmet Yavuz, who paid for his cab licence by selling land he’d inherited from his parents.

Uber operates in Turkey on a so-called D-2 license, similar to what chartered buses use. These are cheaper: an investor with 30,000 liras of capital pays 15,000 liras a year to operate a fleet of at least eight cars, plus 300 liras for every vehicle. Drivers can rent this license for 3,550 liras annually.

Turkish cab operators and drivers wait for the result of the court case against Uber in front of Istanbul Courthouse on March 12. 
Photographer: Ugur Yilmaz/Bloomberg

Lawyers representing cab operators are trying to capitalize on a rule that stipulates D-2 licence-holders must register passenger information with the government one hour before any trip—something Uber drivers couldn’t do since they usually respond to calls within 15 minutes.

Of the two pending court cases, the first will be heard in May, the second in June. Uber said it cannot comment on an ongoing litigation.

“We are appalled by the violence and are doing everything we can to support drivers,” it said in an e-mailed statement.

Unlike in other cities, Istanbul’s Ubers charge slightly more than conventional cabs—but they’re popular among Turks, especially women, who feel more secure seeing how other passengers rate a driver. Some, like 26-year old Istanbul resident Pinar Cengiz, said yellow cabs often refuse to take her on short distances.

“We are in favor of freedom of enterprise. We won't leave our cab drivers to be victims but Uber gets market share because it's well received by the citizens,” Customs and Trade Minister Bulent Tufenkci told reporters in Hatay province late Wednesday, adding the ministry was analyzing the sector to make a decision on how to proceed.

The Uber debate in Turkey has become as polarizing as politics under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Drivers at the courthouse protest chanted: “Jewish, Zionist Uber! Get out of my country!” One said he’d stop voting for the ruling AK party if Uber’s license isn’t revoked.

Others revealed violent intentions: “If the court rules against us, we will kill Uber drivers,” said Murat Aslan, who saved up for 15 years to buy his own taxi license.

Eyup Aksu, chairman of the Chamber of Istanbul Taxi Operators, said he’d gotten assurances from Prime Minister Binali Yildirim that Uber is indeed breaking the law, although the prime minister’s office declined to comment when reached by phone.

Uber drivers like Nejat Erkan Erdogan, 54, are on high alert. It’s only his first month on the job and he’s been attacked three times, including a fist fight with a taxi driver who tried to get into his car.

“Sometimes I drive past my passengers as I see angry cab drivers waiting for me on the side of the road,” he said.

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