The faces of a conflict: why Kam Kaler drives for Uber

Driving part-time for Uber is helping the former healthcare worker transition between careers

There’s been a war on our roads for the past 15 months. The taxi industry has been under fire since Uber launched in Toronto in September 2014. Frustrated cab drivers claim their livelihoods are in jeopardy. Despite pointing out the illegality of UberX’s operations, nothing has been done to stop the California-based tech company. Meanwhile, those who support Uber say the company is simply providing another transportation option with cheaper fares and better customer service.

We talked to two Torontonians in the heat of the battle: a long-time taxi driver who describes how Uber has affected his bottom line, and an UberX driver who sees her involvement in social transportation as a positive one. Below is Kam Kaler’s story. For Jafar Mirsalari’s side, click here.

If you’re a passenger in Kam Kaler’s car over the holiday season, you’re likely to be offered a candy cane or chocolate. The North York resident and UberX driver goes the extra mile when it comes to her part-time job. It’s not just because at the end of the ride Kaler will be rated on the experience. She tends to view most customers as guests or good friends and treats them accordingly.

“I think it’s a nice gesture because you’re entering my space,” she explains. “At Halloween, I gave out candy a couple of days. I’ve done mints before, and I always have gum in case you’re running late and you’re going on a date. I also always have a raincoat in there, believe it or not, and an umbrella, just in case.”

The 39-year-old born and raised Ontarian has had a driver’s licence since she was 16. She started driving for Uber in January, four months after the company launched in Toronto. “To me, it sounded more service-oriented and more personable, and I wanted to be part of a company that had this service,” she says.

Up until late 2014, Kaler worked in healthcare, but an injury forced her to leave her full-time hospital job. She’s hoping to transition into a new career in project and event management, and Uber is helping her make ends meet in the meantime. Currently, she drives, on average, 20 hours a week, which earns her around $500.

“I can go work for four hours and make $120 or I could go work a couple of hours and make $150. It’s hit or miss depending on the fares,” Kaler says. “I try to head downtown and wherever my trips take me, I’ll try to drive in that area. Let’s say I’m in Mississauga and there are no fares, I’ll just slowly head back downtown until I get a fare.”

In terms of expenses, Kaler’s 2006 Mazda 5 Crossover costs between $100 and $150 in gas each week. She also spends, on average, $10 on Uber-related expenses, like candy and water bottles for her customers. “Anything to do with car maintenance is also my own expense,” she notes, adding that she takes her car to a garage for oil and tire changes every few months.

“I’m planning on increasing my hours to earn more,” Kaler says. “I was a little bit hesitant at the beginning because I wasn’t sure what was happening with the City of Toronto and safety wise, with the taxis. I just kind of kept it part time, but some women are making $7,000 a month.”

She’s referring to other female Uber drivers, who gathered at a conference organized by the company in Toronto in November. Top-earners, according to Kaler, work up to 15 hours a day, but many women treat Uber as a part-time job to supplement their income. At the event, customer service and safety were the two biggest topics discussed.

“Once or twice I’ve felt unsafe with passengers, but most of the time, Torontonians are friendly,” she says. “I’ve been trained differently because of my healthcare background so I know how to manage hostile individuals and what to say and not to say. Any job that you do, there’s always some stress-management or risk to counter. Most of the time, I’m excited to see who’s going to come into my car and what story they have to share.”

One of the few times Kaler felt endangered was on December 9 when taxi drivers from across the GTA protested near city hall. A video showing a cab driver clinging onto a suspected UberX driver’s car surfaced online midday, causing many to decry the actions of the protesters.

“I was scared to drive that day. I didn’t drive all day, and then when I did drive in the evening, I was scared shitless,” Kaler recalls. “I had my phone on my leg instead of having it on my dashboard. I don’t have tint on my windows either. I’m proud of what I do, but I was hiding it because after seeing that video, I was worried that some taxi driver was going to freak out.”

Kaler feels badly for the treatment of taxi drivers and empathizes with the protests, but says that perhaps their anger towards Uber should be directed at city regulations that require cab drivers to hold licenses and pay numerous fees. “I think what’s being done to them is unjust,” Kaler says.

However, until Uber is effectively shutdown in Toronto, Kaler plans to continue driving. She has convinced her parents, both retirees living in the suburbs, to give it a shot, too.

“When you’re retired or you’re single, you become isolated,” she says. “For my father, it’s a way to meet other people in Oakville. I think the biggest component to Uber is it being a social thing.” | @michdas

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