JAKARTA – Sitting on the side of a Jakarta road anxiously waiting for his phone to ping, driver Muhammad Ridwan says it is now barely worth hurtling through thick smog every day to ferry passengers.

A 30 per cent hike in fuel prices spurred hundreds of drivers of the most popular ride-hailing apps to hold protests across Indonesia as they struggle to make ends meet.

“I sometimes don’t eat a proper meal the whole day to allocate my cash for fuel. If I don’t have fuel, how can I work?,” asked Ridwan, a contractor for Gojek – which alongside Singapore’s Grab is among Asia’s most valuable start-ups.

The drivers operate in an unregulated market and critics say the firms exploit them as “partners” or contractors, taking large cuts of their daily income.

To cut Indonesia’s deficit during rising global inflation and soaring energy prices due to the war in Ukraine, President Joko Widodo slashed fuel subsidies.

It pushed the price of Petralite – Indonesia’s cheapest fuel choice – from about 7,650 rupiah (S$0.72) to 10,000 per litre.

On-demand drivers say the two ride-hailing giants have only hiked fares slightly – to the tune of 800 rupiah per kilometre – to cover the additional costs.

Both Gojek and Grab told AFP they imposed a rate change in line with government regulation.

Gojek, which earlier this year merged with e-commerce platform Tokopedia in a multibillion-dollar deal, said the objective of the rate change was to “support driver partners”.

Grab said it was “designed to protect and maintain our driver-partners’ welfare”.

They both declined to disclose the rate increase but union leaders said it fell short of drivers’ expectations.

“Drivers across Indonesia cannot accept the fare adjustment,” said Igun Wicaksono, who heads a union of more than 100,000 drivers.

On a good day, drivers can earn up to 150,000 rupiah (S$14). But where a re-fuelling stop once cost 20,000 rupiah, it can now cost up to 35,000 rupiah.