At 3:30 AM last Saturday I handed my car keys to a stranger to drive me home. He introduced himself as Jay and asked for my address.
Jay's a daeri driver, employed by one of many off-license Korean taxi services in Sydney catering to drunk customers who can't drive their cars home. Working in teams, they drop you and your car off and are then picked up by another driver who takes them onto their next job/wasted customer.
Their arrangements are pretty loose. They also provide traditional taxi services and airport transfers as well as running errands, handling small removals, and even acting as personal tour guides.
But most of their customers are like me: Drunk Koreans looking for a way to not drive home. They attract most of their customers by leaving business cards at Korean drinking hot spots like restaurants and karaoke bars.
The daeri business started in South Korea in the 2000s and has been gaining popularity in Sydney since owner Daniel Im started his business Chool Bal Daeri in 2012—years before the Uber wave hit.
"My friend was a waiter at a noraebang [karaoke bar] and lots of customers would drink and they'd ask the owner for someone to drive their car home in exchange for money, so we started this company together," he told VICE.
With nine employees, Daniel credits his growing business to the Korean drinking culture and high taxi fares. But being unlicensed and unregulated, the daeri market is becoming increasingly crowded and competitive.
Before I called Jay on Saturday, I had to choose from the five daeri businesses which had stocked their business cards at the bar. Decorated with logos and random pictures of Superman, Winnie the Pooh, and penguins, they all had a loyalty stamp system. Monthly Korean Business Magazine lists 17 daeri services in Sydney, but drivers say there are more.
Having never used the service before, I picked one called 7942 at random and a man answered in Korean. I asked the price for a daeri from Strathfield to Parramatta and he quoted $50.
I remembered my cousin, who regularly catches daeris, boasting about his discounted rates from negotiating. I asked for $40 and he declined.
Telling him I'd think about it, I called the insightfully titled Plan B Pick Up to see if they could beat $50. They couldn't. I called 7942 back and was told a driver would be with me as soon as possible. It was all the convenience of an Uber combined with the confusion of organizing plans with your parents.
Although daeri is only advertised in Korean outlets, many non-Koreans are starting to use the service.
"I get a lot of locals, non-Koreans, they hear about us from their Korean friends," Jay explained.
A colleague of his claims to have driven a Caucasian businessman to Canberra for $300.
Student Teddy Ahn has been a daeri driver at a rival company for seven months and said his customers are not exclusively people who have been drinking: "Most of the time [my customers] were drinking but sometimes it's their relatives and friends or tourists from Korea or China who want a personal driver."
There was no traffic as Jay drove me home with his iPhone in his hand. Looking over I saw Google Maps directing the way. Slightly unnerved, I asked what happens if he has an accident. A colleague was involved in a minor crash he told me, "It wasn't big but they used the car owner's insurance and everything was OK."
As far as other situations turning sour, he mentioned a girl throwing up in another driver's car. She had to pay $100 extra. But beyond that, his experiences were less concerning than most taxi drivers doing the graveyard shift.
Another daeri driver I spoke to claimed he'd never heard of, or experienced any assaults. But if he did, he could easily call his employer or colleagues, who always know where he is. The worst he's had to deal with is customers too drunk to tell him their address. Now he always has bottled water on hand to help them sober up.
Jay finished his 12-hour shift at 6 AM and while he doesn't always enjoy driving, it's one of the easier jobs for Korean students like him with limited English skills. Teddy told me something similar: "At first I couldn't speak English very well, that's why I started this job and the shifts are more flexible than taxis."
Daeris are cheaper too, according to construction worker Chris Kim. He has become a frequent daeri user and never catches a taxi anymore. "Daeri is cheaper, more comfortable because they speak Korean, and sometimes I can't trust taxis because they come late or they use longer routes," he said.
Because of their ability to freely negotiate prices, the presence of daeri companies has become a concern for Michael Jools, the Australian Taxi Drivers Association president and a taxi driver for 20 years. He told me that there is a shortage of night taxi drivers, and "[Ride-sharing services like daeri and Uber] are reducing the volume of business enormously and things are going downhill.
"There has to be some minimums in terms of prices, if people can just charge whatever they like, it's not fair," he said.
The NSW Taxi Council is also concerned—its spokesman Andrew McBride sees a dark future for the industry.
"If the taxi service didn't exist, which in the future is a distinct possibility, the public would be left at the mercy of a non-regulated private company setting its own prices and service standards," he said.
Jools said that people should choose a taxi over any ride-sharing service because of its dangers: "The issue is pretty clear—should you really jump into a car with someone who isn't fully checked, may have a criminal record and vehicle not fully insured?"
But after my first daeri ride, the convenience and comfort of being driven home in my own car does feel hard to beat. I paid Jay and asked him to stamp my loyalty card.
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