For years, Uber has fought tooth and nail to deny drivers like me many of the basic rights that no person should have to work without.
Up until February this year, the company forced us to sign up on contracts that bogusly defined us as self-employed, which meant we didn’t receive a minimum wage or holiday pay. However, following a lengthy legal battle waged against Uber by two former drivers, the Supreme Court ruled that we are in fact workers, and are therefore entitled to such rights.
But despite this landmark ruling, Uber is still coming after us – driving down fares, sacking us with no due process – and – despite its public proclamations that it’s’s working with unions to “clean up the private sector“– refusing to even talk to unions like the International Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), which I belong to.
This is why, on Wednesday 6 October, IWGB Uber drivers and couriers are going on strike.
Hundreds of us are coming together to demand a decent income and an end to unfair ‘deactivations’, following the sacking of hundreds of drivers and couriers in the last year. We are doing this by stopping work for the day and calling on members of the public to join us in boycotting the company. It’s time we get the rights we deserve.
A history of exploitation.
Uber has attempted to undermine the Supreme Court’s judgment at every turn. Prior to the legal challenge, drivers were only paid for time spent on a trip – time spent waiting for jobs was unpaid. This was a key part of Uber’s model, with the company actively onboarding more drivers than there were available jobs in order to ensure riders could get a lift at a moment’s notice. This oversupply of drivers meant that drivers like me would often have to wait significant periods of time to get a decent job, but weren’t paid for the time we spent waiting around.
The Supreme Court, however, said that as long as drivers are logged into the app, we should be paid the minimum wage, after expenses are factored in. This would ensure that Uber guarantees us at least a minimum floor in terms of our income, which also disincentivises the company from oversupplying the market with drivers.
Despite the ruling, Uber is refusing to pay for waiting times. This means our real pay can still be well below the minimum wage, forcing us, and our families, into poverty. The minimum wage is supposed to only be a floor, not the limit of our ambitions. While it is outrageous that the company is failing to meet even the most basic standards, we are demanding more than that. We are striking tomorrow for a liveable income. This is particularly important considering that Uber recently hiked up the commission charged on many longer-serving drivers by an additional five percent, along with introducing fixed rates for fares – a move that has dramatically reduced our average earnings, particularly on longer trips.
A lack of support.
And as if our work wasn’t already precarious enough, drivers and couriers can also be pushed into unemployment without notice, due process or any evidence of alleged wrongdoing on our part. The IWGB alone has handled over 200 cases of unfair terminations since the start of the pandemic. Drivers and couriers are often fired as a result of anonymous and non-specific customer complaints, delivery delays (over which we have no control) and failures of the facial recognition software Uber uses to confirm our identities.
This facial recognition technology, which we have to use to sign in to the app, has a devastating and disproportionate impact on the livelihoods of people of colour. Studies show that one in five darker-skinned female faces and one in 20 darker-skinned men fail the algorithm, which has profound ramifications for Uber’s workforce, which in London is 95% BAME.
Uber refuses to introduce even the most basic HR processes for handling complaints against drivers and couriers, leaving hundreds with no income to support their families. As a driver or courier, you are guilty until proven innocent, and it’s not unusual for the platforms to ignore your calls, union interventions and even letters from MPs. I have seen too many colleagues, many of whom are husbands and fathers, in tears because their means of providing for their family has been stripped away after years of hard work, and they don’t even know why.
In response to this injustice, in November 2020, more than 70 MPs backed the IWGB’s call for a fair terminations process, with the right to a hearing, to appeal and to trade union representation. But once again, Uber is digging in its heels, offering no acknowledgement, no dialogue and no accountability.
Of course, the Supreme Court ruling covered much more than pay. We were also promised backdated compensation for the years that we were wrongfully denied a minimum wage and holiday pay – this goes all the way back to when Uber first started in 2012, so if you were there since the start, you could be owed a huge amount of money. Here again, Uber is looking to rob us of every penny it can, arguing that drivers are only entitled to holiday back payments for the last two years.
At the IWGB we’ve even seen instances where drivers who contracted Covid-19 and were forced to self-isolate, are now being told that this counts as a break in employment, meaning they won’t get backdated compensation prior to their illness – an exemplary way for Uber to reward its key workers, who were performing what proved to be one of the deadliest jobs in the pandemic. In response, the IWGB has teamed up with leading law firm Leigh Day to support drivers in claiming what they are owed in full.
Drivers are not slaves.
Despite its continued exploitation of its drivers, Uber acts in the media as though it’s leading the sector on workers’ rights, calling out its competitors to join it in cleaning up their acts. Of course, the only reason it’s doing this is because – having been forced to make at least some concessions on workers’ rights – it is now in Uber’s financial interest for other companies to do the same, levelling the playing field and thus enabling it to stay competitive.
None of this is rocket science; for corporations like Uber, profit always comes before people. Without enforcement from above and pressure from below, it will continue to flout the ruling, leaving drivers and their families to pay the price for its greed.
But drivers are not slaves to be exploited and discarded at will; we are workers who provide an essential service and deserve fair pay, decent working conditions and respect. That’s why we are demanding fair pay, an end to unfair terminations and the facial recognition system, and the reinstatement of all unfairly terminated workers.
After serving our communities as key workers throughout the pandemic and establishing our status as workers in the Supreme Court, Uber giving us the rights and conditions we deserve is long overdue.
But if there’s one thing my organising experience has taught me, it’s that companies like Uber won’t give even an inch unless they have to. Tomorrow, we plan to show the righteous anger, determination and organisation that faces them if they fail to do so.
Rema Diallo is an Uber driver and member of the United Private Hire Drivers branch of the IWGB union.
Support the strike by joining the 24 hour Uber boycott, by showing your support on social media, or by coming down to Uber HQ to join tomorow’s protest.