When the trove of confidential files about Uber was published on Sunday evening, the true extent of the tech giant’s ruthless methods was revealed. The leaked documents exposed the mercenary tactics Uber used to lay the groundwork for its empire and to bulldoze its ride-hailing service into cities around the world. From 2014 to 2017, the company duped police, lobbied governments and may have broken laws. One senior Uber executive even told the Guardian the company had a strategy of “weaponising” drivers and exploiting violence against them in order to “keep the controversy burning”.
These revelations may be shocking to anyone who uses Uber. But they were less surprising to Uber drivers. Since the Uber files were published, the company has said that these behaviours are now in the past. In a public statement responding to the Uber papers, Jill Hazelbaker, the company’s senior vice-president of public affairs, wrote that Uber was now a “different company”.
Despite the change of personnel, drivers aren’t overly concerned with who holds what title in the company: they’re more concerned about how to feed their families, pay their bills and keep their jobs.
Uber might argue that its problems have melted away, but this is not the experience of its drivers. For years, the union that I am president of, the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), has been fighting tooth and nail for the rights of couriers and private hire drivers. Every day, I speak to Uber drivers who believe they have been unfairly deactivated by the platform, have suffered abuse from passengers or have seen their fares decrease. The stories I hear from drivers are almost always the same: Uber tends to side with riders over drivers, while its opaque algorithm means drivers have little power to understand or challenge the decisions the company takes.
In February last year, the UK supreme court ruled that Uber drivers were workers, not independent contractors. It was a breakthrough that forced Uber to reclassify its 70,000 drivers, giving them a guaranteed minimum wage, holiday pay and pension (although this reclassification did not include couriers on the Uber Eats platform). Yet despite this progress, drivers are still experiencing severe problems.
Despite all drivers being paid a guaranteed minimum wage, many have seen their fares decline dramatically. The escalating costs of petrol – together with the overheads of leasing your car and, In London, paying the congestion charge – mean that many Uber drivers are still struggling to break even at the end of the week. There is no transparency over how fares are calculated, and drivers’ pay is not tied to surge pricing, even when riders are paying more than double the standard fare. Uber says, however, that owing to fare increases and additional demand, drivers are earning more than ever.
Another crucial problem drivers struggle with is deactivation – Uber’s neologism for unfair dismissal. Uber says that it takes deactivation seriously and has “robust processes” in place to investigate and review incidents. Members of the IWGB believe Uber is more likely to take the rider’s side in a dispute, and will frequently deactivate drivers without giving a reason. Earlier this year, the IWGB staged a protest against unfair deactivations outside Uber’s London office.
Finally, drivers are still struggling with basic safety issues. A recent survey conducted by the IWGB of drivers who work for a number of platforms including Uber found that more than 50% of our members had experienced physical assault while on the job during their career and more than 80% had experienced verbal abuse in the past year alone. Minicab driving is dangerous work, but Uber and other apps have a responsibility to do much more to support drivers.
In our experience this support has been lacking, and far too often drivers will report concerns about abuse by a passenger only to find nothing has been done. It does not surprise me at all to see the Uber files reveal comments from Uber managers where violence against drivers is treated as unimportant. Uber says it has a “zero tolerance” approach to abuse, and anyone found to behave in this way would face being permanently removed from using the platform.
Last year, Gabriel Bringye, a driver for another ride-hailing platform, Bolt, was stabbed to death while on the job. On the anniversary of his death this year, the IWGB launched the Justice for Gabriel campaign for driver safety. There are easy ways to make private hire driving safer: companies such as Bolt and Uber could change the way they respond to complaints from drivers, and subsidise the cost of CCTV and safety screens for vehicles.
Uber will probably be injecting vast amounts of money into its PR machine in order to claim that everything these recent leaks detail belongs in the past. Owing to the lack of government intervention, change at Uber will come about only through workers getting organised and taking action. Uber still needs a drastic overhaul consisting of three key things: better pay, greater transparency and treating drivers like human beings. There should be a just and transparent process for deactivation, a fair pricing structure that prices fares by the mile, and more measures to ensure the safety of drivers.
Drivers must also have power over their work. This will be achieved only through collective organising. The public have now seen the dirty side of Uber, which workers are all too familiar with. Now it is time to take action and bring about change.