Uber is facing an uprising from drivers in Europe who want both increased stability and greater freedom, demanding stronger employment rights and access to their data respectively.
On the employment rights front, two Uber drivers continue to fight for basic guarantees in the UK’s Supreme Court. Uber drivers are currently classified as independent contractors, who are not entitled to sick pay or the minimum wage.
But in 2016, British drivers James Farrar and Yaseen Aslam successfully argued that Uber should give grant drivers “worker status”, granting them rights like paid holiday and the national minimum wage. Uber has continually appealed that decision and has now taken its fight to the Supreme Court, where a ruling is expected in October.
It could be a landmark decision for gig economy workers and a potentially costly outcome for Uber.
Uber’s argument is that its platform only connects passengers with drivers, who are given the flexibility to log into the app when they please and turn down rides they don’t want to take.
James Farrar is a former Uber driver who is involved with both legal cases. He’s now the founder of Worker Info Exchange, an organization that aims to help gig economy workers in Europe obtain their data.
Worker Info Exchange is one of the founding members of the International Alliance of App-Based Transport Workers (IAATW), a union fighting for the rights of gig economy workers. It was formed in January this year and already has delegates across 23 countries and multiple platforms, including Lyft, Ola, and Bolt, as well as Uber.
Speaking to Business Insider, he painted a darker picture of long hours and poor pay, of how he was forced to take all the rides he was offered in order to chase a 4.4 star average or else risk his account being deactivated.
“Uber gives me work but also I’m obliged to do that work for Uber,” says Farrar. “Uber will say you can cancel the job if you like, but you can’t do that without incurring some kind of a penalty. If I was truly self-employed I could cancel all the work I wanted to, it wouldn’t make any difference, it’s my choice.”
“It strikes me as Uber trying to justify a fairly complicated shell game, which ultimately cheats workers,” he adds. “If you’re at the lowest rung and you’re vulnerable to terrible exploitation like you can be in the gig economy, then you need the protection of a minimum wage.”
Uber says that it has changed its model since the 2016 tribunal, for example with the introduction of free insurance for its drivers.
Digital rights are workers’ rights
The lawsuits against Uber are part of a perceived power imbalance in the gig economy, where workers feel they answer to black-box algorithms rather than human managers.
Uber says that using location information to match passengers with drivers leads to more business for drivers, but Farrar believes that the increasing reliance on algorithms can work against drivers’ interest and result in unfair outcomes.
“Uber has a rule that if you reach 4.4 in your ratings, you’re deactivated. So basically Uber has outsourced management to the discriminatory view of their customer,” says Farrar. “The question then becomes who reaches 4.4 faster? If I’m a white European man from Ireland, am I going to reach 4.4 faster than a migrant worker from West Africa?”
Uber doesn’t publicly disclose what rating results in drivers being booted off its platform, but prior reporting from Business Insider put the number at 4.6.
Understanding the data and how it is used by the algorithms is the first step in addressing the asymmetric power between gig economy workers and tech giants like Uber, according to Farrar.
“The long hard road that we are on now is how do we organize the dispersed digital workforce? And what is the currency for our organizing? The gateway in the future to worker rights is through digital rights,” he said.
A win against Uber could open the floodgates for data privacy challenges against other apps.
The need to assert the rights of gig economy workers is now more important than ever, Farrar continued, with delivery apps expected to be some of the biggest winners in the post-pandemic economy.
Global customer volume in the digital gig economy is projected to grow to $455 billion in 2023, from $204 billion in 2018, according to Mastercard.