As drivers and riders protest at Uber’s London HQ to demand an end to unfair app terminations, The Gig Economy Project spoke to Abiodun Ogunyemi and Brian Forwood about their experience of being de-activated from Uber and losing their livelihoods over night.
The Gig Economy Project, led by Ben Wray, was initiated by BRAVE NEW EUROPE enabling us to provide analysis, updates, ideas, and reports from all across Europe on the Gig Economy.
This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in the EU is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Andrew Wainwright Reform Trust
THE Independent Workers’ of Great Britain (IWGB) held a protest outside ride-hail giant Uber’s London HQ on 26 July to demand an end to unfair terminations by all app-based delivery and ride-hail corporations (see picture above).
Drivers and riders working for years on the apps have found themselves locked out of their accounts with no opportunity to put across their side of the story and no recourse to appeal. Not only does this leave workers unemployed over night, it can destroy the financial investment they have personally made in a car or bike, often based on taking out a loan they can no longer re-pay.
Reasons for the terminations vary, from a low rating on the app, to a customer complaint, to failed automated ID checks. In all cases, drivers and riders say specific circumstances are never taken into account, and the possibility of errors at the platform company’s end – including in facial recognition technology known to have a significantly higher failure rate for BAME workers – never considered.
The IWGB, which has made representations to these platforms on behalf of over 200 drivers and riders who have had their accounts deactivated in the last year alone, want a fair process of dismissals based on the guidelines of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) and the re-instatement of sacked colleagues.
The Gig Economy Project spoke to two of those workers who have been de-activated from Uber Eats and Uber respectively, Abiodun Ogunyemi and Brian Forwood, to hear their side of the story.
Abiodun became an UberEats rider in March 2020 and had his account terminated in March 2021.
“Sometimes when you want to log-in, they ask you to upload a live picture. And there are two options: allowing the algorithm to recognise your face, or by human recognition. So, I did the algorithm ones, and every time I tried to do it the machine couldn’t recognise my face, so I ended up having to use human recognition; through human interviews. And it wasn’t the first or second or third time that I had to do it this way, it was happening a lot. I didn’t see this as a big issue, as long as the human could recognise my face and approve me, I’m alright with that.
“Then in March, I got an e-mail saying if I intend to let someone use my account, I should let the company know about it first. My wife recently registered for Uber, and also has an account with them. So I said maybe I should add her name on to my account, as Uber have requested this. There’s nothing wrong with me adding my wife to my account. So that is what I did, and the next day my account just got blocked.
“I tried all sorts of means to communicate with them; I messaged, sent e-mails, all sorts of things, but nothing was done. Consider that I had a 96% customer approval rating and done almost 5,000 deliveries for them. I’ve never had any issues. So I was really, really shocked.
“What they kept saying was that I gave the account for someone else to use, which I never did, and at the same time they said on repeated occasions the facial recognition has not been able to recognise my face, so there’s nothing they can do. And I was like: ‘Yeah, your machine might not have been able to recognise my face because there is a fault in that machine.’
“Even Microsoft [the company Uber buys its facial recognition software from] have declared that their facial recognition system is faulty. And I said to them that I have passed all the human recognition tests so it must have been correct, unless the person who did it was on drugs or was drunk. That was my response because I was really angry that they blocked me out without any reason. I’ve given them all the proof they needed from me so there’s nothing else I can do.
“When I got blocked, I had some other platforms as well but I wasn’t using them until they decided to block me out. I waited for a month for Uber to sort things out, but when I saw that it seems nothing was happening I decided to start using the other platforms. It was a time of hardship for me while I was awaiting on them to make a decision.
“It’s not just me, I know about five other people who are also black that Uber just blocked out that way as well. And I’ve read different stories in papers and online about people from Asian backgrounds who have been blocked out. It’s widely reported in the papers, that the facial recognition system can’t recognise BAME people. And I think that proves that what they are doing is really, really discriminatory against BAME people.
“I’m just one of the victims. What else can we do? They are there in their office sitting behind their desk and thinking they can just mess with other people’s lives who are working tirelessly to make ends meet.
“If it has been widely proved that Microsoft’s system is faulty, why are the company using it? That is the question I want to put to them. When Microsoft themselves state that the algorithm is faulty and that they are working to rectify it and they still haven’t rectified it until now, then you shouldn’t go ahead and use it, because it’s going to affect a lot of people.
“And in terms of the government, I think they should tell those companies to either stop using it or use human recognition instead of machine recognition.”
Brian Forwood worked as a private hire driver for 12 years in Liverpool. His Uber account was terminated in December 2020.
“On the 27th of December last year, I dropped a customer off. Immediately after, I got a message saying “you are unable to work, contact ‘support’”. About five hours later I finally managed to get through, and they said they couldn’t deal with it, as another team deals with this stuff, and they will call me back.
“I didn’t get a call until three days after that, when a gentleman said: ‘We’ve had a complaint that you haven’t been wearing a face mask’.
I said: ‘Well that’s a false report, I wear a face shield and I wear one everyday and all the time.’ You can’t access the app without it, because it makes you take a selfie with the face covering on before it allows you to activate the app.
He said: ‘Well we have had a look into it, and we have decided to deactivate you with no possibility of you ever working for us again!” I actually thought for a second it was a prank. I was just in that much shock.
I said ‘you’ve got to take into consideration people making false accusations like that before you take my livelihood away’. I told him that I’ve not got one 1 star [customer rating] on the app, I’ve got all four and five stars.
After that, I had to go back to the company that I used to work for, which makes me very unsafe and I get major anxiety from the job I’m in now. I’ve had to get loans off family members to pay for a training course. This is not a job I want to stay in because it causes me a lot of anxiety and stress.
Since I’ve been sacked from Uber we’ve had three mortgage applications rejected. Because when you are on Uber all your finances have got a paper trail. Your credit rating goes up. So it’s had that knock-on effect. My wife has struggled with stress because she knows I’m stressed. What can I do? Because the bills are still coming in.
“My first impression of Uber and their algorithmic system was, how did they get round the local taxi regulations? Because it falls short straight away on several issues.
“You are not dealing with a human, you are dealing basically with an app that can decide whether you work or not every day. The trouble you have with this app is unreal. For example, it detects fraudulent behaviour that’s not fraudulent behaviour. You can be stopped from working for several days because you cannot get through to a human being.
“Local taxi companies have an office where you can go into and deal with a human to resolve issues. With Uber, your are trying to get through to a phone in California. And when you do get through, the person on the other side is just reading off a script. It’s like you are talking to a computer. There’s no office that you can go in and resolve issues.
“You’ve got no rights basically. There’s no safety net. They just say: ‘You’re deactivated, good bye’. No compassion, no empathy that you’ve got bills, you’ve got a family, you’ve got a mortgage – it’s just ‘goodbye’.
“The local taxi licensing should be taking a close look at it, but they just want to throw the taxi licenses out like confetti because they get money. Every taxi license they give out, it’s £150 for them. By the taxi licensing regulation, you are supposed to have an office, with people in that office as support for the drivers. They don’t – Uber don’t have anything. They have an on-boarding hub, but if you go down there to deal with an issue, they won’t see to you. They simply say, ‘we’re just on-boarding you have to go through the app for any issues.’ So there’s no one from Uber who you can go and speak to.
“There has got to be more support from the government and local councils because right now there’s nothing.”