The French Union which blockades Uber Logistic Centres – Interview with INV’s Ben Ali Brahim

Ben Ali Brahim is General Secretary of the INV (National Trade Union Congress VTC) in France, which organises VTC (“car with driver”) workers for Uber or other app-based ride hail firms.

Interview by Ben Wray, a freelance journalist leading BRAVE NEW EUROPE’S Gig Economy Project. He also produces a morning newsletter called Source Direct on Scottish politics, which you can sign-up to here:

Pour lire cet article en français, cliquez ici

This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in the EU was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Lipman-Miliband Trust

Ali Brahim’s union has made a name for itself through direct action mobilisations blocking Uber logistic centres across France, and organising drivers to deactivate from the app on mass.

They have a lot to be unhappy about. The Gig Economy Project reported last month on a new academic study on the impact of lockdown on French gig workers, which found that VTC’s had experienced an almost 50 per cent fall in income during lockdown, while many stopped working all together due to health fears.

Uber is a contentious topic in France, a country with a proud record of strong labour rights and militant unions. French President Emanuel Macron, who has met Uber’s CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, has previously praised the company for bringing work to “the banlieus”.

However, in March the digital platform lost an important appeal in France’s Court of Cassation, which found that a former Uber driver should have been considered as an employee. Typically, Uber have claimed the ruling only pertains to the one driver, but in fact it sets the precedent for French law.

The Gig Economy Project spoke to Ali Brahim about the situation of VTC drivers in France today, the work of his union, and whether he is optimistic about the future for gig workers.

Q: What is the situation now for VTC drivers in France in the context of the pandemic, in terms of health & safety and their income?

The situation of VTC drivers is catastrophic. The drivers have suffered three waves: Uberisation, the yellow vests, and now covid-19.

Many drivers have had to close down and take up another activity. We have lost colleagues who died from covid-19 and unfortunately no social protection for them and their families.

The psychological and physical health of some of them is deteriorating day by day because of the stress caused by covid-19 and the financial debts they are burdened with.

The safety of the drivers is not a priority for the platforms, nor the government.

Our trade union succeeded in July in extending until December the state’s aid, which is €1500 per month, but not for everyone.

This aid was supposed to end in July, but thanks to our demonstrations, we were able to save some but not all of it. The aid is insufficient and it is not for everyone because of the eligibility conditions.

We did a survey of our members for the Ministry of Finance, with whom I am in contact. It showed that 96 per cent of drivers were experiencing financial difficulties at the moment, with 92 per cent having difficulties paying membership fees.

Q: In March, before the lockdown, your union (INV) organised a national mobilisation to deactivate from Uber and other ride-hail apps, and last year you organised blockades of logistic centres across the country. Do you think direct action is an important way for gig economy workers to apply pressure on to companies like Uber, as well as the government?

The action I took against Uber, which we called Black-OUT, was in my view our best one, because it was the first time that Uber harassed me, by calling me at the weekend and also asking me to come and talk to them in meetings. I refused because we didn’t need a meeting to meet our demands.

This action allowed us to change things and to have power in our hands. Moreover, thanks to this we were able to reconnect suspended accounts but also to improve the drivers’ conditions a little bit.

Since that day, Uber are afraid of a new blockade of their offices, to the point that they are monitoring my Facebook and as soon as I say that we are going to block, they close their offices!

Our actions have made it possible to raise the government’s awareness and to rally several drivers to our cause. To date we have launched a procedure for the re-qualification of employees, and we have also launched the first action over Uber’s use of personal data.

Q: There was an important legal case in France in March which recognised the right of an Uber driver to be considered an employee. What is the legal situation for Uber drivers in France at the moment, and what changes to regulation and terms & conditions does your union want to see?

It was a long battle because of Uber’s lobbying in our judicial system – but it paid off.

We are starting another action to expel Uber from France, because they are trying – with the help of the government – to destroy the legal victory.

Our union wants the eradication of this obsolete system.

We are in the process of creating our own self-employed cooperative.

Q: What is the relationship of your VTC union to the taxi unions? Is it possible for all ride-hire drivers – VTC and traditional tax firms – to unite?

Our relationship with some taxi drivers is very respectful and supportive. Some taxis have helped me in certain cases.

But other taxis are first class troublemakers, just like with VTC drivers!

Unity is possible with some of them, but in the shadows because they are afraid of reprisals from critical colleagues.

Q: How many VTC drivers are members of a trade union in France? Is your union growing in size?

Our national union has 1413 members and 2456 non-member supporters. Non-members are being driven to join more and more.

Our structure is becoming more powerful every day. We are currently the only representative organisation in our country for our sector.

Q: There are important international battles taking place around Uber and the future of the gig economy, such as in California with the AB50 law. Are you optimistic about the future for workers in the gig economy?

Today we remain optimistic. We observe the struggles in the world and we are connected with some of them.

Moreover, we are going to relaunch the Black-OUT operation at an international level so that Uber understands that our suffering is international.

You know, despite having been disconnected from Uber for defending my colleagues, I can tell you that I don’t regret anything because I have a family with the drivers. So yes, I remain optimistic.

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