James Farrar, ADCU General Secretary, tells the Gig Economy Project that Uber has “burned their drivers” by leaving them “exposed to inflation”
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. If you have information or ideas to share, please contact Ben on GEP@Braveneweurope.com.
This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in Europe is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Andrew Wainwright Reform Trust.
UBER drivers in the UK have joined their transport colleagues on the railways by going on strike to demand higher pay, as the inflation crisis pushes workers to the picket line.
Assembling outside Uber’s offices at Aldgate Tower in London at 11am GMT, Uber drivers in the App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU) protested with placards reading “stop Uber greed” and “Uber obey the law”. The strike, which began at midnight, will last 24 hours and the union is calling on consumers to boycott the app during the industrial action.
The National Rail and London underground strike by the RMT union, which began on Tuesday [21 June], has been headline news in the UK this week, with many warning that a ‘hot summer’ of industrial action may be on the way, as average wages suffer their sharpest real terms decline since 1956-57. Uber drivers in ADCU are the first to follow the railway drivers on to the picket lines.
Uber drivers have been among the worst hit by rising fuel prices, which they have had to absorb the full cost of as the US ridehail giant’s operating costs per mile for its UK drivers – 45p – has not changed since it was first set following the decision to employ drivers last March.
The ADCU strike has four demands. First, that Uber must comply in full with the UK Supreme Court ruling last February, which as well as finding that Uber drivers are employees also found that they should be paid from log-in to log-off. Uber continues to only pay drivers when they are driving a customer, with unpaid waiting time thought to be worth 40% of total working time.
Second, that Uber must raise fares to £2.50 per mile and £0.20 per minute. Third, no more “unfair dismissals” of drivers, with the union stating that drivers are fired by automated means with no due process of representation, appeal or representation. Finally, ADCU calls for Uber to “obey the UK GDPR” to “provide full algorithmic transparency”, so that drivers understand the decision making processes which affect their job.
In November, Uber announced a fare rise of 10% in London, and 25% at peak time, in a move to attract more drivers back into the car after many had left the business either during the pandemic or due to the surge in fuel costs. It’s thought to have been the first fare rise in London since 2017.
However, James Farrar, General Secretary of the ADCU union, told the Gig Economy Project that the November fare rise was “meaningless and impossible to measure” due to the companies increased use of dynamic pricing.
“The prices are floating above and below that benchmark all the time,” he explained. “Fares on Tuesday evening were being offered in central London at £1.06 per mile and £0.10 per minute. These are historically low fares. So it’s all trickery, because Uber is saying this, that and the other but it’s not translating into more money for drivers.”
Farrar also highlighted another change to Uber’s pricing policy during the pandemic to what is called ‘upfront pricing’, where the fare price is set at the start of the journey and doesn’t change regardless of how long it takes to reach the destination. The change has “put all the operational risk onto the driver rather than passenger”, Farrar tells GEP.
“So the combination of both dynamic pricing and upfront pricing has created a lot of insecurity for drivers, and that’s why passengers are not getting picked up. Before you could push the button and you’ld know you’ll get £1.25 a mile and 15p a minute, no matter what. Now, you could be offered anything and you have to sit there and look at it and figure out whether you can make money out off that trip or not.”
The ADCU had led the Supreme Court case against Uber last February with hopes that employment status would improve pay and working conditions. Quite apart from the fact that the government has not forced Uber to comply with the full Supreme Court judgement, Farrar said that drivers may now in fact be worse off than they were previously, with the cost of fuel up 44% in a year, the cost of second hand vehicles up 29%, and the general cost of living up 9%.
“With Uber having left drivers so exposed to inflation, we are reaching the point now where we are worse off than we were before drivers were employed,” he said. “Inflation has taken away any gains we might have had, and Uber has absolutely left drivers exposed to it. They’ve burned their drivers.”
All of this comes over a year after Uber signed a historic collective agreement with the GMB Union which Uber said would “improve workers’ protections” and the GMB said would help in “bringing dignified, secure employment back to the world of work”. The agreement was criticised at the time for not requiring Uber to comply fully with the Supreme Court ruling, and Farrar told GEP that his union would not sign any collective agreement with the company until they “commit to obeying the law in spirit and by the letter.”
“We couldn’t get into the situation where we have to spend years and years incrementally negotiating up to legal minimums. That’s unacceptable. We might as well just go to court and sue for it.
“Those are statutory rights that we are entitled to and I think we do a disservice to our trade union forefathers by given up our insistence on compliance with those basic statutory rights.”
In response to the RMT strike, Uber’s surge pricing kicked in and the price of a 3-mile journey from Paddington to King’s Cross on Tuesday was reported to have leapt up to £27, leaving many customers unhappy. Uber said it was capping surge pricing in London for the duration of the strike.
The ADCU had a different type of response, posting messages on social media in support of the RMT action, and Farrar said that solidarity between unions during the cost of living crisis was “absolutely critical.
“The RMT is an inspiration for us in what they’re doing,” he added. “We have to build our strike readiness and our organisational readiness to be able to leverage that force against Uber and other private hire operators.
“We simply don’t have much choice because for years the government has not stepped in, they’ve allowed precarious workers to be burned again and again and again.”
Separately, the ADCU has issued a complaint to the Mayor of London and the Metropolitan Police after an internal memo from the building management at Uber’s London office was leaked to the union.
The union said that the leaked letter “suggests that Uber is in collaboration with the Met Police to provide intelligence on the union, the strike action and the planned protest”.
To sign up to the Gig Economy Project’s weekly newsletter, which provides up-to-date analysis and reports on everything that’s happening in the gig economy in Europe, leave your email here.
Support us and become part of a media that takes responsibility for society
BRAVE NEW EUROPE is a not-for-profit educational platform for economics, politics, and climate change that brings authors at the cutting edge of progressive thought together with activists and others with articles like this. If you would like to support our work and want to see more writing free of state or corporate media bias and free of charge. To maintain the impetus and impartiality we need fresh funds every month. Three hundred donors, giving £5 or 5 euros a month would bring us close to £1,500 monthly, which is enough to keep us ticking over.