For South African activist Sechaba Lehana, this week’s series of Uber leaks confirmed his worst fears: the taxi app knew full well the risks faced by drivers and put profits ahead of their well-being .
The mass of emails, memos and presentations uncovered by the Guardian – spanning four years and 40 countries – showed Uber knowingly flouting laws, misleading police and exploiting violence against vulnerable drivers as it pressured governments to accede to it.
In South Africa, where violent crime is rampant, at least six Uber platform drivers have been killed on the roads since 2016, and hundreds robbed, hijacked, set on fire, shot or stabbed, according to a tally kept by drivers.
Yet the drivers were desperate for work in a country with one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. There are around 20,000 pilots on the platform now.
“It’s quite shocking,” Lehana said of Uber’s exposure.
“All our suspicions have been confirmed – there has been deviousness and a mess with people’s livelihoods,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In South Africa, Uber UBER-N knew it was putting its drivers at serious risk, even rewarding those who took dangerous and persistent routes with cash payments that turned drivers into targets for criminals, the report showed. investigation.
“It’s profit without remorse…and there are fatherless families right now because of it,” Lehana said.
In response to the investigation, Uber said it “will not apologize for past behavior that is clearly inconsistent with our current values.”
Uber Eats drivers in South Africa, many of whom are migrants, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation last year that they were driving without training or safety equipment and unaware or had insurance cover insufficient.
In response, Uber pledged to increase the safety of its drivers.
But the damage has been done, said Duane Bernard, leader of an informal union of Uber Eats drivers, because even those who switched to other local apps faced similar challenges.
“They are building the same system as Uber… it came out of the frying pan and into the fire,” he said, warning against protests or legal action by South African Uber drivers in answer.
Research from the University of Oxford’s Fairwork project – which assesses the conditions of the platform economy – shows that Uber consistently scores near the bottom in several countries in Europe, Africa, Latin America and from Asia.
A European Commission directive to improve conditions and a UK bill to better protect gig workers are “significant steps” – but ones that need to be enforced, Fairwork said this week.
“The Uber files show that powerful companies are able to evade authorities under the current enforcement system,” he said. “We need stronger unions and labor institutions, and governments that put labor issues first.”
Yet French police this week refused permission to demonstrate outside Uber’s offices in Paris, said Brahim Ben Ali, general secretary of the INV union.
So on Wednesday, he went alone, live-streaming his review of Uber on his smartphone, after he was told he couldn’t use a megaphone outside the company’s offices.
“Something has to change,” Ben Ali said. “There are some who can’t take it anymore, they work for peanuts.”
Ben Ali, who signed up as an Uber driver in 2016, soon realized something was “wrong” with the system and started pushing back. When he organized protests in the impoverished Paris suburbs in 2019, he was kicked out of the platform.
So he worked with a lawmaker on the EU Platform Workers Directive and is working on a competing app which is a co-op of drivers with labor laws and worker rights.
French President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday he would not change the way he ran Uber when he was economy minister and was “very proud” of its record of massive job creation.
“(Macron says) I accept having enslaved these people. I accept that we work these people to death… I accept that there are people who go bankrupt because they cannot even pay their car reimbursements,” Ben Ali said.
In India, where Uber has nearly 600,000 drivers, revelations that it was jeopardizing the safety of drivers and riders came as no surprise to Shaik Salauddin, national general secretary of the Indian Federation of App-Based Transport Workers. (IFAT).
“I am not shocked by what has been revealed. I experienced it every day,” the former driver said.
Several drivers have committed suicide, battled depression, or gone into debt, and the company continues to operate in “dangerous and ruthless ways…that brutally exploit drivers at sub-minimum wages and in dangerous working conditions. “, he added.
Authorities said this week that they would introduce “new rules and laws that will reduce opportunities for (big tech companies) to violate Indian laws or do anything illegal.”
But beyond any regulatory action, “only a unified labor movement … will win this fight,” Salauddin said.
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