For on-demand app workers, false complaints can ruin lives
Around the world, every year, hundreds of thousands of predominantly racialised and primarily poor ride app drivers lose their jobs due to false customer complaints.
Since Uber launched, the company – like others in its wake, including Deliveroo and Bolt – has worked to find every legal loophole it can use to exploit its workers. The results mean extreme precarity and instantaneous unemployment at the whim and a tap of a customer’s phone screen (often because they want a refund).
It sounds like an episode of Black Mirror – a livelihood destroyed merely for a few pounds refund, fired without cause, due process or even a fair hearing. But this is the everyday reality of drivers and couriers working in the app-based passenger transport sector.
For taxi drivers in the UK, racist discrimination seems to be attached to the job description. Asian and Black Taxi drivers have long been racially stereotyped as dangerous, unsafe predators. Customers expect them not to talk and just drive.
"It sounds like an episode of Black Mirror – a livelihood destroyed merely for a few pounds refund, fired without cause, due process or even a fair hearing"
William Jimenez, a caseworker for App Drivers Courier Union (ADCU), told me that he deals daily with drivers being unfairly deactivated. "Having looked over thousands of complaints, it’s very apparent that most are fraudulent and vindictive; grievances include “the car had a spider web” or “the car smelled funny”.
The obvious racialised, gendered and dishonest nature of customer complaints still does not stop the transport apps from unfairly dismissing workers. Mr Jimenez expressed his concern over serious sexual harassment complaints he has dealt with.
"Drivers who have cameras installed can attempt to appeal, but those that haven’t end up losing their licences and livelihoods. Drivers don’t even appear to be working on the days of these supposed allegations."
In October, a tweet where a customer accused a Somali Bolt driver of kidnap went viral, putting his life and his children in danger. Bolt immediately dismissed him. It later came to light that this accusation may have been a misunderstanding. Nevertheless, Abdishakur’s life was turned upside down, and his employer threw him to the online wolves.
In addition to kidnapping, sexual harassment is one of the most serious allegations that a customer can make against a driver. Abdishakur’s incident is echoed by a similar story from a driver I spoke to from Liverpool. Uber deactivated Yas (not his real name) in May 2022. The Liverpudlian suddenly woke up to a blocked account; when he called Uber, they were no help. Yas described how close he was to ending his life after Uber took away his primary source of income.
Uber told Yas that a customer had alleged that he had inappropriately touched them. He vehemently denies these allegations. Before this, Yas had worked for Uber for 5 years with a 5 star rating, completing thousands of rides.
"This is a serious allegation, but if Uber took me to court, then at least I could fight this charge. But there is no due process; no innocent until proven guilty... according to Uber, I am immediately guilty," he said.
The issue of safety from sexual harassment is a serious one and claims of this should be investigated. But after listening to hundreds of drivers' stories, it is clear that customers can send false complaints after the slightest inconvenience. It would not be the first time a passenger made false claims of sexual harassment to get a refund, later proven to fabricated by CCTV footage in the car.
"Apps depend on exploitative business models that continue to dehumanise workers and sever the link between labour and responsibility for those at the bottom of its entrepreneurial supply chain"
The transport worker sector conjures a familiar and historical colonial imaginary of pliable servants who are 'disassembled, reassembled, exploited as a reserve labour force' and excavated for value.
Apps depend on exploitative business models that continue to dehumanise workers and sever the link between labour and responsibility for those at the bottom of its entrepreneurial supply chain. The highly undervalued and underpaid work leaves drivers struggling daily.
The latest features introduced on the apps where customers can receive deliveries without face-to-face contact have contributed to the continuation of the invisibility of labour. This could be one of the reasons behind the upsurge of false complaints; the industry pushes consumers to put their wants and needs above workers' dignity.
Customers are encouraged to view these labour services as robotic, forgetting about the human being behind the app. Automotive features like the rating system and the "Quiet preferred" option are premised on the dehumanisation of drivers.
Can we value a worker we cannot and often do not want to see?
In addition, these apps’ complaint processes are incredibly unrestricted and easy to use. Anyone could make a false complaint, alleging that their food never came, the driver didn’t meet at the pickup point, or the driver fell asleep at the wheel or ran a red light.
Sometimes it's due to faulty algorithms. Even if these complaints don’t cost them their job, bad ratings over trivial issues can severely affect their work and wages.
ADCU drivers, the largest growing driver union in the UK, are organising and mobilising to combat these issues, demanding driver rights to safety and better pay. In February 2021, in a landmark ruling, the founder of ADCU Yaseen Islam took Uber to court. The court ruled in his favour by concluding that drivers should be classed as "workers", entitling them to sick pay, paid holidays and minimum wage.
"Customers have a duty to stand in solidarity with drivers and couriers, a profession that, in tandem with nurses and other key workers, kept the country going during the hardest Covid-19 lockdown days"
Along with poverty-level incomes, the threat and execution of unfair firing, called "deactivation", is the most pressing problem faced by drivers worldwide.
Customers have a duty to stand in solidarity with drivers and couriers, a profession that, in tandem with nurses and other key workers, kept the country going during the hardest Covid-19 lockdown days. ADCU, an affiliate of The International Alliance of App-Based Transport Workers, a global alliance of 27+ driver unions, has launched a global petition calling for an end to Unfair Deactivation from Apps Around the World.
The exploitation of workers has become the foundation of the on-demand industry; the cost of our convenience is their degraded labour.
Tasnima Uddin is an organiser working on the gig economy, social housing and anti-gentrification campaigns and campaigns working in solidarity with incarcerated Muslims in UK prisons.
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