On Wednesday Uber, the taxi hailing app, began offering 70,000 UK drivers a minimum hourly wage, holiday pay and pensions after years of legal battles.
But drivers said the new deal was far from perfect, as they are only guaranteed minimum pay from when they accept a job – not from when they log on to the app to start work.
‘It’s a step in the right direction, but we’re not there yet’
“Like with anything else, it’s a good step forward, but you’ve got to read the small print,” said Shafaq Ahmed, a 40-year-old Uber driver in the West Midlands who has been with the firm for almost four years. “It’s definitely a positive step forward. Bit by bit we’re getting more rights, and [Wednesday’s decision] does feel a bit like a safety net being drawn under the trade.”
However, like many drivers who contacted the Guardian, Ahmed was keen to point out that the news wasn’t all that it seemed. The court ruled that the minimum wage pay should begin from the moment drivers logged on, but Uber has told them this will begin only from when a trip is accepted and end when the passenger gets dropped off, which does not account for waiting time.
“The court ruling said one thing, Uber said another thing,” he said. “It should be from the time you log on. It’s like any other job: you’re paid for the time you’re behind your desk, whether or not there’s work you can do there.”
Typically, Ahmed works between six and nine hours a day, but the demand for trips has dropped due to Covid. Last week, he earned just £7.32 in four hours. Ahmed said he would now consider £50 to £60 a good day’s earnings – around half the pre-Covid level.
“You have good days sometimes, but it’s a roll of the dice,” said Ahmed, who joined the App Drivers & Couriers Union and has become a rep to support the campaign for better working pay and conditions.
“Lots of drivers have woken up to good news, but a lot are sceptical. It’s a step in the right direction, but we’re not there yet.”
‘The devil is in the detail’
“We welcome the news, no doubt,” said Nader Awaad, who has been driving with Uber in London for almost two years. “But as always, they say the devil is in the detail. We were not consulted about this package, we had no idea what it was, and no idea how it will manifest. So we’re cautious.”
Like Ahmed, the 53-year-old said that only changing the pay for driving time, rather than waiting between jobs, was not enough.
“The amount of hours you have to work is ridiculous,” he said. “You have to do 12 to 15 hour days to make [decent pay], and six to eight hours just to cover overheads. I met many drivers who sleep in their cars. For me, [when I joined] it was shocking. It was like [something from] Charles Dickens during Victorian times.”
“It’s not a life and the rewards for the driver are not as appropriate as they should be,” he added. “Uber take a 25% cut, but all they provide is the software network; no cars, insurance, diesel or other expenses.”
But for Awaad, it wasn’t just about “pay and reward”. He said the ruling failed to address many of the key issues facing drivers.
“We have other issues as well, like health and safety and deactivation,” he said, adding that he has become the vice-chair of the United Private Hire Drivers, a branch of the Independent Workers’ Union of Greater Britain (IWGB), to campaign against the issues. “We’ve had to deal with abusive behaviour and racism, and we’ve been campaigning on that. That’s a big deal for us. Also, Uber can deactivate drivers without any due process in place. This is unacceptable.”
‘Uber is still taking drivers for a ride’
Saif Ali, 63, said the ruling gave him and his fellow drivers hope; for their own company and for all gig economy workers. However, he has fallen foul of Uber’s policy on coronavirus leave and sick pay; something the court ruling does not address.
In late February, he was told that he was among those newly identified as needing to shield, meaning he could no longer work. When he told Uber, the firm said he didn’t fit its criteria to be paid while shielding, so has since been without income. Ali has been surviving off some savings and support from his two children.
“I sent Uber the letter I got, and they rejected payment, saying I need to have at least 150 trips in the last eight weeks to [get paid to] shield,” he said. “Due to the circumstances [with fewer trips available], we can’t do this many jobs, so my request got rejected.”
“Uber is still taking drivers for a ride,” he added.
‘It’s a losing battle constantly’
Hassan, an Uber driver in Essex who preferred not to give his last name, said that the ruling did not mean much to him unless Uber agreed to backdate the new pay to when drivers started working for the firm.
He is one of many drivers now working with solicitors to force Uber to do this, but he is also concerned about high solicitor fees.
“It should be a straightforward form to fill in. It’s a losing battle constantly,” he said.
During the pandemic, Hassan’s hours driving have more than halved from 45 a week to about 20, and the frequency of journeys within that time has also reduced. While he used to make about £850 a week, some shifts he has made just £7 in four hours.
“I’m trying to make whatever I can, just to break even,” he said. “I feel sorry for people who have got mortgages, car finances, kids and are depending on an Uber income. For the hours you work, you can end up way below the minimum wage.”