For South African activist Sechaba Lehana, this week’s slew of Uber leaks confirmed his worst fears: the taxi app knew full well the risks that drivers ran and put its profits before their well-being.
The mass of emails, memos and presentations revealed by the Guardian – spanning four years and 40 countries – showed that Uber knowingly flouted laws, duped police and exploited violence against vulnerable drivers as it lobbied governments for access.
In South Africa, where violent crime is rife, at least six drivers on the Uber platform have been killed on the roads since 2016, and hundreds robbed, hijacked, set on fire, shot at or stabbed, according to a tally kept by drivers.
Still, drivers were desperate for work in a country with one of the world’s highest unemployment rates. There are some 20 000 drivers on the platform now.
“It’s quite shocking,” Lehana said of the Uber expose.
“All our suspicions have been confirmed – there was underhandedness and a messing around with people’s livelihoods,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In South Africa, Uber knew it exposed its drivers to grave risk, even rewarding those who took dangerous routes, and persisting with cash payments that turned drivers into a target for criminals, the investigation showed.
“It’s unremorseful profiteering … and there are fatherless families out there right now because of it,” said Lehana.
In response to the investigation, Uber said that it “will not make excuses for past behaviour that is clearly not in line with our present values.”
Drivers for Uber Eats in South Africa, many of them migrants, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation last year that they drove without training or safety equipment, and were unaware of – or had insufficient insurance cover.
In response, Uber had pledged to increase safety for its drivers.
But the damage has been done, said Duane Bernard, head of an informal union of Uber Eats drivers, as even those switching to other local apps faced similar challenges.
“They are building the same system as Uber … it is out of the frying pan and into the fire,” he said, warning of protests or legal action by South African Uber drivers in response.
Research from the Fairwork project at the University of Oxford – which rates conditions in the platform economy – shows Uber consistently scores close to bottom across several countries in Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia.
A European Commission directive to improve conditions and a British bill to better protect gig workers are “important steps” – but ones that must be enforced, Fairwork said this week.
“The Uber Files show that powerful companies are able to evade the authorities under the current system of enforcement,” it said. “We need stronger trade unions and labour institutions along with governments that put labour issues first.”
Yet French police refused permission for a protest by drivers outside the Uber office in Paris this week, said Brahim Ben Ali, secretary-general of the INV union.
So on Wednesday, he went alone, livestreaming his criticism of Uber on his smartphone, after he was told he could not use a megaphone in front of the firm’s office.
“Something has to change,” said Ben Ali. “There are some who just can’t take it anymore, they’re working for peanuts.”
Ben Ali, who signed up as an Uber driver in 2016, realised quickly something “wasn’t right” in the system, and began pushing back. When he staged protests in the poor suburbs of Paris in 2019, he was kicked off the platform.
So he worked with a lawmaker on the EU directive on platform workers, and is working on a rival app that is a cooperative of drivers with labour laws and worker rights.
French President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday he would not change how he handled Uber when economy minister and was “very proud” of his record of mass job creation.
“(Macron is saying) I accept that I’ve enslaved these people. I accept that we work these people to death … I accept that there are people going bankrupt as they can’t even afford the repayments on their cars,” Ben Ali said.
In India, where Uber has nearly 600 000 drivers, the revelations that it jeopardised the safety of drivers and users did not surprise Shaik Salauddin, national general secretary of the Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers (IFAT).
“I am not shocked at what has been revealed. I experienced that every day,” the former driver said.
Several drivers committed suicide, battled depression or ran up debt, and the company continues to operate in “dangerous and callous ways … that brutally exploit drivers at sub-minimum level wages and unsafe working conditions,” he added.
Authorities said this week that they would introduce “new rules and laws that will reduce the opportunities for (Big Tech firms) to violate Indian laws or do something illegal.”
But in addition to any regulatory action, “only a unified labour movement … will win this fight,” Salauddin said.