Uber treats its drivers as Victorian-style “sweated labour”, with some taking home less than the minimum wage, according to a report into its working conditions based on the testimony of dozens of drivers.
Drivers at the taxi-hailing app company reported feeling forced to work extremely long hours, sometimes more than 70 a week, just to make a basic living, said Frank Field, the Labour MP and chair of the work and pensions committee.
Field received testimony from 83 drivers who said they often took home significantly less than the “national living wage” after paying their running costs. The report says they described conditions that matched the Victorian definition of sweated labour: “when earnings were barely sufficient to sustain existence, hours of labour were such as to make lives of workers periods of ceaseless toil; and conditions were injurious to the health of workers and dangerous to the public”.
Although Uber classifies its drivers as self-employed, which puts them outside minimum wage legislation, Field said that in reality they had almost no independence – Uber dictates their working patterns once they have logged on, has raised its commission while cutting the rates they can charge, and imposes lockouts from its system if drivers turn down too many jobs. This, combined with the cost of the vehicles needed to meet Uber’s requirements, is creating “chronically low pay” and insecurity, the report says.
Field said he had produced the report, Sweated Labour, Uber and the “Gig” Economy, because he was concerned that the bottom was falling out of the labour market. It follows his highly critical examination of working practices at the courier company Hermes.
He said ordinary taxpayers were suffering because companies in the gig economy, where people do predominantly short-term, casual work, were failing to carry a fair share of the risks of business. “This is what has blown a hole in the government’s projections for tax revenue. The more workers are pushed into low-paid, insecure self-employment, the less will be the tax take for the rest of the country. The Uber report shows that this form of self-employment is not confined to Hermes, but is a driving force in the wider gig economy.”
“We’re proud of the economic opportunities we have created for people who can choose to drive when and where they want. Drivers using our app made average payments of more than £16 an hour after Uber’s service fee this September,” the company said in a statement.
It said most of its drivers worked less than 40 hours a week on its platform, with only about 25% logged in for more than that. It urged any driver who was making “below average payments to get in touch so that it could advise on better car and insurance deals and best times and places to drive”.
The report, written with Field’s parliamentary researcher Andrew Forsey, says Uber has flooded the market with new drivers, increasing competition for passengers so drivers are forced to work longer and longer just to maintain their low earnings.
Those who have taken on debt to finance their vehicles feel trapped and have little choice but to work unsafe hours to service their loans and feed their families, it says. The number of private hire drivers licensed by Transport for London (TfL) has almost doubled in six years, from 59,000 in 2010 to more than 116,000 by December this year. Uber says around 40,000 drivers work for its platform in the UK, with about 30,000 of those in the capital.
One driver told Field: “Yesterday my hourly net income fell to £2 an hour. I made £40 cash, then had to put in £30 in petrol.” Another described his work as being so low paid he received working tax credits from the state despite working very long hours. “The fares are too low and the commission too high. Drivers work six and a half days and 16 hours a day – dangerous for the driver, passenger and the public. Often you will earn less than the minimum wage, so you work more hours.”
Field is calling for TfL and the Department for Transport to require Uber to banish “sweated labour” from its working practices before renewing its licence to operate when it ends in 2017. He also wants the government to reform employment law so that companies in the gig economy are required to give workers basic protections, including the national living wage.
Uber was founded in 2009 in San Francisco and has expanded rapidly across the world since. Consumers love its low fares and convenience but it has attracted controversy in many of the cities where it operates, being banned in some, and provoking protests and legal challenges in others.
In London, a group of 19 Uber drivers took the company to an employment tribunal earlier this year with the help of the GMB union, arguing that they were not genuinely self-employed and were entitled to workers’ rights, including the national living wage. The court ruled in favour of the drivers in October but Uber said it would appeal against the decision. Employment law currently requires individual workers to bring their own cases rather than the ruling being automatically applied to other drivers.
Yaseen Aslam, the founder of United Private Hire Drivers, said the report’s findings echoed members’ experiences with Uber. “Minicab drivers throughout the UK have been exploited by operators for years but Uber’s entry to the market has accelerated a race to the bottom.”
TfL has argued for a cap on driver licensing under both the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and his predecessor, Boris Johnson, but says it would require the government to legislate, which it has not been willing to do.
A government spokesman said: “Taxis and private hire vehicles provide a vital service for many people and businesses across the country. We are committed to supporting the industry, with safety a priority.
“We are keen to ensure our employment rules keep up to date to reflect new ways of working, and that’s why we have asked the Royal Society for the Arts chief executive, Matthew Taylor, to conduct an independent review into modern working practices.”