Private hire driver Gabriel Bringye was 37 when he was stabbed to death while working for the ride-hailing app Bolt and left to die in his car. Nobody at the company raised the alarm on the 17th of February, not even when his stationary vehicle ran a fare for 300 minutes. It fell to Gabriel’s family to switch off his fare.
In the gig economy, where worker disposability is the norm, Gabriel’s death serves as a tragic reminder of quite how literal that disposability can be. And, because of the classification of drivers as “independent contractors” rather than employees, his death also serves as a powerful example of what happens when gig companies are allowed to sidestep responsibility for worker safety.
Gabriel’s sister, Renata, and fiancé, Mara, told VICE that all they have received from the company in the wake of his death is a bunch of flowers. The family had to turn to GoFundMe to cover the costs of returning Gabriel’s body to his native Romania for the funeral. In late February, six people were charged with the murder.
Renata, a single mother who is also a private hire driver, has given up driving for Bolt out of fear. “After my brother’s incident I couldn’t work - even now I only work during daylight hours,” she says. “It made me very scared and afraid whenever I am at work, because I never know who I am picking up. I only see a name and that's it.”
Migrant workers like Gabriel and Renata have made Bolt’s CEO Markus Villig the youngest founder of a billion-dollar company in Europe. Unsurprisingly, the numerous glowing profiles that emphasise Villig’s Silicon Valley style tech bro credentials – university dropout who founded the start-up at 19 – fail to mention that his workers are protesting for the basic right to work in safe conditions.
The violence that Gabriel suffered, while extreme, is not unique. Private hire drivers say that attacks from passengers are out of control, and that ridesharing apps do nothing to protect them. In March, the United Private Hire Drivers (UPHD), a branch of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), the principal trade union for gig economy workers, wrote a two-page letter to Villig setting out the basic safety and verification features needed to protect his workers.
It received a one line reply: “Bolt will continue to communicate with drivers using its platform separately on safety issues.”
But, as IWGB president Alex Marshall points out, “as far as we are aware no Bolt drivers have been consulted on this matter.” This lack of consultation, coupled with the outright refusal to engage with the union, inspired IWGB to protest.
On Tuesday 4th May, more than 40 minicab drivers took their demands directly to Bolt, campaigning outside their offices in Chiswick. Different chants rang out at the protest, summing up driver’s collective pain and outrage: “300 minutes left for dead, no response, nothing said”, “Gabriel’s life is not in vain, change the app or feel the pain”, as well as shouts of “shame” and “blood on your hands”.
Yet Bolt employees were nowhere to be seen: They’d closed their offices for the day. When workers, joined by Renata and Mara, went looking for answers, they were met instead by locked doors and security guards.
Speaking at Tuesday’s protest, Nader Awaad, vice chair of UPHD, says: “We are not asking for the impossible. Our demands are straightforward, simple, and achievable.”
Marshall sets out what drivers are calling for: “Stronger identification requirements for customers to prevent the creation of fake accounts, passcode login to the app to prevent the use of the Bolt app on stolen phones, a better support system for drivers in distress.” Violence against drivers isn’t unique to Bolt, he says, but IWGB’s emphasis is on them due to “a number of recent attacks on drivers have happened on Bolt jobs”.
Just a month after Gabriel’s murder, another Bolt driver, Muhammad Alam, was assaulted by two men. Booking using a stolen phone – as is also suspected in Gabriel’s case – the passenger coaxed Muhammad into a car park by claiming his friend had an injured leg and couldn’t walk to the vehicle. Muhammad was then jumped, punched in the face and forced at knifepoint to hand over his car keys.
“Bolt's negligence nearly cost Muhammad his life,” Marshall says. “We cannot allow any more drivers to be hurt in this way.” A UPHD survey has found 71 percent of members who responded had experienced physical assault on the job, with a further 82 percent reporting they’d experienced verbal harassment on the job.
Appearing in solidarity at the protest, Mel Mullings, chair of the Bakerloo branch National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, noted that UPHD drivers are fighting for workplace conditions that other workers have long been able to take for granted: “If I drop the handle while I’m driving my train, within 30 seconds, there’s an alarm that indicates that something might be wrong.”
Despite the high incidence of violence and assault on drivers, conversations around minicabs and safety are dominated almost exclusively by concern for passengers. While it’s difficult to get statistics, in part due to the lack of willingness of companies like Bolt to share their data, its competitor Uber did release a US safety report in 2019. Uber’s report showed that it is the drivers are just as frequently victimised by passengers, countering the narrative that private hire drivers are predatory perpetrators.
Back in 2017, the London Taxi Drivers’ Association shared a graphic with misleading statistics around the rate of sexual assault and rapes committed by Uber drivers, coupled with the phrase “Why Up Your Risk With A Minicab?” next to an image of a crying white woman. For Marshall, approaches like this “play into a racist trope”, relying on a “danger narrative of the brutish Black sexual aggressor attacking white women”.
While the vast majority of black cab drivers are white, a 2018 Transport For London report found that 94 per cent of private hire drivers are from a BAME background. This messaging has consequences: Several of the incidents of physical assault reported by UPHD members were by passengers clearly motivated by racism.
While the primary issue at stake is the health and safety of drivers, fatalities clearly can’t be divorced from the broader questions around algorithmic management and the gig economy’s obsession with customer satisfaction.
“The exploitative business model employed by most of the operators, where drivers have few rights, little voice, poor working conditions, and can be dismissed without due process, contributes to customers treating them poorly,” Marshall explains. Put another way, customers commit violence because they know they can get away with it.
A Bolt spokesperson told VICE: “The safety and wellbeing of our customers and drivers is a priority for Bolt.” The spokesperson pointed out that “both drivers and riders can use the SOS button in their app to alert our 24/7 high priority team”, as well as pointing to Bolt’s provision of 1,500 free plastic screens to protect drivers.
They continued: “We continually assess and try to improve the safety measures we have in place,” adding that they are “exploring enhanced rider identification, and whether a solution to automatically identify customers who could be a possible hazard to drivers is viable.”
“We have encouraged our drivers to decline any trips if they have concerns about their safety. Bolt does not punish drivers for low acceptance rates, so there is no issue if they reject a ride because they do not feel completely safe.”
Yet drivers, including Renata, say they’re frequently punished for turning down rides. In screenshots shown to VICE, Renata’s account was automatically suspended by Bolt for “rejecting or not responding to a high number of journey requests […] The rejection rate requirement is in place to offer our clients the best experience possible”. Back in March 2020, IWGB represented former Bolt driver Andrei Donisa, over claims he had been unfairly dismissed for not accepting enough fares.
Bolt also said: “We have supported and will continue supporting Gabriel Bringye’s family in every way we can. The family has come back to us expressing their gratitude for our support.”
Gabriel’s family call this is an outright lie, with Renata saying: “Their reaction made me sick, to be honest, because I didn’t feel that they cared whatsoever.” She adds: “They are lying about everything.” Beyond the flowers, the only communication she and Mara says they have received is a phone call from a Romanian Bolt employee, who was not acting in an official capacity.
When told that the family felt their statement about gratitude was a lie, a Bolt spokesperson responded: “We have nothing further to add beyond our initial response.”
Vlad, Gabriel’s close friend, told VICE that Gabriel was a kind man, who “always wanted to do good” and would “never turn you down if you asked him for help”. Also a private hire driver of six years, Vlad used to talk to Gabriel everyday between jobs, creating a brotherly bond between the two men.
He was working the night Gabriel was murdered and has stopped working for Bolt since. “We know that this job could be dangerous,” he says, “but you never think that it could happen to you.”