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We Spoke To Uber Drivers Who Have Taken Over The Company’s Offices In France

“Capitalism has gone too far. The gig economy is killing people.”

by Edward Ongweso Jr
Nov 26 2019, 4:15pm

For nearly two weeks, Uber drivers across France have occupied or shut down the vast majority of the company’s offices, hoping to force the company to negotiate better working conditions.

Drivers have targeted and closed the company’s “Greenlight Hubs” in Paris, Lille, Lyon, Toulouse, Nice, Marseille, and Bordeaux. When an office closes or its staff is unable to simply hunker down inside, Uber has attempted to move its operations over to hotels and co-working spaces.

You can think of Greenlight Hubs as weird mergers between DMVs and support help desks. They’re Uber facilities where new drivers can be registered and be onboarded, as well as where existing drivers get in-person support. As a result, they’re essential to Uber’s growth, especially given the fact that only 4 percent of drivers stay on the platform for more than a year.

For the past five years, Uber has run into a multitude of problems that have frustrated the company’s perpetual expansion. Things came to a head in 2015, when taxi drivers in France organized massive protests and strikes in response to UberPop, an illegal service that relied on non-professional drivers who didn’t need a medallion, license, or insurance. After attempting to make their own fairer version of Uber, VTCs (a French acronym for non-taxi private drivers) banded together to launch a series of protests against Uber’s perpetual wage cuts and declining working conditions.

The company now boasts 2.7 million users in France, making it one of Uber’s largest global markets. That boom has come with an increase in Uber’s cut of fares, a decrease in the minimum fare drivers collect, and an increase in expenses as Uber’s growth strategy has accelerated congestion and pollution across Europe, a recent study argues. To take one example: on average, French citizens log over 12,000 kilometers—VTCs are logging close to 60,000 kilometers a year.

Motherboard spoke to drivers involved with the protests, both as individuals and as members of the Intersyndicale Nationale VTC, a nationwide body of local VTC unions, about their organizing efforts this past week. Multiple drivers agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity because they were concerned that Uber would retaliate.

DEMANDS

There are nine demands at the center of these protests:

A driver cap and a study on Uber’s market effects.

VTCs I spoke to voiced concerns that Uber had "trained customers to expect cheap and fast rides” by filling the streets with drivers and subsidizing prices with investor capital.

“In France, we’ve had unions, we have more social security, we have more labor rights, we have more protection than you in the U.S.,” one organizer told Motherboard over the phone. “This gig economy where you treat drivers like shit, it’s not what we are used to. Capitalism has gone too far. The gig economy is killing people.”

A flood of drivers on the streets increases congestion and pollution, but it also results in huge numbers of drivers cruising without customers—which means climbing gas and car depreciation expenses, but no pay. One common concern was that Uber would undermine “Les Trente Glorieuses” or the Glorious Thirties, France’s post-WWII period that featured substantial social programs won by militant labor movements.

In NYC, a 2018 study found ride-hail drivers spent 41 percent of their time without a passenger. Between 2010 and 2016, ride-hail companies accounted for 50 percent of the increase in San Francisco’s congestion. The results are similar in Chicago, Boston, or any of Uber and Lyft’s other major US metropolitan markets.

Dynamic pricing instead of fixed pricing.

Over the past few years, Uber has given dynamic pricing (i.e. surge pricing) a cosmetic make-over into “upfront” pricing—prices still change based on a number of factors, but now you are no longer told you are being charged 1.2x or 2.4x for a trip. Upfront prices, however, still overcharge customers if the time or distance are substantially different than previously estimated, allowing Uber to improve its margins on more rides than not.

Dynamic pricing, they argue, would allow them to be paid fairly for traffic jams, detours, and other unexpected route changes that cost drivers fuel and time.

Protesting VTCs alleged that in some cities, the underlying dynamic pricing has been removed. On Telegram, one driver occupying Uber’s Lille office told Motherboard that “if you stay in a traffic jam, or take a shorter or longer route…the price at the end is the one announced upfront.”

Increase minimum driver fare from €6 gross to €10 net.

Nearly all the drivers I spoke to were adamant about this demand. “If I wanted a full meal with a sandwich, a drink, it would cost more than the minimum fare of a trip. How does that make any sense?” one driver from Nice said.

“We’re tired,” the driver from Nice said. “You drive 12, 14, 16 hours a day, you make shitty money, you pay taxes, you pay the bills, then there’s nothing left!”

The gross pay is before Uber’s 25 percent commission, along with other expenses such as gas, insurance, car maintenance, or the value-added tax (a tax on consumption). During the last wave of protests, some drivers said they were earning as little as €3.75 an hour after expenses—France’s minimum wage is €10 an hour.

Introduce deadhead pay for “approach time.”

Trips between one passenger's drop-off and another passenger's pick-up are often called "deadhead" and are a huge part of Uber's costs to drivers and cities. VTCs often find themselves driving for long periods of time between fares, assigned rides by Uber but offered no real compensation for the added expense.

"We want the approach time paid. If the distance you drive takes more than 10 minutes, you should get at least €5,” another driver who organized for the VTC union told Motherboard.

Increase the base pay rate per minute and kilometer.

Uber’s margins do not have a lot of room. To increase profits, it must either increase fares, its commission rate, create or increase fees, or reduce driver pay.

Based on simulated trip data, the base rates in cities with occupied Uber offices fluctuates around €1.20 per kilometer and €0.30 per minute. Actions led by Brahim Ben Ali, the union’s President and spokesperson, have resulted in increases in the minimum fare to as much as €12 in four other areas.

When Uber slashed wages down to $0.60 per mile in March, protests immediately broke out as drivers asked for help ending their "neo-indentured servitude.” Two months later, Los Angeles drivers would join a nationwide strike ahead of Uber’s IPO to raise awareness of unfair working conditions.

"In the United States, this is a huge fight, right? In Los Angeles, they started at $3 per mile, but now it's at $0.60 per mile,” the VTC union organizer said. “Here and there, Uber will always fight to push the price down."

Integrate union representation into driver “reactivation” committees.

When Uber fires its workers, it calls this "deactivation" or "suspension." Driver firings are usually handled by an algorithm, with little to no transparency about why a driver is terminated.

Some drivers mentioned Deliveroo—a French delivery company that competes with UberEats—because it also exploits the precarious conditions of migrant labor to sustain its business model. Others note that Deliveroo was accused of using geolocation services to identify and fire striking workers. At the protests, drivers worried Uber would do the same, or use geolocation data to undermine the actions. "We have had some drivers with us that are deactivated, but are reactivated once they started protesting here,” a VTC union organizer claimed.

Do you know more about Uber workplace conditions, protests, or organizing efforts? You can contact reporter Edward Ongweso Jr at edward.ongweso@vice.com or securely via Signal at 413-225-2938.

VTCs want representatives from their unions present as part of assurances that there will be "neutral assessments whether we should be back on the platform." Without union representation, VTCs felt Uber would simply take advantage of them. "Ninety percent of drivers in France are immigrants or from immigrant families,” a driver involved in a few office occupations told me. “Uber is taking advantage of these poor people by saying 'Hey if we weren't here, you wouldn't have a job. So shut up.'"

To take one example, leaked documents show Uber drivers with under a 4.6-star rating can be fired. Their vehicle’s interior has also become a site of automated surveillance that allows the company to punish drivers for anything at any time.

End “abusive disconnections” due to high cancellation rates.

As a result of low fares, fixed pricing, congestion, and deadhead miles, drivers tend to cancel trips they’ve accepted after learning how unprofitable a ride may be. Some drivers, then, feel that it is abusive for Uber to fire drivers for a situation that is out of their control.

“It’s hard for me to pay my rent, but I am not driving anymore. I prefer to die in the streets rather than driving and riding for them,” one driver who previously worked in Belgium told Motherboard. “I was one of the best drivers in Belgium. The company invited me to a fancy dinner, blah blah blah, but they’re hypocrites. I told them their business model is bullshit. They’re making slaves out of all of us.”

In the United States, high cancellation rates lead to termination and don’t seem to be appealable in the way a decision based on low ratings might be. Things operate similarly in France, where drivers get more guidance from one another than from Uber: unofficially, warnings are given when cancellation rates hit 10 percent and disconnection happens at 21 percent, but VTCs suggested rates as low as 13 percent were grounds for being fired.

Allow drivers to review trip prices and destinations before accepting.

Demands seven and eight are two sides of the same coin. "Drivers are being deactivated because they have high cancellation rates, but those rates are high because the trips are unprofitable,” the driver from Belgium said. “We want to display the price, see the destination, and estimate the rates. If they say we are independent, then why can’t we choose customers, clients, and rates? We should choose the price if we are independent and [Uber is] just a platform.”

In the United States, a similar argument is being used to build an antitrust case against Uber and give drivers, not Uber, the ability to set prices. The American argument is relatively simple: if drivers are independent contractors (i.e. their own little corporations), then Uber is engaged in price-fixing by setting the rates at which drivers/corporations provide their services to passengers.

Integrate a driver verification system.

Since 2018, Uber drivers are required to obtain a VTC license to operate in cities with a population larger than 100,000. This is just one consequence of France’s long struggle with Uber that its unlicensed driver program banned outright. BRBV (a French acronym for Red Button Green Button) is yet another: a system implemented thanks to Ben Ali’s interventions that verifies whether or not a driver has a VTC license.

VTCs recognize that while they have dangerous jobs, safety is an issue that concerns both Uber drivers and passengers. To that end, they call for stricter verification processes for both drivers and passengers, along with a transparent and responsive review process for driver complaints that goes beyond simply promising to “never match a driver with a passenger he will never see again.”

In his book Super Pumped, New York Times reporter Mike Isaac reveals that Uber at times went out of its way to ignore driver safety if it came between the company and growth. The company introduced a $1 Safety fee that was supposed to fund safety features but really just improved, but it refused to verify user identities which led to at least 16 deaths in Brazil.

"They don't care about us," one driver from the union said. "When something happens to me, let’s say I get sexually harassed by the passenger, they never confirm whether my report leads to the suspension of this customer. When Uber talks about security or safety, it means for the passenger."

This demand for driver verification also ties together with concerns about safety. Over the past few months, Uber has embarked on a campaign to convince the public of its commitment to safety, including rolling out a surveillance program to videotape trips, despite privacy concerns. In response to a blistering Washington Post report revealing how a team of Uber investigators was trained to protect Uber before its users, the company rolled out a package of safety features. Still, French Uber drivers say they do not feel secure in their employment or while on the job.

Drivers worry that without a verification system, “pirate drivers” can flood the streets, suppress driver pay, take away customers, and make their precarious jobs even more unsustainable. On Monday London revoked Uber’s license to operate over security concerns, including 14,000 trips by drivers not licensed or insured to work for Uber, but who still manipulated the system to pick up passengers.

"This is a disguised employee system," said one driver from Paris. "All of these legal games to avoid paying drivers and to avoid paying taxes. They employ us, then they use these shell companies like Uber B.V.—based in Amsterdam—to get out of taxes. But if you act locally, then locally pay your fucking taxes!"

The Parisian driver was referring to Uber’s complex tax strategy—a global network of over 100 subsidiaries that have been used to ensure the company pays virtually nothing in taxes for a number of years. Recent European crackdowns threatened the lynchpin of that strategy, Uber B.V., but Uber found yet another loophole to take advantage of and shield billions in revenue from taxes.

"Uber would be bankrupt if it had to account for its social costs,” the Parisian driver went on. “They just want to increase their profits. They don’t even try to justify it or to think about the drivers. There are millions of drivers and we are all treated like slaves.”

“They will spread this to every industry. To buses, to trains, to anything that they can make money on,” a driver from Lille said. “We have to call a cat a cat and a shit a shit. This is shit."

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