Near the end of April, Uber dropped a “fireside chat” podcast on to its “partner” channel on SoundCloud. It featured representatives of UberENGAGE (the company’s scheme for soliciting feedback from its drivers) doing a little soul-searching about the taxi app’s toxic public image. Back in 2014, the Guardian had been asking if Uber was the “worst company in Silicon Valley”, and that was before the sexual harassment lawsuits, the #DeleteUber campaign, the employment tribunals over its failure to pay the UK’s minimum wage, Transport for London (TfL) refusing to renew its licence and the forced resignation of its chief executive, Travis Kalanick, last June.
On the podcast, Uber London’s marketing strategy boss, Irina Kondrashova, conceded that the company had some “reputational challenges”. But she promised that Uber would come out fighting. “You probably haven’t seen much advertising for Uber in the last six months or so because rebuilding reputation is not just what you say but how you say it,” she said. “Shouting with billboards about how great we are doesn’t feel like the right thing right now. But I have some great news in that [over] the next couple of months we’re going to have some great campaigns coming out.” Uber was ready “to start telling people what we’re about and how we’re doing the right thing and ultimately changing our reputation”.
If you are one of the four million or so people in Britain with an Uber account, you may well have seen the results pop up in your inbox recently. Uber has produced a six-part mini-documentary series called Where to, Britain? in collaboration with All 4. It follows Uber drivers and riders in six cities, in an attempt to position hailing an Uber as just another quirky bit of British life – complete with jaunty incidental music and a narration from Dawn French. In the first five-minute-long episode, a driver called Ali picks up the Manchester United players Ashley Young, Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford and Axel Tuanzebe. In the next instalment, Elshan in Bristol picks up a couple of female graffiti artists. “All people featured are genuine Uber users,” says the disclaimer. “While their stories are real, the journeys were created for your enjoyment.”
It’s not Uber’s only paradigm-melting marketing strategy. In recent weeks, PRs have pitched to the press the story of one heroic driver with paramedic training who assisted a birth in his car, while another publicity-savvy driver, 53-year-old Manuel Dias, told the Sun last week that Benedict Cumberbatch had jumped out of his Uber to prevent a mugging. Uber was also reportedly among the companies ready to a sign a £500,000 commercial deal with George Osborne’s London Evening Standard to secure “money-can’t-buy” coverage. The Standard has denied the story – but Osborne’s editorship had already raised conflict-of-interest-related questions. In the light of the London mayor Sadiq Khan’s Uber “ban” last year, he published an editorial in defence of Uber that failed to note that one of his other jobs is a £650,000-a-year advisory role at the US fund manager BlackRock, a major Uber investor. He and David Cameron were also noted defenders of the gig economy while in power.
Over in Paris, Uber’s new chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, has revealed plans to launch a fleet of flying taxis. And in the US, Uber has appointed the self-described “force of nature in fierce stilettos” Bozoma Saint John as its chief brand officer. “Is this the woman who will save Uber?” asked the New York Times, atop a breathless profile that detailed how the Uber board member Arianna Huffington headhunted Saint John from Apple’s Beats Music. “I felt like she has this incredible capacity for intimacy and for sharing her story and for sharing others’ stories,” Huffington said. “She’s great at social media.” When asked if it wasn’t a little calculating of Uber to hire an African American single mother to repair its image, Saint John responded: “Being present as a black woman – just present – is enough to help exact some of the change that is needed and some that we’re looking for.”
It seems unlikely that she can exact the sort of change that some of the 70,000 or so British Uber “driver partners” are fighting for, which is basic recognition of their rights as workers. Uber has lost two court cases brought against it by former drivers Yaseen Aslam and James Farrar, who argued that they were entitled to minimum wage and sick pay. Uber plans to challenge them for a third time. (On the UberENGAGE podcast, one of the company’s legal team, Jonathan Ollivent, complains about the “various obligations” that this puts on Uber. “I don’t know if you’ve read the court order, but it’s really emotive. It’s really nasty about us and the way we work.”) But for Farrar, Uber’s “PR shenanigans” amount to little more than an effort to distract users from the fact that the rides are so cheap essentially because it has used 21st-century technology to erode 20th-century workers’ rights. “The point of departure has got to be Uber agreeing to pay the minimum wage to workers. If they can’t deliver that, then what good is all the rest of this stuff?”
His argument is that Uber drivers are not in some fancy new category invented by the whiz-kids of Silicon Valley. They are workers (defined legally as “limb (b) workers” under the Employment Rights Act 1996). “You don’t get a lot of rights as a worker, but you do get some,” Farrar says. “Minimum wage, holiday pay, protection against discrimination, whistleblower protection. Not much else. But these rights are really important if you are self-employed as part of someone else’s business, especially at the lower end of the market.”
The idea that such rights are incompatible with the flexibility offered by Uber is, he believes, false. All full-time British workers are entitled to 28 days of holiday a year. For part-time workers, holiday accrues at a rate of 12.07%. So for every hour you work, you are entitled to 7.725 minutes of holiday. Rather than rendering this impossible to calculate, Uber’s technology ought to make it much easier. As for pay, while £10-£15 an hour is often cited as a typical driver earning rate, in reality, once a driver has paid 25% commission to Uber, plus about £250 a month to lease a car, £100 a month for petrol, £50 for car washes and so on, earnings often fail to clear the minimum wage threshold. Drivers tell me they only really make proper money on Friday and Saturday nights; they say the idea that you can log off and on between school runs and auditions is a myth. One anonymous blogger, Uber Driver London, calculated his earnings at £23,000 a year (£18,000 after tax) for 60 hours’ work a week with no holidays. At £7.19 an hour, this would be under the minimum wage of £7.83 an hour for workers over 25. Of course, drivers can always take advantage of the limitless overtime afforded by Uber’s “flexibility”.
Farrar notes that when Uber dropped rates for drivers waiting at Heathrow from £1.20 a mile to 70p a mile to optimise supply and demand, there was still a huge queue of cars at the airport. “That’s a serious market signal to me,” he says. “You can drop and drop and drop and drop, and people will still work. One, because they’re desperate. They’ll have a fixed number in their head, say, £500, and they will work for 40 hours or 80 hours to get that, whatever it takes. Two, because of the economics of the job; people will take it because they have to pay off those debts. They’ll accept any work.”
The reason Uber hasn’t lavished us with heartwarming PR campaigns in the past is because it has adopted a very successful twofold strategy. The first is to make the user experience as seamless as possible, as close as possible to Kalanick’s dream of using your smartphone as a “remote control for life”, in the hope that sheer convenience will override any ethical concerns. “What we have to do is just keep reminding them of the awesome experience they have with the app,” as the marketing officer details on the podcast. “The amazing experience they have in the car. And then they’ll just keep riding more and more with us.”
Considerable effort goes into ensuring that there are plenty of little cars on your smartphone screen when you log on, the fare is cheap, the wait is short, your driver doesn’t talk to you about politics or religion and that he or she will return lost property to you (in their own time) if you leave it in their car (under threat of being reported to the police). When I surveyed friends who use Uber, everyone was aware of the company’s toxicity but were generally reassured by the responses the drivers gave when they asked them how they liked working for Uber.
For James Bloodworth, who worked for Uber while researching his book Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, those conversations need to be set in context. “People asked me if I liked driving for Uber when I was driving and I always felt reluctant to criticise Uber. If you start a negative conversation, you’re more likely to receive a negative rating – and if your reputation falls below 4.4 stars then you’re deactivated.” The conversations that drivers have among themselves are very different in tone, he says. One recent post on the independently run Uber People forum is entitled I Hate Uber: “Guys, do you think is OK 13 hours for £106 after commission working … is it just me or Uber like a cancer destroying drivers mentally and financially?” The consensus is it used to be a lot better for drivers than it is – although one driver shoots back: “No one forced you to be Uber partner driver. You became so on your own free choice. Don’t blame Uber or anyone else.”
Bloodworth says that most Uber drivers come from still shadier areas of the economy – and an inscrutable algorithm is often a step up from an exploitative boss. “Overwhelmingly, they’re migrant workers. They have usually come from the back rooms of restaurants or other private hire firms, which are some of the worst industries in London. Restaurant kitchen work is often completely off-grid, no minimum wage. And in regular private-hire firms, you’re at the mercy of the controller. That’s why you have laws around the minimum wage. If you go to Barking [east London], say, you can find someone who will work for £2 an hour. It’s not enough to say: ‘There’s a choice.’ That choice is made in a context.”
Which brings us on to the other reason Uber hasn’t offered us much in the way of shiny advertising campaigns. It has instead put its resources into influencing those in power not to mess with a business model that rests on eroding workers’ rights. The company’s head of communications and policy from 2015-2017 was Rachel Whetstone. She is a former Conservative adviser, married to David Cameron’s former aide Steve Hilton, is the godmother of one of Cameron’s children and is the granddaughter of Antony Fisher, the battery-chicken farming magnate who founded the rightwing Institute of Economic Affairs thinktank. Cameron came under scrutiny for attending a party Whetstone threw at the restaurant Sexy Fish with the lobbying firm Portland in 2015. And last year, leaked emails written by Cameron’s former adviser Daniel Korski showed how No 10 had put pressure on the then London mayor, Boris Johnson, into abandoning proposed legislation to regulate Uber and its rivals. While Johnson’s successor, Khan, has been more critical of Uber, declining to renew its licence last year, he preferred to focus on safety concerns rather than employees’ rights.
Last month, as part of the same attempt to change the conversation, Uber revealed an insurance scheme for drivers backed by Axa, promising a £1,000 payout for maternity leave and sick pay, capped at £1,125. For Farrar, that doesn’t begin to redress the balance. “It’s a bit like throwing a toothbrush to a drowning man: ‘I’ll take it, it might come in handy one day. But it’s a bit of a distraction from the crisis I’m in right now.’” Uber is still determined to challenge any attempts to get it to pay basic minimum wage to its drivers.
So what’s a cash-strapped millennial to do? It is undeniable that Uber has made the business of getting around London and other cities much more convenient. It’s cheaper than a black cab and more convenient; usually, that’s an either/or choice. But there are already signs that Uber is having unwanted consequences, not only on traffic but on the wider transport ecosystem. TfL recently announced a surprise Tube fare shortfall of £1bn as passengers abandon the service, jeopardising future improvements.
But Farrar doesn’t believe that consumers stopping using the app is the answer. “The underlying problem is that the government is not enforcing the law. It’s allowing firms to pay less than the minimum wage. It’s the government’s responsibility, not that of some twentysomething who wants to get home after a night out.”
He would like Uber’s business customers to think twice, however. “If you go to Canary Wharf on a weekday night, you’ll see all the bankers going home in private hire vehicles paid for by their companies. They’re the ones I expect more from. We can’t fault low-paid young people for taking an Uber. They shouldn’t be shouldering the responsibility. But we can ask the government. We can ask the regulator. And we can ask businesses.”
Bloodworth has similar sympathies with cash-strapped young people. But he asks them to consider the ethics. “There’s a very obvious connection between cheap fares and the low level of money that the drivers are getting. It’s like sweatshop clothes. Someone somewhere is paying for your cheap fare. The internet makes it much easier to ignore that. It’s not just the guy driving your taxi or delivering your pizza who suffers. These conditions spread and become the new normal. Soon, it will be your job, too.”