Uber UK strike: users urged not to cross ‘digital picket line’

Union asks public not to use app as national 24-hour strike by drivers gets under way

Source: The Guardian Website Tue 9 Oct 2018 15.18 BST by Ben Quinn

Uber said it was looking at ways to help drivers increase their earnings. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Uber customers have been urged not to cross a “digital picket line” as the first coordinated national strike by British drivers with the app-based service got under way.

The company’s headquarters was besieged by about 100 drivers and supporters as the 24-hour strike started at lunchtime on Tuesday, with rallies also held in Birmingham and Nottingham.

The action is part of a push to unionise the gig economy. Last week, employees of companies including McDonald’s, Wetherspoons and TGI Fridays took part in an unprecedented joint national strike.

The Uber action is being organised by United Private Hire Drivers (UPHD), a branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, which is demanding an end to what it describes as unfair deactivations of drivers, an increase in fares to £2 per mile from a current rate of £1.25 in London, and a 10% reduction in commissions paid by drivers. The company has defended its pay record, adding that it has also recently introduced sickness, injury, maternity and paternity protections.

Police arrived in force at Uber’s headquarters in east London after strikers and supporters attempted to access the building, with some being held back by security after they managed to gain entry.

Among those present was a driver who said anger had been building in recent months among his peers, who he said had been organising on WhatsApp groups.

“I’ve worked for them for three years but it is getting harder to make ends meet,” said the man, who declined to give his name, citing fears that the company would “deactivate” him. He said he made between £500 and £600 a week for driving between 30 and 40 hours.

“We’re in an extremely difficult position. I had an accident about two months ago and have trouble using one of my legs now, but the support from the company has not been there,” he added.

Those involved in the strike are calling for the swift application of a 2016 tribunal judgment that rejected Uber’s classification of a group of drivers as independent contractors.

Senior Labour figures backed the strike, including the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, who tweeted that it was “a hugely significant fight for workers’ rights across the whole gig economy”.

John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, retweeted the UPHD’s announcement of the industrial action and said: “I support this strike for better employment rights and urge others to respect the app picket line.”

Stephen Hull, a Birmingham-based driver taking part in the strike on Tuesday, said: “There is mass discontent among drivers because the oversupply of vehicles and the way that drivers earn their money is making it almost impossible to make enough to live.”

Hull, who has been driving for Uber for three-and-a-half years, said it had initially been a good experience thanks to bonuses for hitting targets. “Then they would start to phase out the promotions and it just got harder and harder,” he added.

It is no longer his main source of income. “If I was to rely on Uber, I would be working 12 hours a day, six days a week to be able to make enough to survive. A majority of drivers are unhappy about this, but many are scared because they are taking on a multinational company who don’t have to give you a reason for deactivating you,” Hull said.

James Farrar, the chairman of the UPHD, said: “After years of watching take-home pay plummet and with management bullying of workers on the rise, workers have been left with no choice but to take strike action. We ask the public to please support drivers by not crossing the digital picket line by not using the app during strike time.”

Uber said: “We are always looking to make improvements to ensure drivers have the best possible experience and can make the most of their time driving on the app.

“That’s why over the last few months we’ve introduced dozens of new features, including sickness, injury, maternity and paternity protections. An academic study last month found that drivers in London make an average of £11 an hour, after accounting for all of their costs and Uber’s service fee.

“We continue to look at ways to help drivers increase their earnings and our door is always open if anyone wants to speak to us about any issues they’re having.”

Uber is continuing its legal appeal against the 2016 ruling, which decreed that its drivers were not self-employed and should be paid the “national living wage”.

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