Uber Eats gets indigestion

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About the author

Jamie Rosengarten
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Jamie Rosengarten is a Politics and Economics student at the University of the Witwatersrand, currently researching the future of work and workers in the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies (SCIS)

In December 2020 during the COVID pandemic Uber Eats’ couriers downed tools in the first ever national ‘platform’ strike in South Africa. Although their gains were minimal the writing is on the wall for companies who insist on treating workers as contractors when they are actually employees with rights.

Given that platforms like Uber Eats are digitalized services which facilitate interactions between distinct parties, the type of worker resistance seen in the platform economy is different to the types seen in the traditional economy. Collective logoffs in the platform economy are equivalent to work stoppages. The approximately two thousand Uber Eats’ couriers who responded to a fare decrease by collectively logging off the platform on 18 December 2020, were therefore able to force Uber Eats to halt operations across Johannesburg and parts of Tshwane.

Since localized food courier protests are relatively common and generally ignored by management. Uber Eats believed that isolated ‘independently contracted’couriersdid not have the organizational capacity to stage a city wide demonstration. However, couriers managed to organize a two day protest, in which motorcades of couriers drove around Johannesburg, making the Uber Eats’ platform non-operational.  Indicating that couriers are moving away from individualised identities imposed on them by platforms and fighting for dignity and security.  

Employees not independent contractors

The fare reduction was the immediate catalyst for the strikes, but anger at Uber Eats’ exploitative treatment of couriers had been brewing for a while. This resentment largely stems from couriers’ classification as ‘independent contractors’rather than ‘employees’. The low cost of labour associated with independent contracting, allows Uber Eats to offer low, difficult to compete with fares.  But this makes couriers’ livelihoods very insecure.  

Classifying couriers as independent contractors absolves Uber Eats of responsibility for providing a minimum wage, overtime pay, leave and other employment benefits.  It also enables it to refuse to collectively bargain with couriers. Hence, Uber Eats ignores couriers’ views and makes unilateral decisions regarding fares, the activation and deactivation of courier accounts, the use of labour brokers, payment options, route setting, safety and the in-trip support provided to couriers experiencing technical difficulties.

This lack of consultation means that couriers are often pressured into driving un-roadworthy vehicles in unsafe conditions, and in areas where there is high crime. Further, couriers’ real income is eroded by inflation which increases the costs of delivery vehicles (motorbikes), cellphones, data, delivery boxes, and Uber Eats’ branded clothing which couriers must provide and finance. Yet Uber Eats repeatedly reduces courier fares without consultation.


Food delivery motorbike couriers in West Street Durban (Doctor Ngcobo/African News Agency)

It is difficult for couriers to resist these abuses as Uber Eats ignores all calls for collective negotiations.  It is also hard for couriers to organise collectively as they are geographically dispersed, do not know how many couriers the business has activated, have no central channel of communication, and are often divided in terms of language and nationality.

Uber Eats shocked

Uber Eats was therefore shocked , when on 18 December 2020, in response to another fare reduction, couriers mounted mass resistance and organized South Africa’s first provincial wide food courier strike. The strike was organized after Uber Eats agreed to help restaurant partners impacted by the COVID-19 lockdown. Restaurant partners were charging a flat rate of R9 per meal, instead of the usual 35% commission per order, of which 5% was paid to couriers. Couriers’ per kilometre rate decreased to about R4 per km, and they now earned about half of what they had earned four years previously.

Uber Eats had reduced courier fares before but had never met such widespread resistance. Nearly two thousand drivers in Johannesburg simultaneously logged off the platform, ensuring that deliveries across the city shut down. Scores of couriers in Tshwane, Durban and Gqeberha also collectively logged off the platform, further crippling the company.

The couriers released a memorandum of 12 demands. These centred around the need to increase delivery fees, set safer routes, stop the unfair suspension of courier accounts, improve safety and provide better in-trip support, ban labour brokers, supply delivery bags and Uber Eats’ branded clothing, and allow couriers to choose not to accept cash trips which are difficult to trace and increase a courier’s crime risk. Increased fares was however the primary demand.

The demands were formulated and the strikes organized over WhatsApp groups.  Strike organizers were able to overcome the company’s attempts to isolate couriers from each other by spreading messages across multiple WhatsApp groups. This tactic emphasised that while couriers are linguistically, geographically and nationally divided, they all bear the brunt of Uber Eats’ exploitation and so should unite around common grievances.

This newfound collective identity allowed couriers to use their strategic position in the online food delivery chain to halt all Uber Eats’ business operations. Collective logoffs were accompanied by striking couriers occupying strategic positions around delivery hotspots where they shared details of the strike with couriers, and prevented strike breakers from picking up food. Mobile teams of couriers travelled around Johannesburg, moving between hotspots to ensure that the bulk of Johannesburg remained shut down.

Uber Eats responds

Typically, Uber Eats ignored the couriers’ memorandum of demands, believing that as in past strikes couriers wouldn’t have the organizational capacity to withstand its refusal to collectively negotiate. Instead, it tried to hide the strike from the public while pressuring couriers into breaking ranks.

The company algorithmically implemented fare increases to encourage couriers to resume work. When this was unsuccessful Uber Eats flooded the platform with newly registered couriers. These attempts failed as couriers knew from previous strikes that temporary fare increases were an attempt to coerce them into breaking ranks. Equally, newly registered couriers were unfamiliar with the delivery process, meaning striking couriers were often able to convince or physically prevent newly registered couriers from picking up orders from restaurants in hotspot areas.   

As Uber Eats was organizing replacement labour and attempting to coerce couriers into working, it also misled customers and restaurant partners about the strike.

It sent restaurant partners emails claiming that it was “engaging with the courier partners to resolve (the strike) as quickly as possible” even though it refused to speak to the strikers or engage with their demands.  Customers who ordered from the Uber Eats app were not told that delivery wasn’t available due to the strike, but were told that “some restaurants may be unavailable due to high demand.” This was later amended to “no couriers nearby.”

Similarly, the company responded to social media queries on lack of delivery with the claim that it was “aware of this issue and working to fix it as soon as possible.”

Undeterred by Uber Eats’ refusal to engage with them or accept their demands, the couriers extended the strike for another day, ensuring that it shut down in Johannesburg on 19 December 2020.  However the company continued to ignore their demands, and couriers were financially unable to continue the strike on the third day.  They returned to work, and informed Uber Eats that if their demands were not met, they would stage a nationwide strike on 22 January 2021.  Only following this threat, did the company agree to meet with representatives to “hear driver’s partners concerns.” 

Uber Eats used these meetings to divide and defeatthe strikers. While the majority of couriers were solid in their demands, it found enough strike breakers to operate as normal. It agreed to reduce the distance Uber Connect couriers (non-food delivery service) had to drive, and reinstated the option for drivers to refuse cash trips. But it refused to increase fares and prioritised the needs of its restaurant partners.

Couriers later engaged in the planned nation-wide strike on 22 January 2021 but Uber Eats were prepared for the strike. Equally, organizing a nation-wide strike was much more challenging than organizing a provincial one. This was because couriers’ communication networks and organizational capacity was less developed in Cape Town and strikers could not mobilise the same level of support in Cape Town as in Johannesburg.

Couriers had managed to halt Uber Eats’ operations across Johannesburg and other areas of Gauteng but they could not disrupt business to the same degree in other parts of the country. Business was disrupted in Durban, Gqeberha and Cape Town, but Uber Eats continued to operate.  Their Cape Town operations particularly undermined the success of the strike, as Cape Town is an even larger market than Johannesburg. 

The failure to organize widespread nationwide resistance meant Uber Eats had withstood the strike. Couriers returned to work the following day, with no future strikes planned.

Conclusion

However, these strikes cannot be viewed as failures.

Couriers have started developing an organizational capacity and the ability to challenge Uber Eats.  The company believed it could act with impunity because couriers were informal, isolated, and too dependent on their jobs to forge a collective identity to challenge the platform. Previous strikes and collective logoffs had been localised and lasted only a few hours. The strikes in December 2020 and January 2021 demonstrated that couriers can overcome their individualized identities and organize coordinated provincial and nationwide resistance.

Many couriers have been mobilised by shattering the all powerful Uber Eats image and strike leaders indicated that couriers across the country are contacting them wanting to support further strike action.

Moreover, never before has a courier strike received as much media attention in South Africa.  Previous localised stoppages had received little or no media attention. Now the strikes were extensively covered by the print media, and were reported on ETV News becoming the first food courier strike in South Africa to be reported on television.  Thus, although the strikers’ demands were not met, they developed the power resources to capitalize on in the future. The strikes should not be viewed as failures, but rather the beginning of a longer process of collectively resisting Uber Eats’ degrading treatment of workers and its unilateral actions.

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