‘If we are not workers are we slaves?’ e-hailing drivers union knock Uber and Bolt

Ejike Kanife
10% ‘Stop blackmailing us with passengers’- striking e-hailing drivers slam Bolt and Uber

With Uber and Bolt refusing to recognise the Amalgamated Union of App-based Transport Workers of Nigeria (AUATWON) as a valid e-hailing drivers union, insisting that drivers are not their workers and therefore can’t unionise, the union has berated the companies, explaining that if they don’t consider drivers as their workers are the drivers then their slaves?

The Amalgamated Union may have called off an indefinite strike ahead of a postponed meeting with the e-hailing companies to be moderated by the Ministry of Labour but all is not well in that sector as the battle of whether the drivers ought to be classified as workers continues to engulf the sector.

On one hand, the first and only e-hailing drivers union in Africa is insisting that its members are workers because they are the only aspect of the business that works round the clock to make money for the companies.

But the app companies have resolutely refused to accept that the drivers operating on their platforms are their workers. To them, the drivers are independent contractors, not employees and their responsibilities towards them are limited. And because the drivers are not their employees, they have no right to form a union. As such, Uber and Bolt have refused to recognise the union.

While suspending a strike to protest the refusal of Uber and Bolt to implement a commensurate hike in fare following a 270% increase in fuel prices last Monday, one of the conditions stipulated by the union was that the app companies deliberated with them to reach an acceptable resolution.

The window for this to happen was 7 days. But 8 days later and the app companies were yet to meet the union to deliberate, talk more about reaching an agreement on fare price and the important demand for 50% commission reduction. Technext reported that the app companies would be reluctant to meet with the union due to the matter of legitimacy. 

Incidentally, Uber and Bolt’s position on the classification of drivers as independent contractors and of the union as not binding has informed their refusal to negotiate with the drivers’ union. This is because any negotiation with the union would be interpreted to mean their recognition and acceptance of the union as representatives of the drivers.

But the AUATWON appears to find it bemusing that Uber and Bolt don’t want to classify the drivers which the companies have always touted to be at the heart of their business as workers. Lamenting that the app companies are threatening it with “name change”, the union said 

“A big test on national and constitutional supremacy over dictatorial app supremacy. If drivers are not workers, are they slaves?”

AUATWON

Workers vs independent contractors

The debate of whether drivers are employees, or workers of the app companies is one that has come a long way. Drivers have always complained about a number of issues surrounding poor welfare. These include a lack of health insurance, allowances, holidays, sick leaves, and other benefits.

Not long ago, drivers on the Uber X platform whose vehicles are financed by vehicle financing company, Moove, protested the unbearable working conditions on the platform. According to them, they sometimes work up to 24 hours a day, which is way more than the 8 hours recommended by international labour laws.

Furthermore, they accused the company of charging them a weekly maintenance fee, handling costs and health insurance even though it never gave them access to an HMO service. The protesting drivers said even though the company promised them up to three months accumulated leave, no driver ever got a day’s leave and even when a driver is sick and bedridden, they are still required to make the N9400 daily remittance.

Fuel hike: e-Hailing drivers lament Uber and Bolt's reluctance to increase fares, threaten to park vehicles
Uber-X drivers protest in Lagos

Though the app companies have always insisted that the drivers are at the heart of their business, they have always made it clear too that drivers are, however, not their employees, just independent contractors. As such they are not entitled to all those benefits they are demanding.

Indeed a recent disclaimer sent to Technext, Uber said:

Please note that drivers operate as independent contractors. Drivers are not employed by Uber, either directly or otherwise. Please refrain from using terms such as “work for Uber” and referencing drivers as ‘Uber drivers’ or ‘Our drivers’, and rather use ‘drivers on the Uber platform’ or ‘drivers that use the Uber app’.

Uber

The companies have a point here. The work is called gig work because it wasn’t meant to be a main source of income to begin with. The business was supposed to be nothing but a gig, or side hustle and there are no employers and employees, just platform providers and service deliverers. The companies do not provide equipment nor data nor any other input to the drivers.

Unfortunately, Nigeria is a country racked with youth unemployment with millions of people of working age looking for means to feed themselves and their families. To them, gig work has become real work and they need to make the absolute most of it. To this end, they got together into a union so they could collectively bargain for their welfare.

But even this didn’t go down well with the app companies who believe that the independent contractors should remain exactly so; independent. They would rather deal with each driver as an independent entity, not together as a collective.

And just weeks after getting accredited as a government-recognised trade union, the union accused the two e-hailing giants of sponsoring internal elements to hijack the union and turn it into a “yellow union.” A Yellow Union is a worker’s union which, unlike regular unions is instead controlled by the employers and normally used to suppress and control workers.

What they are trying to do, they want to impose a yellow union on us. They want to return us to a system where anything goes. Where we succumb to anything they offer us and we can’t complain. They want us to continue suffering and toiling for them on their platforms.”

AUATWON General-Secretary, Ayoade Ibrahim

Uber quickly responded, describing the accusations as untrue as it supports the freedom of drivers. 

“These accusations are untrue and do not reflect our position as Uber. We support the freedom of drivers in Nigeria and the rest of the world to organise, including by forming and joining unions and associations,” the company said in a mail to Technext.

If indeed it does support the freedom of drivers, and if the drivers have decided to exercise their freedom to association and have decided to form a union for collective bargaining, then it shouldn’t be such a big problem to negotiate with the union that has been validly accredited by the government and under whose umbrella the drivers are flocking.

The matter of whether drivers should be classified as workers have come up in courts the world over and the verdicts haven’t favoured Uber and Bolt. In 2021, UK courts ruled that drivers are employees and should be treated so.

The case wasn’t different in the Netherlands where courts ruled that e-hailing drivers are employees. The answer was the same in New Zealand where an Employment Court ruled that e-hailing drivers are indeed workers and must be accorded every lawful privilege.

In the end Uber and Bolt are playing in a novel labour space that even international labour laws have no answer for. In Nigeria where gig work is considered real work and labour officials are desperately trying to get credit for providing thousands of jobs, it would be even harder for the companies.


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