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‘We need to fight them globally and we need to fight them together’—An interview with the App Drivers & Couriers Union

Lessons on gig economy workers’ struggles from the United Kingdom

Interviewer’s note: The App Drivers & Couriers Union is a British trade union representing workers in the food delivery and ride hailing gig economy. In February 2021, the ADCU won a six-year court case against Uber in the United Kingdom Supreme Court that officially classified Uber drivers as employees rather than self-employed contractors. The ADCU has also taken on Uber and ridesharing company Ola Cabs and won a court case in the Netherlands mandating that these companies be more transparent in their handling and management of drivers’ personal data.

With regard to the transnational nature of the food delivery and ride hailing gig economy which is dominated by multinational companies like Uber and Deliveroo, the ADCU stands in solidarity with the recent self-organised strike by Foodpanda delivery riders in Hong Kong to secure better working conditions and fair treatment.

Following the disbandment of Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy labour organisations, such as the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions or the Professional Teachers’ Union, transnational grassroots solidarity between rank-and-file union members in Hong Kong and allies abroad has become essential. With the resources and experience of the HKCTU no longer available, it is all the more important that labour movements standing for democracy and justice abroad support the struggles of organised workers in Hong Kong, while remaining sufficiently cautious about their rhetoric and actions to avoid attracting the retaliation against Hongkonger workers by the pro-Beijing regime using the NSL’s catch-all proscription on “collusion with foreign powers.”

This era in which public dissent is all but impossible may prove to be an opportune time for more quiet forms of organizing, which includes political education and exchanges such as this interview. The future of Hong Kong’s labour movement may be precarious, but the Foodpanda strike has shown that there is still the space and the spirit for resistance in Hong Kong and within Hongkongers, however tenuous it may be.

WF interviewed ADCU president Yaseen Aslam, general secretary James Farrar, and member Philip To to learn more about their experiences of fighting for better working conditions and workers’ rights on behalf of app drivers and delivery riders in the UK with the ADCU. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

(Content warning: Mention of suicide)

What hardships and challenges do delivery riders face?

Yaseen Aslam: App drivers face a lot of issues, like unfair deactivation of their work accounts, being auto-fired by a sacking-bot, inaccurate facial recognition technologies, poor pay conditions—it’s a bit of everything. Pretty much everything is fundamentally flawed.

It’s the same story worldwide. The business model of companies like Uber, Deliveroo, and Foodpanda is based on exploiting their workforce. If we look at food delivery services in first-world countries, they’re based on the backs of migrant workers and people like that. Although there are labour laws and protections in the UK, companies like Uber can afford the fines of disobeying these laws, and thus make a mockery of the whole system. This means that workers then have to take up these campaigns and challenge these injustices.

The ADCU took Uber to court in 2015. This year, we won at the Supreme Court. Even though we won, Uber did not comply 100% with the court ruling, so the campaign still continues.

Philip To: During the pandemic, Uber changed their pricing structure in the UK to a fixed price, whereas previously it was calculated from the actual time and distance travelled. This had a very negative effect on app drivers because with such a pricing structure, Uber doesn’t calculate the best route to the destination, and ignores road factors such as time and traffic as well. They also do not account for the additional stops the passenger might want to make, for example, a stop at the ATM or a corner shop. It places a lot of risk, and all of the onus [for conducting the journey], on app drivers, and provides the driver and customer both with a lot less flexibility on the trip. During trips, circumstances can change—for example, where the rider might want to go somewhere else or to make additional stops. Uber does not account for that. This kind of further exploitation was what happened during the pandemic. And now all these other companies like Bolt and Free Now have joined Uber in doing the exact same thing—offering fixed fares—which is ultimately a lose-lose situation for both the driver and the customer.

This is part and parcel of their business model: exploitation. Think about just how much it costs for Uber to put a driver on the road—it’s zero. It’s not Uber who bears the financial risk of owning and maintaining the car or vehicle insurance. All of that is on the driver.

YA: These companies shift the liability all onto the worker. For drivers from India or Pakistan, it starts off so good: you make so much money, and Uber encourages drivers to go out and buy a new car or motorbike by telling you that you’re going to continue making that much money. But then, as it starts collapsing—once they start reducing the fares and increasing commissions, problems start to arise.

James Farrar: Another problem with the gig economy comes down to the issue of working time. The companies want their workers to work piece-rate, effectively. The courts, in our case, have ruled that we’re workers for all the time we’re on the platform, meaning that we ought to earn an hourly rate rather than a piece-rate. But these platforms compete with each other on the basis of immediacy. You open your app and you can get an Uber here in minutes. That’s not made possible by technology. That’s only made possible by the exploitation of workers—by having lots of drivers idling about and not getting paid.

With these supermarket express delivery services you see popping up today—groceries to your doorstep in fifteen minutes—that’s only possible if you have a large number of people permanently on standby, who are not getting paid for waiting.

YA: In New York, there was a study done on taxi drivers which said that about 40% of a driver’s working time was spent sitting idle and waiting for work. That’s an inefficient use of human capital that is highly exploitative—you’re at work but not getting paid. That drivers are sitting idle is good for Uber, because this means that there are lots of available drivers on call to pick up passengers, leading to quick response times to calls, but this is impoverishing for drivers. Until this problem is resolved, the gig economy won’t be fixed.

PT: There are better ways of providing delivery and taxi services. Think about aeroplane pilots, for example. There are always several crew members on standby if the primary pilot gets sick , and they’re paid to be on standby. Why not us as drivers?

JF: There’s this glaring contradiction. These companies are saying that they’re experts in computing and technology, at optimising work.

PT: If they’re really experts, then why can’t they optimise the number of drivers on the road in a way that isn’t exploitative? The answer is that they don’t want to. They could easily optimise the number of drivers on the road, or how many drivers are sent to certain locations to meet passenger demand.

YA: We’re a part of the IAATW—the International Alliance of App-based Transport Workers. It represents members from twenty-three different countries from New Zealand and Australia to Malaysia and Indonesia. It doesn’t have any members in Hong Kong at the moment. What we want to establish is that it’s the same fight across the globe, against the same companies, all of whom want to squeeze the workers.

JF: There are two important issues that can be found in this line of work worldwide—waiting time and working time. But there are two other important issues that are specific to the UK. The first is worker status. We’ve fought for, and won, worker status for delivery riders. It’s the bottom rung of employment—you’re still self-employed, but you’ve got some workers’ rights. In legal terms, this is “limb (b) worker” status (also known as “dependent contractors”). But the reality is that if we enjoyed more rights as full employees, Uber would have to start contributing to National Insurance to the tune of 13 or 14% of their earnings. This would be significantly costly for them. Plus, we’d have rights against dismissal that would become active after 2 years in employment. Of course, Uber doesn’t want this. They want to be able to fire you at will and not give you work, and they certainly don’t want to contribute 13 or 14% towards National Insurance.

PT: Uber also wouldn’t want to have to pay for our vehicles, congestion charges, fuel, drivers’ insurance, and all that, which would be the case if we enjoyed all the legal rights of full employee status.

JF: With the issue of National Insurance, there’s also somewhat of a demographic time bomb. You’ve got a lot of people who aren’t properly funding pensions. National Insurance is specifically for the national health system. If there’s a shortfall of people who aren’t able to make contributions to their pensions and insurance, then there won’t be enough funding for the national health system.

The second issue unique to the UK is Value Added Tax. Uber told investors that if they lost their case at the Supreme Court, they would be expected to pay 20% VAT on every fare. Uber still hasn’t done that, and the amount they owe in taxes could be anywhere between 3 and 5 billion pounds—a lot of money. So we’ll be back in the High Court over the fact that Uber is trying to bring new proceedings that would make it more difficult for them to be taxed.

What are the top priorities for the ADCU?

YA: We represent gig workers. We’re fighting for workers’ rights. We want better pay: the implementation of a mileage rate at 2 pounds per mile and for the company’s commission on fares to be capped at 15%. We want to be entitled to due process in dismissal proceedings, and want government regulators like Transport for London (TfL) to recognise the ADCU as a stakeholder, so we’ll be able to represent our members in meetings about policy decisions where the likes of Uber and other similar companies are sitting. We want a bigger voice. Think of it like Parliament, where the job of an MP is to represent their constituency, but if big bosses were the only ones who could lobby the ministers who make the important decisions.

A classic example is Uber getting a seat at the Labour Party conference. They have the money to get into these places, to lobby politicians who ought to be holding them responsible for their non-compliance with the law. It’s a rigged system that’s hard to talk about.

My father came to the UK from Pakistan in the 1960s. Back then, Labour was a brilliant party who stood for migrants’ and workers’ rights. Now I ask myself whether Labour’s truly a party for labour, or just a different sort of Tory. At the same time, we see the wrong people coming into these parties. What we’re seeing is rich wealthy students coming out of university and wanting to start this revolution, a fight against the system, but they are gambling with other people’s lives. Say for example that I’m in Hong Kong, and I call upon the Foodpanda workers to go on strike. It won’t be me, but the workers, who are the ones taking the risk of striking. If you’ve got the wrong people making the decisions, but who aren’t privy to the risk if they get things wrong, that can lead to a lot of damage to the labour movement—if they end up getting all the workers arrested, for instance, which would make people understandably afraid of standing up for the rights in the future. What we’re seeing is more of this—a cavalier attitude by non-worker leaders towards the well-being of those workers.

We stand in solidarity with the workers in Hong Kong, with whom we share the same fight. Because they face a lot more restrictions regarding the right to assemble and protest, their part of the fight is a lot harder. Regarding the Foodpanda strike in Hong Kong, where you’ve got migrant workers who’ve organised themselves for an industrial action, you need to give those people credit. Going on strike isn’t easy. For an app driver who goes on strike, they’re losing income by the day and their family suffers as a result. The question for workers is how long the strike can be sustained. At some stage, the strike has to break and workers have to go back to providing for their families.

Someone for whom an income is a constant concern can’t join a picket line every day. There needs to be a balance between the immediate and personal interests of individual workers and the long-term collective interests of workers as a whole. For workers to make gains, they need to struggle and sacrifice. Just look at the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. They went on strike for 46 days, including a hunger strike which lasted for 15 days. They went on strike and willingly starved themselves in the hopes of getting their debts forgiven, to the point of risking death, because they had no other choice. There was a point where drivers were committing suicide out of desperation because they had debts of hundreds of thousands of dollars which they would have to spend their entire lives trying to clear.

The question is how long will it take? A strike is like a war. How much will workers have to sacrifice before their rights are reclaimed? A lot was achieved with the New York Taxi Workers Alliance strike, and that was because workers were willing to sacrifice their livelihoods and lives. They weren’t willing to give up. What I’m saying is that workers can win, like we won against Uber. It takes years of effort, and it requires a lot of unity from workers. But it has to be the workers who go on strike. What the workers need is for people to stand with them, not in front of them.

How can delivery riders organise themselves to fight for their rights?

YA: Back in 2014 or 2015, when the ADCU was first formed, people used to say that it was very difficult to organise platform workers. Companies used to spin the narrative that these were part-time jobs in a small market. They didn’t want people to think about it too much.

But for people like me, this is a full-time job driving a taxi or delivering food. This wasn’t like occasionally delivering pizza as a university student. Technology has changed some things—you pick up fares or accept delivery orders via an app—but it’s a full-time job.

Like I mentioned earlier, these platforms rely on migrant communities—people who need the job and opportunity desperately—for their workforce. But once you accept such a job and opportunity, it’s like there’s a sword above you holding you to ransom. These companies use words like “freedom and flexibility” and tout “being your own boss”, but in return you are denied all your statutory rights and legal entitlements as a worker. This is a business model premised upon the exploitation of the workforce in order to grow. With Uber, they want to flood the platform with more and more drivers, so as the number of drivers in the system increases, fares can be reduced, attracting more customers as a result. It’s a race to the bottom with the result that a driver is left in a state of economic precarity—they have no idea if they’re going to end up with 5 or 50 pounds at the end of their workday.

PT: Bear in mind that these are global corporations. We’re not inherently anti-platform or anti-Uber or anti-Foodpanda. We think that the technology is great, but that technology is exploiting the workers. So there needs to be barriers. Uber used to be a great company back in the day. They used to pay very well. It was once highly attractive to work for Uber.

YA: But their present model of growth—exploiting their workers and denying them their rights—is not the way forward.

PT: For Uber in Hong Kong, they’ve introduced a feature where you can use the app to hail a proper taxi, as opposed to an Uber driver. The fares are all calculated by Uber in advance, not according to the taxi’s own fare metre. When taxi drivers compare their earnings from Uber fares with regular fares, it turns out that their earnings from Uber are much smaller.

YA: One problem we had with organising delivery riders was that we have no fixed place of work. How we worked around this was that we had regular meetings every month at the Hackney Chinese Community Services centre. That was our strongest point, as the drivers we managed to bring in would also tell the drivers they knew to come in as well. The strength of these meetings lies in being consistent and regular and not giving up. At the same time, it’s about embracing communities. It’s about integrating and empowering workers from different communities who wouldn’t usually mingle; within the ADCU we have the Turkish, the Somalians, the Pakistanis, the Bengalis, and the Chinese. You have to be able to relate to people from these disparate communities, and to do that you have to overcome racial prejudice.

PT: Another important thing is word of mouth. The primary way we recruit people is through word of mouth and interactions on the personal level—meeting other drivers on the street, or while they’re queued up waiting for jobs. That’s how it all grows.

Why join a union?

PT: The rationale for joining is that ADCU will be there to help you out. If you’ve been deplatformed by Uber for example, you also risk getting your driving licence taken away by Transport for London, which presents further complications because that can eventually lead to you losing your livelihood and getting a criminal record. If an individual worker gets into trouble, the union steps in to deal with the legal work. The worker won’t have to deal with their problems alone, but with the support and resources of their union and fellow union members.

At the same time, as a union member, we have to make sure that we’re on the same page, fighting for the same cause. We all want to make money at the end of the day, and to do so with the least number of barriers possible.

YA: Companies like Uber, Bolt or Ola make life difficult for us by refusing to comply with the law. These are companies that have a lot of money. It’s not easy for us as individual drivers to take on these companies. For example, Uber decided to drag our court case all the way to the UK Supreme Court. Our victory against Uber wasn’t achieved through the battle in court on its own, but through a multitude of other actions as well—lobbying politicians and launching industrial actions and protests. Even after the ruling, we launched a strike against Uber because they weren’t complying with the ruling. You need a mixture of different tactics. You need the support and collective strength of the union membership to sustain a prolonged campaign, but you also need the support of lawyers, politicians, activists, and other organisations as well.

What tips does the ADCU have for other food delivery gig workers around the world facing similar challenges?

YA: There is no secret to fighting for workers’ rights. The most important thing is being consistent and united—being loyal to your cause. Things like these are never easy, but it’s important that the movement be run and empowered by the workers. How the union operates must be completely transparent. At ADCU, we’re a movement set up by the workers, led by the workers, and funded entirely by the workers. Some bigger unions, however, are more corporate—it’s not the rank-and-file who’re deciding things. There are unions who operate like non-governmental organisations, in that they’re heavily reliant on funding from external sources. I don’t think this is sustainable. A union needs to be able to grow and sustain itself organically.

PT: Really, there’s no right answer. The Foodpanda strike in Hong Kong has a clear cause which they feel very strongly about. It all comes down to the workers in how much they are willing to stand up and fight for change, because the reality is that these companies will continue to exploit workers more and more if they don’t unite and come together in resistance.

YA: Companies like Uber Eats apply the same business model in many countries. The struggle of the ADCU in the UK is part of the same fight shared by all app couriers and drivers worldwide. That is why we’re a part of the IAATW. The story of exploitation is the same wherever you go. We need to unite with fellow workers abroad to take on our shared employers, which are the same few corporations like Uber or Deliveroo or Delivery Hero. We need to fight them globally and we need to fight them together, through actions and solidarity campaigns on the local and international level.

PT: To the Foodpanda folks in Hong Kong: gayau, gayau, gayau!