In the first legal challenge of its kind, former Uber drivers in the UK and Portugal are suing the taxi-hailing company for using an algorithm to sack them.
On behalf of four ex-Uber drivers, the App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU) has asked a court in Amsterdam to overrule Uber’s algorithm that fired them for alleged fraudulent activity
Drivers in London, Birmingham and Lisbon alleged they were sacked, without any right to appeal, contravening Article 22 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), under which individuals have the right to certain protections from automated decisions which create negative effects but are carried out without meaningful human intervention.
Uber however has said that the drivers’ accounts were only deactivated following manual review by humans.
An Uber spokesperson said. “Uber provides requested personal data and information that individuals are entitled to. We will give explanations when we cannot provide certain data, such as when it doesn’t exist or disclosing it would infringe on the rights of another person under GDPR. As part of our regular processes, the drivers in this case were only deactivated after manual reviews by our specialist team.”
Uber has been allowed to violate employment law with impunity for years and now we are seeing a glimpse into an Orwellian world of work where workers have no rights and are managed by machine. If Uber is not checked, this practice will become the norm for everyone” –Yaseen Aslam, ADCU
The case, which is also backed by the International Alliance of App-based Transport Workers (IAATW) and the Worker Info Exchange, a non-profit organisation that helps workers access data collected from them at work.
The ADCU, a trade union for app-based workers in the gig economy, is backing three UK drivers, from London and Birmingham, and the IAATW is supporting the claim of a fourth driver in Lisbon.
In each case, the drivers were dismissed after Uber said its systems had detected fraudulent activity. The drivers deny they were engaged in fraud. Uber has never made any complaint to the police, nor has it provided drivers access to the purported evidence against them, nor allowed them the opportunity to challenge or appeal the decision to terminate.
Uber in the courts
ACDU president Yaseen Aslam said: “Uber has been allowed to violate employment law with impunity for years and now we are seeing a glimpse into an Orwellian world of work where workers have no rights and are managed by machine. If Uber is not checked, this practice will become the norm for everyone.”
One London driver was dismissed after Uber said their systems detected “irregular trips associated with fraudulent activities”.
Another was fired after Uber claimed its technology detected “the installation of and use of software which has the intention and effect of manipulating the driver app”.
A third driver based in Birmingham, was terminated after Uber said its system detected “a continued pattern of improper use of the Uber application… and this created a poor experience for all parties.”, while the fourth, based in Lisbon, was sacked after Uber said its system detected “the recurrent practice of irregular activities during use of the Uber app”.
Uber’s community guidelines’ definition of fraud includes drivers assuming other people’s identity or allowing other people to assume theirs; deliberately increasing the time or distance of a trip or delivery for fraudulent purposes or otherwise; and confirming trip, order or delivery requests without the intention to complete. The ADCU added that, in London, drivers dismissed by Uber are reported to Transport for London (TfL), which may take licensing action against them.
James Farrar, director of Worker Info Exchange, said: “Uber has industrialised the process for the firing of drivers at scale in a frighteningly uniform way across the UK and Europe. It is morally offensive that workers can be dismissed in such a callously automated way without any right of appeal or to even know the basis of the algorithmically generated allegations made against them.”
Anton Ekker, the Dutch lawyer representing the four drivers, said: “This case demonstrates the impact of automated decision making for the millions of people that are working in the platform economy. For the first time, Uber drivers are challenging these decisions based on the GDPR.”
David Greenhalgh, employment lawyer at law firm Excello Law, said the case should “act as a warning to UK employers about the reliance on AI to make decisions, without any human involvement, in relation to its employees or consultants. This over-reliance on AI robots could be in relation to the recruitment process in employment, during the employment relationship (perhaps around pay increases or promotion) and in relation to disciplinary action or termination. The GDPR has teeth and class action lawyers will not be afraid to bite.”
Aslam and Farrer were two of the respondents in Uber’s appeal at the Supreme Court in July 2020 against the 2016 employment tribunal ruling which found that Uber drivers were ‘workers’, not self-employed. The judgment in the appeal is expected soon.
In September Uber was granted a new licence to operate in London after Westminster Magistrates’ Court decided that it was a “fit and proper operator” despite historical failings.