Inside London ganglands, where Uber drivers run a deadly gauntlet

Inside London ganglands, where Uber drivers run a deadly gauntlet

Elize Knutsen London
Fri, 2018-03-30 22:16

Hussein rattles off the names of the East London streets that strike fear among Uber Eats drivers when they appear on their delivery apps.

“Parnell Road; Amhurst Road; Mare Street; Olympic Park,” recounts the Bangladeshi, who was beaten with a hockey stick while making a delivery last year.

Each night Hussein and his fellow drivers working London’s dangerous nocturnal gig economy are forced to make a tough choice: Accept an order and risk attack or reject it and risk losing their livelihood.

Hussein, who asked to use a pseudonym through fear of being blacklisted, and other Uber Eats delivery drivers, claim the company penalizes drivers who avoid working in estates that have become notorious for violent gang activity — a claim Uber rejects.

Drivers interviewed by Arab News allege that the app they use to accept orders from the company records the number of deliveries rejected by any given driver. If enough orders are canceled, drivers risk having their account blocked — effectively barring them from work for the company.

In a recent policy change, the Uber platform now prevents couriers from seeing the final drop-off destination until after they have collected the delivery order from the restaurant.

For the driver, many of them immigrants from Bangladesh, it amounts to a game of Russian Roulette.

They have created their own What’sApp group to record attempted thefts and assaults in an effort to protect themselves.

They keep their phones on when making deliveries to dangerous estates so that if there is an incident, their fellow drivers are alerted.

After picking up a food order, couriers anxiously wait for the app to send the customer’s location, hoping to be sent to a busy and well-lit main street rather than a known crime area.

For drivers like Hussein, who has a newborn daughter and a wife to support, it represents a daily dilemma.

“I’m scared that if I don’t go, my ID (delivery account) will be blocked,” he said. “I feel pressured, because if suddenly they block my ID, where I am I going to get a job? I have a family and everything. I have to put food on their plates.”

“They only care that you deliver the food safe, it doesn’t matter what happens to you,” said Jabed Hussain, an Uber Eats delivery driver who was attacked with acid during an attempted robbery of his moped.

The attacks on Uber Eats drivers come against a backdrop of rising violence in the UK capital with 55 suspected murders reported since the start of the year according to the Met — already half of last year’s tally.

Delivery drivers working for Uber Eats said they are easy targets for the gangs, who steal some 2,500 mopeds across London each month, according to Met Statistics.

Uber has attracted a fleet of thousands of delivery drivers across London, many of them young immigrants struggling to make ends meet while supporting families at home.

With the the tagline “be your own boss,” the company promises a no-contract job without set hours or fixed locations.

But the flexibility of working in London’s burgeoning “gig economy” comes at a price.

Because drivers and food couriers technically work as “independent contractors” rather than employees, the company has been able to skirt labor protection and safety regulations that would apply under more traditional forms of employment, claim unions.

Despite suffering a brutal beating on Barrett’s Grove in East London last May by masked men that left him unable to work for weeks, Ibrahim said he feels obliged to deliver to the same street.

“I don’t want to do jobs in that location,” he said. “I’m scared that suddenly I’ll be attacked,” he said.

While technically Ibrahim is free to call Uber and cancel drop offs to that street, he is concerned that if his cancelation rate increases he will be kicked off the platform and left without work.

As the sole income earner with two young boys, Ibrahim, who also asked that his real name not be used, said Uber offered no support while he was out of commission recovering from the attack, which left him unable to move his neck. “They didn’t do anything,” he said.

Drivers have accused Uber of not being responsive to their safety concerns.

“If I call them, they answer ‘Everyone goes there, no one complains about that. Why are you saying this is not secure?’ They think I’m lying,” said Hussein.

Uber, however, insists that delivery drivers are free to choose where they work.

“As Uber Eats doesn’t set shifts — or zones couriers have to operate in — couriers are free to choose when and where to deliver,” said Harry Porter, a spokesman for the company.

“If there is a part of town they don’t want to deliver in they simply need to go to another area and turn their app on,” he explained.

On Tuesday, Uber unveiled a new app it developed after consultation with drivers working within the ride hailing part of its business after years of complaints by drivers.

However a spokesperson confirmed that it is only being deployed for its car service and not for food delivery drivers.

Many Uber Eats drivers stick to familiar neighborhoods where they know the streets and traffic patterns and so maximize their earnings by saving time delivering food.

So when Ali Faysal, a fresh-faced twenty-three year old delivery rider, received an order from Papa’s Chicken in East London last winter, he was hoping for just such a routine trip.

After picking up the food, the Uber App pinged the drop off location and his heart sank:

The customer’s address was in a block of flats in Beckton where he had narrowly escaped an attempted moped theft a few months prior.

He said that when he called the Uber help line from nearby the customer’s location saying he did not feel comfortable going to the destination, an incredulous Uber employee demanded to know why he didn’t “just cross the street.”

Not long after, Ali received an email from Uber informing him that his account had been blocked. “An abnormally high number of your trips went undelivered, ” the message read.

After four days without access to work and worried about paying his bills, Ali visited the Uber support hub in East London where drivers and delivery couriers plead their cases.

But he was told his partnership with Uber had been terminated. There was no appeal process, and because Uber delivery drivers are not technically employees of the company, there was no notice period.

The company does not inform delivery drivers which specific trips have caused red flags, so Ali and others like him are unable to defend themselves or explain the circumstances.

Uber said that Ali’s termination was the result of repeatedly failing to drop off food at the correct location, a claim that he denies.

The drivers say that the Uber platform is driven by data and has limited capacity to calculate human concerns.

Because high cancelation rates or failed deliveries are not taken in context, drivers feel forced to put themselves in harm’s way to maintain a positive drop-off record.

“UberEats and similar companies are able to hide behind their apps to enact callous punishments to riders who are forced to make the decision whether to work or risk their safety for insecure wages and with no worker protections,” said Megan Brown, chair of the Independent Workers Union’s Couriers and Logistics Branch.

Jabed Hussain, who has created a new union for delivery drivers, is calling on the company to help protect them from violent crime.

“They could help us put on trackers (on mopeds) or cameras for our helmets,” he said. “But they don’t want to take any responsibility.”

A stronger government response is required as well, said Stephen Timms, MP representing East Ham.

The city needs “more police officers who are able to protect people who are just doing their jobs,” he told Arab News.

Companies like Uber must do more to protect vulnerable employees, said Mayor of Tower Hamlets John Biggs.

“There are lot of people in the casual economy, the people who deliver, the people who are taken for granted,” he said.

But while the debate over worker protection continues, Ibrahim and his friends are putting on their helmets, switching on their phones and preparing for another night’s work.

Ibrahim hopes the scene of his brutal attack is not among his jobs for the evening. But he can’t be sure.

“Sometimes I take risks and I go there,” he said. “I have no choice at this time.”

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