(Note: this story has been updated to include further comment from the affected drivers)
Three Uber drivers in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, claim they were fired for adhering to the company’s COVID-19 safety guidelines, several sources reported Sunday. The drivers reportedly were laid off after refusing to serve customers who threatened violence or bad reviews when told to put on a mask.
“I bought a new car, borrowed money from my friend and planned to start studying for my future, but my livelihood was stolen from me,” explained driver Bhupinder Singh in a statement from UFCW 1518, the food and commercial workers union in British Columbia that’s bringing the drivers’ complaint before the district’s Labor Relations Board.
According to the union, all three drivers had high customer ratings and reviews, yet they found that the Uber (NYSE: UBER) app had been deactivated from their phones following complaints from their passengers. After attempting to reach Uber support, the union says, the drivers were unable to learn more about the complaints or plead their cases, and the company reportedly did not follow up on the drivers’ requests for review.
Another driver, Parminder Singh Kullar, had his account deactivated the same week that he dealt with unruly passengers who tried taking off their masks to vape and drink alcohol in his vehicle, threatening to report him to Uber when he objected.
“We drivers are putting our safety at risk driving intoxicated customers on Weekend nights,” said Kullar, one of the three drivers whose account was deactivated without warning. “I refused a customer from vaping and opening a can of alcohol in my car. They got mad, verbally abused me, and threatened to report me to Uber. A few days later, my account was deactivated, and Uber would not even listen to my side of the story.”
A third former driver, who prefers to remain anonymous, echoed the sentiments of the other two.
“I was already laid off from the airline industry in the middle of the pandemic and Uber took my livelihood away from me overnight without any explanation. It made me doubt myself day and night. I went through some dark times,” said the former driver, who boasted a 4.84 star rating.
None of the drivers are a part of UFCW 1518, or any formal union, because of their independent contractor status, which doesn’t qualify them for the protections granted by Canada’s Employment Standards Act. A similar situation exists in the United States, where drivers are ineligible for benefits, such as the minimum wage or overtime, under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
“The customer gets aggressive and then files a false complaint. Uber doesn’t investigate it. They just send a warning and then deactivate the driver’s account. It’s the algorithm that’s the boss,” said Raunaq Singh, the union’s organizer.
An Uber Canada spokesperson replied by email to Modern Shipper’s request for comment: “We want every experience on the Uber platform to feel safe, respectful, and positive and we’ve developed our policies with this in mind.”
The spokesperson also said that Uber Canada has received a copy of the complaint and is reviewing it, stating that the company’s case review process is human-led.
The spokesperson cited reasons that an account can be deactivated, the most common being an expired document or an issue with a background check. The spokesperson also listed persistently low ratings from riders or Uber Eats users, safety issues, fraud, and discrimination by the driver or delivery person as potential causes for a deactivation.
It’s unclear if any of these situations applies to the drivers filing the complaints, though the statement from UFCW 1518 says that “the drivers had been working as Uber drivers for several months without incident, and one had over 1,000 five-star reviews on his account.” Modern Shipper sent a request for more details on the situation to UFCW 1518, but as of publication time, the union had not responded.
UFCW 1518 is taking the cases to the British Columbia Labor Relations Board on the drivers’ behalf and has filed an unfair labor practice complaint against Uber. Representatives from the board responded and set a meeting for Tuesday to begin investigating the complaints, according to a news post on the union’s website.
The union has also been pushing for further protections for drivers. Uber drivers are unable to formally unionize, but UFCW 1518 recently penned a letter to Canada’s labor minister, Harry Bains, and Parliamentary Secretary Adam Walker urging them to amend the country’s Employment Standards Act to classify drivers as employees. That would give them union power and a host of other benefits, such as health care coverage. Similar efforts are being made in the U.S.
The process could take some time, according to the Labor Relations Board’s information officer, Julie Griffith. The board typically asks for submissions from the parties involved, settling the matter in a hearing if they can’t reach an agreement. Scheduled hearings are listed on the board’s website, and several of them have 2020 case dates, indicating that the process could take a year or longer.
For the three drivers, the decision can’t come soon enough. According to UFCW 1518, driving for Uber was their main source of income, and if the board rules in their favor, they could be reinstated and compensated.
“It affected my mental health. I was a top star rating driver and completed more than 2,000 trips and with two false and angry customer accusations, Uber deactivated my account without proper investigation,” Bhupinder Singh told the union.
In 2020, the union received a blow when the Labor Relations Board dismissed its complaint against Uber and Lyft, rejecting its claims that the companies’ drivers are employees or dependent contractors, not independent contractors.