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Fired by robots — Uber faces legal challenge for algorithmic dismissals

The dismissed drivers believe they’ve been penalised for picking and choosing when to work.

By Tim Smith in Barcelona

Uber is facing a new legal challenge today, as the App Drivers & Couriers Union files a complaint in the Amsterdam District Court, claiming that four drivers in the UK and Portugal were unfairly dismissed by the platform’s algorithm.

The drivers say they were wrongly accused of “fraudulent activity”, which was detected automatically by Uber’s systems, and were kicked off the platform without a right of appeal.

All of the drivers deny engaging in fraud, while saying Uber has made no such complaint to local police forces.

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On Uber’s community guidelines page, fraudulent activities include “actions intended to disrupt or manipulate the normal functioning of the Uber apps”, and “abusing promotions and/or not using them for their intended purpose.”

James Farrar, director of Worker Info Exchange, a non-profit organisation supporting workers in the digital economy, told Sifted he believes that drivers are being penalised under these terms for declining rides and waiting for higher surge pricing times to log back in.

“Uber, not ironically, calls such behaviour ‘gaming the surge’. Apparently, only Uber is allowed to ‘game the surge’.”

“Uber, not ironically, calls such behaviour ‘gaming the surge’. Apparently, only Uber is allowed to ‘game the surge’,” he says.

If true, penalising drivers for choosing when they wish to drive for Uber would seriously undermine the argument that gig economy workers benefit from the flexibility of choosing their own hours — and are under no obligation to use the app at any time.

Robo-firing

Farrar believes this is the first case challenging the practice of so-called “robo-firing”, and the first to test Article 22 of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which states that individuals should be protected from automated decisions which have negative effects, and are carried out without human intervention.

The App Drivers & Couriers Union describes the four reasons for supposed unfair dismissal as follows:

Driver 1: “irregular trips associated with fraudulent activities”

 Driver 2: “the installation of and use of software which has the intention and effect of manipulating the Driver App”

Driver 3: “a continued pattern of improper use of the Uber application…..& this created a poor experience for all parties”

Driver 4, “the recurrent practice of irregular activities during use of the Uber App.”

Fighting for workers’ rights

The case is the latest in a string of legal challenges facing gig economy platforms, concerning the relationship between workers and tech platforms.

Yaseen Aslam, president of the App Drivers & Couriers Union, announcing the legal challenge, says that the case is the latest example of Uber exploiting its fleet of riders. 

“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,” he argues.

“We are seeing a glimpse into an Orwellian world of work where workers have no rights and are managed by machine.”

The union has launched a crowdfunding campaign to help fund the legal challenge.

 Uber has responded saying that these decisions “were not taken solely on the basis of automated processing of personal data”, as the drivers’ “irregular activities” were assessed by Uber employees.

Anton Ekker, the attorney leading the case in the Netherlands, says that there is no evidence that an adequately trained employee was involved in the human assessment of the dismissals.

The case will likely be decided on just how “meaningful” the human intervention from Uber’s side was in these dismissals; in short, whether it was really the algorithm responsible for the dismissal.

Uber’s privacy notice includes the following text, suggesting that drivers can be fired automatically:

“We use personal data to make automated decisions relating to use of our services. This includes: […]Deactivating users who are identified as having engaged in fraud or activities that may otherwise harm Uber, its users, and others. In some cases, such as when a user is determined to be abusing Uber’s referral program, such behavior may result in automatic deactivation.”

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Douglas Stuart
Douglas Stuart

I worked for uber (gold coast) Queensland, Australia for 4.5yrs did 8,500+ trips and was Platinum level driver. I was robo-fired saying I had not followed community protocols. Is anyone in Australia taking action.