The REAL Diary of an Uber Driver

ABC recently announced plans for a new 6-part television drama called “Diary of an Uber Driver.”  The Centre for Future Work's Director Jim Stanford wonders if this drama will truly constitute insightful drama - or whether it will serve to whitewash the labour practices of a controversial, exploitive industry.

A version of this commentary originally appeared on the 10 Daily website.

The REAL Diary of an Uber Driver

by Jim Stanford

ABC recently announced plans for a new 6-part television drama called “Diary of an Uber Driver.”  It’s hard to imagine that an Uber driver’s actual life would make for riveting TV viewing.  Here’s an illustrative account I have constructed, based on observations and real conversations with ride-share drivers:

5:25 am. Shower and quick breakfast. Uber says I can “work when I want.” So why am I up at 5? Because that’s when there’s customers.

6:10 am. Got one ride to the City, now deadheading back to suburb where the app says they need cars. 20 minutes of my time, plus petrol, down the tube.

7:38 am.  Been waiting 7 minutes for fare to come out of her house; I can charge her extra –but she’ll likely give me 2 stars out of 5 on the customer rating.

8:12 am.  Asshole office guy demands to get out at a traffic island. Totally illegal. If I refuse, I’ll lose stars.

8:35 am. Driving obnoxious kid and dad to school. Kid waving a stuffed animal out the window, dangerous and illegal. If I tell the dad to stop it, I’ll lose more stars.

9:20 am. Buy petrol.  Price up another 3 cents.  Apparently I operate an “independent” business, but I can’t raise my price when costs rise. In fact, I never even touch the money – it all goes through the app.

9:28 am. Next door at Aldi’s buying bottled water, candies, and gum. $16. Customers expect the perks – and I gotta buy them, or lose my stars.

10:35 am. Been waiting 15 minutes without a fare. Waits that long cut my effective hourly wage by a third. Think I’ll go home and go back to sleep.

3:20 pm. Back on the app. Deadhead back to the City for rush hour.

5:17 pm.  Waiting 3 minutes in no-stopping zone for guy who said he’d be right there.  Risking big ticket.  Could move, would lose stars.

6:20 pm. Cop eyes me at traffic light as I accept next fare on the app.  I know it’s illegal, but it’s the only way to work it.  If he fines me ($484 and 4 demerits), that’s 3 days’ net pay. I’m lucky.

7:18 pm. Arrogant stockbroker gives me 2 stars, even though nothing went wrong. Why? Maybe it was my skin colour, not my service.

8:25 pm. Drunken kids demand I go through McDonald’s.  If I refuse, 2 stars for sure.  Car now smells like French fries.  And they spilled Coke on my carpet; another cleaning.  They give me 2 stars anyway.  I could give them 2 stars (as their rating), but it doesn’t matter.  The customer is always right, and they’ll always get a driver. I might not find another job.

9:38 pm. Another 15 minute wait for next fare. I suspect I’m being punished by the algorithm: it sends more jobs to preferred drivers.

10:33 pm. More drunks, demanding to play Spotify through my sound system. Cranking it to the max. Stars at risk if I complain.

1:18 am. Slow night, too many drivers out there. Getting very tired. Uber limits me to 18 hours work in any 24 (gosh); gotta sign off soon. I could always switch to Lyft and drive a few more hours. App sends rah-rah message that I could get to $250 for the day with a couple more fares.

1:52 am. Deadhead home.  App tells me I made $276, 15 hours on-line. That’s before petrol ($60 today), vehicle costs, data costs, and the damn gum. I’ll be lucky to keep half that.  Didn’t make the minimum wage today… what else is new?

This doesn’t make for feel-good viewing, by any definition. So what is ABC thinking?

The mini-series is a spin-off from a blog and subsequent book by Ben Phillips, who began driving for Uber in Sydney after his own small business went belly-up.  His writing describes many strange encounters with weird customers and other characters.  The series will also draw in his own personal angst – including fears about becoming a father.

In short, it’s like Taxi Driver for the gig-economy: a chronicle of mini-dramas compiled by a neurotic driver, ferrying colourful passengers around the big, lonely city.  There will surely be entertainment value in some scenarios.  But it’s hardly an accurate portrayal of the mind-numbing, exploitive reality of ride-share driving.  And the whole concept raises questions that the broadcaster and its viewers should ponder carefully.

For starters, why is the ABC naming a TV series after a corporation?  Uber is the best-known ride-share company, sure, but there are many competitors.  Moreover, conventional taxis are still a mainstay of urban transportation – and taxi drivers surely have as many interesting stories as Phillips.  Taxis, however, are old-fashioned, while Uber is “cool.”  ABC is riding the coattails of Uber’s brand by naming the whole show after it.  Unfortunately, this also provides profile and endorsement to a troubled and controversial American corporation – one gearing up for a potential $120 billion (U.S.) stock offering.

Let’s set that ethical issue aside.  An even bigger concern is that the series will whitewash, even glamorise, a highly exploitive employment practice whose legitimacy and even legality is under siege in courtrooms and parliaments around the world.  Uber has recently lost precedent-setting legal cases in France, Italy, the U.K., the U.S., and Canada. More challenges are underway, including in Australia.

Uber has been avoiding the risks, costs, and responsibilities that come with directly employing drivers – inconveniences like minimum wages, workers’ compensation, paid holidays, and more.  Drivers pay all vehicle costs (including depreciation, maintenance, tires, petrol, phone and insurance).  Uber controls all payments (through the app), deducting booking fees and a fat 27.5% commission; the driver is stuck with all other costs (including GST), hoping there’s enough left at the end to buy groceries.  They can be fired for inadequate consumer ratings (logged through the app’s 5-star system). Uber claims its drivers are “entrepreneurs,” not employees – but that fiction is crumbling in the face of myriad legal challenges.

In practice, many Uber drivers make well under the minimum wage: my 2018 research indicated average pay (after vehicle expenses) of $14.62 per hour across 6 Australian cities; other surveys suggest even less.  Other issues faced by drivers include dismissal without severance or recourse; traffic fines (including for operating the Uber app while driving); unlimited competition (there’s no cap on how many drivers can sign on); and deadening, dangerous hours.  Little wonder 90% or more of Uber drivers quit within a year.

It’s hard to believe this series will portray the ugly side of ride-share driving.  Instead, working for Uber will come off as a humble but meaningful vocation: one where human interaction (rather than earning the minimum wage) is the main remuneration.  At a moment when the exploitive practices of Uber and other gig employers are finally receiving critical attention around the world, this smells like corporate propaganda, not high-quality drama.


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