So who is in the (Uber) driving seat?

Driving for Uber has become a dangerous job. Although the app is a way for many to earn a living, it comes with many risks.

Dealing with metered taxi drivers, fearful that they are losing passengers to their app-based competitors, is an occupational hazard. They have been known to stone Uber cars and steal from the drivers.

About a week ago, Uber drivers were attacked by cab drivers in Sandton, Johannesburg. The situation has become so bad that some Uber drivers refuse to go into areas such as Sandton.

“You have to avoid [areas with high numbers of metered taxis] because, if the place is volatile, even if you see that this request is in Sandton, sometimes you can avoid it. Or you can go there, check, call the rider [and say] ‘No, let’s meet somewhere [else].’ If they don’t want [to], you cancel,” said Greaterman Dhlamini, 45, who has driven for Uber for two years.

He recounts a confrontation he had with a few metered taxi drivers while driving along Bree Street in downtown Johannesburg.

“The rider was going to Gautrain station. While I was on the robot there was a taxi this side, and another one in front. There came some guys. I opened [the window] just a little bit for air and then these guys wanted a phone. ‘Bring the phone!’ ‘Can we use a gun or a knife?’ they ask each other. ‘No, this is an Uber phone, you can’t take it,’ [I said].

“I was just struggling with them, then they took it. I was cut here [showing his wrist]; see here I had stitches [touching his neck.] So when the robot opened and I left, I had another phone, so I put it on and ended the trip,” said Dhlamini.

Because Uber describes itself as “a technology company that connects riders to drivers” and therefore argues that it is not a traditional employer, questions have been raised about the extent of its responsibility towards the safety of its drivers.

The app has a number of settings to keep passengers safe — GPS tracking and in-app navigation that they can follow during the trip.

Navigating Uber’s website, all that is on offer for drivers are the safety features on the app. These include GPS data that tells the company a driver’s location and a “24/7 support team” that answers questions. Neither would help in the event of a violent attack.

Samantha Allenberg, Uber Africa’s spokesperson, said: “Uber is deeply committed to the safety of the riders and drivers using the app. Every trip is GPS tracked, we have a dedicated incidents response team, 24/7 customer support, as well as a dedicated law enforcement liaison team.”

She added that Uber has partnered with “multiple security response services in an effort to improve driver safety”. It has also introduced Real-Time ID check, which asks riders and drivers to send a selfie to Uber from time to time, which is then verified against the photos in each person’s Uber profile so that the correct passengers and drivers are taking the approved trip.

But this does not prevent clashes between Uber drivers and cab drivers.

Stuart Wilson, executive director at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa, believes that Uber’s legal obligations to its drivers depend, to some extent, on whether Uber drivers are classified as employees in terms of South African law.

Contractually, Uber drivers are classified as independent contractors but Wilson believes this definition could be debated.

“In South African law, Uber arguably does employ its drivers even though the standard contract between Uber and its drivers is likely to define Uber drivers as independent third-party contractors. In South African law, the definition of ‘employee’ is very broad. It covers anyone who works for anyone else and receives remuneration. It’s presumed that that person is an employee if they’re economically dependent on, or if their daily work is carried out under the direction of or control of, another person.”

But even if drivers are not employees, “Uber may nonetheless have a duty of care to insulate its drivers against foreseeable risks,” said Wilson.

“It depends on the nature of the relationship, but it’s likely that Uber would try to exclude as much of that liability as possible from its contract,” added Wilson.

Uber drivers say they understand that they take the risk of being on the road. Dhlamini said: “The company’s job is just to collect their own portion of my services. It’s not that I have a personal relationship [with Uber] — yes, I use the app, but I am told that Uber is an app, not a transporting company. So it’s tricky when you want to deal with Uber.

“The safety — where there is a meter taxi or no meter taxi — safety is always a major concern. Not that Uber must secure you, you must also work around safe places,” he added.

Uber drivers said they believed police monitoring was not helpful and they still had to work around high-risk areas.

The South African Police Service said it is handling the ongoing violent clashes between Uber and metered cab drivers.

“If anyone feels they’re a victim of crime, we’re relying on the intelligence environment to give us regular updates,” said Vish Naidoo, head of operational services relations.

He said the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure, which co-ordinates all security and law enforcement operations in South Africa, included the department of transport.

“We’re on top of the situation. We will not tolerate disruption or criminality,” Naidoo added.

Discussions and mediations were taking place to tackle the issue of violence between metered taxi drivers and Uber drivers, but would not discuss exactly what those entailed. The department of transport could not be reached for comment.

Some Uber drivers are sceptical about how effective the police have been in handling the situation.

“Uber is trying all means to keep us safe. They have hired security companies to protect us. I don’t think there’s more they can do, the way I see things,” said one Uber driver who asked not to be named.

“Sometimes the cops don’t do anything, so that’s the concern. Just wondering why the cops are not acting when they see there’s something wrong.”

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Caroline Vakil
Caroline Vakil is a journalist based in the United States

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