In a world full of consumerism, we hardly ever think about the faces on the other side of the counter. As customers, we are always ready to accept the goods and services we purchase and be off on our way. And with most people owning a smartphone, some goods and services are exchanged literally with the click of a finger. Namely, calling for a ride from organisations such as Uber.
Ride-sharing apps have taken the world by storm, with their effortless nature and low cost. But while everyone talks about how great the platform is, barely anyone talks about the person in the driver’s seat. The life of a driver has more bumps in the road than a passenger would think.
The drivers of Uber come from all different walks of life. Some working as a driver part-time for extra money and others working for the organisation in a full-time role. For Uber driver Itong, being a driver brings some flexibility to her already busy schedule.
“I’m a single mum and it’s hard to work when you’ve got a child to look after,” she tells me.
Alongside working as an Uber driver, Itong is also a school bus driver during the week: “During school holidays, I can still look after my baby as well as work with Uber.”
This flexibility is something that resonates with many drivers. A survey conducted by Uber in 2015 found that 87 per cent of drivers in the United States worked with Uber in order to be their own boss and to work around their busy schedules. This was evident in the number of hours drivers would work from week to week, since 65 per cent of drivers had fluctuating hours.
The drivers seeking flexibility are most likely not looking to corporations such as Uber for their main source of income. Itong combines her Uber salary is combined with the steady salary she already makes. For other drivers, Uber is their only source of income. In the United States, three out of four drivers use Uber as their main source of income.
Patrick, another Uber driver, took the work while job-hunting. After being a driver for two weeks, he had given up looking for another job and began driving for Uber full time and, similarly to Itong, he revels in the flexibility of being a driver:
“It’s not about making lots of money, it’s about flexibility and lifestyle. When I started driving I began swimming at the local pool several times a week … in the summer if I get a fare to Bondi, I have a swim, then log on again.”
The perks of being a driver are on par with the extra costs. According to the Australian Taxation Office, drivers are still required to register and pay for GST. Drivers also face other expenses like petrol, insurance and servicing of their vehicle, some of which they only get back at the end of the financial year. Patrick recognises that if he earns $1500 a week, his take-home after putting money aside for insurance and servicing, petrol, his car loan and after Uber takes their 25 per cent cut, would only leave him with $900.
Due to these factors, some drivers have found that this job leads them straight on the highway to hell. Uber driver Wasim has been driving for Uber for two years, and its income is his only source; he cannot wait to get out: “No one says they want to be a driver when they grow up. People just drive for Uber or for taxi because they have bills to pay.”
“Are you studying? Is there another career you’d rather be involved in?” I asked.
“I have a degree in civil engineering but …”
“No jobs?” I finish for him.
He nods with a tight-lipped smile.
And, like many others, Wasim has turned to Uber in order to make a living for himself. With no other qualifications except his degree and a job market that has become increasingly hard to break into, he feels he has no other choice than to fall back on driving.
“Initially I earn a lot of money, but after Uber takes its cut and you pay for insurance and petrol,” Wasim shrugs before continuing, “you’ve not got much left.”
Where does that leave drivers who are trying to earn a living? In the United Kingdom, drivers have long been fighting for better working conditions. Due to these efforts, drivers are now considered members of staff within ride-sharing organisations as opposed to self-employed workers. In May of 2018, Uber introduced a range of insurance coverage for drivers across Europe. This includes coverage on sickness, injury and maternity and paternity. While Europe have seen some improvement in driving workers’ rights in recent years, Australia has yet to see this improvement with Australian drivers being paid less than the legal minimum of $18 per hour. It might not be possible for drivers of companies such as Uber to sustain a living. And the extras of driving such as petrol, insurance and upkeep, are not enough to contend with the flexibility of the job. On average, Australian drivers only earn $16 per hour before costing in fuel, insurance and other costs. In addition, Uber takes a 27.5 per cent commission on all fares in Australia.
Drivers are the people we trust to take us safely from one point to another. But the system they work within does not provide enough financial stability nor is than an accurate understanding of their rights. While passengers have a breezy ride, drivers are stuck in a world of fluctuating fuel prices and a (less than) minimum wage.
So be nice to your Uber driver.