App Workers Seek Level Playing Field

App Workers Seek Level Playing Field

For many job seekers, joining the ranks of delivery drivers or other app-based workers is sold as entrepreneurship–a way to make money as an independent contractor and be their own boss. But the reality is much different, as workers from Africa to Latin America have found out.

“Just in Latin America, we see millions of [app-based] workers who are exploited, who are working injured, who don’t even have a minimum salary guaranteed, who are risking their life every day with no guarantees whatsoever because the company can terminate them if they deem that they’re not meeting certain standards,” says Mery Laura Perdomo, a lawyer for the International Lawyers Assisting Workers Network (ILAW), a Solidarity Center project.

Perdomo and other experts joined Solidarity Center Podcast Host Shawna Bader-Blau on App Workers Seek Level Playing Field, the second episode of “My Boss Is a Robot,” to discuss how delivery drivers and other app-based workers are excluded from basic labor protections because companies have classified them as “independent contractors”–all while enforcing rules and requirements as in a standard workplace.

But even as app companies around the world have waged multimillion dollar campaigns to prevent court decisions or legislation that would classify gig workers as employees, delivery drivers are standing up for their rights on the job.

Explore their battle for fair treatment as they seek to be recognized by companies as the employees they really are.

My Boss Is a Robot” is a six-part series that seeks to shine a light on the behind-the-scenes practices of app companies who exploit workers in the global gig economy. Download the latest episode, App Workers Seek a Level Playing Field, and watch for the next episode on September 27.

Listen to this episode and all Solidarity Center episodes here or at Spotify, Amazon, Stitcher or wherever you subscribe to your favorite podcasts.

Nigeria Drivers Form Country’s First App-Based Union

Nigeria Drivers Form Country’s First App-Based Union

Solidarity Center
Solidarity Center
Nigeria Drivers Form Country’s First App-Based Union
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Drivers in Nigeria won the country’s first union covering platform-based workers, a victory that shows it is possible for “unions to organize workers in the gig economy,” says Ayoade Ibrahim, secretary general of the Amalgamated Union of App-Based Transport Workers of Nigeria (AUATWN).

Nigeria, Platform Workers Win Union Recognition, AUATWN, Solidarity Center, app-based workers, gig economy

Platform workers in Nigeria join with Labor Ministry officials to finalize recognition of their union, AUATWN. Credit: AUATWN

The Ministry of Labor’s recognition of AUATWN empowers it to have a say in determining the terms and conditions of drivers working for Uber, Bolt and other app-based transportation companies in the country, and covers drivers who deliver food and passengers or engage in other services. The union worked with the Nigeria Labor Congress throughout the campaign for recognition.

In a statement approving AUATWN as union representative of app-based workers last week, the Labor Ministry pointed out that while the freedom to form unions and collectively bargain are internationally protected rights, workers in the informal sector, such as app-based workers, often are not included.

“Today, we are breaking new ground with those in the informal sector who are employing themselves,” the Labor Ministry said. Some 80 percent of Nigerians work in informal sector, as the lack of good jobs—the official unemployment rate is 33 percent, with youth unemployment at 43 percent—leaves workers with few options beyond selling goods in the market, domestic work or taxi driving.

In Nigeria, as in countries around the world, app-based drivers often must work long hours to support themselves and pay for expenses like vehicle maintenance, insurance and car leasing. Excessive hours lead to accidents, says Ayoade.

I work 15 to 18 hours a day. Long hours working is actually not safe for drivers,” says Ayobami Lawal, a platform driver in Lagos. “That is why you see in the news that the driver had an accident. It is because of fatigue, because there is no time to rest.” Drivers also risk being assaulted and even killed on the job, as platform companies do not screen riders. By contrast, riders have access to drivers’ name and personal phone numbers.

In April 2021, platform drivers and their associations in Nigeria went on strike, demanding that Uber and Bolt raise trip fares to make up for the increased cost of gas and vehicle parts. They also launched a class action suit in 2021 against Uber and Bolt, seeking unpaid overtime and holiday pay, pensions and union recognition. Following the protests, Uber increased fare costs on UberX rides and UberX Share in Lagos, a move that did little to improve drivers’ pay and nothing to improve conditions.

‘We Must Be United’

App-based drivers in Nigeria began seeking union recognition in 2017, after drivers’ income was slashed by 40 percent, says Ayoade, a father of three who that year was forced to drive 10-hour days to make the same income he had previously earned for fewer hours. When Uber and Bolt first launched, drivers were paid enough to work without putting in long hours. But the companies’ price wars to lure passengers and increased driver fees, including commissions up to 25 percent per rider, slashed driver pay.  

As the process to register a union with the government dragged, platform worker associations made key gains in mobilizing workers through Facebook, WhatsApp and, most recently, Telegram. The campaign also includes legal action and lobbying Parliament to extend labor laws and social protections to workers in the informal sector.

Three worker associations engaged in the campaign—the National Union of Professional App-based Transport Workers (NUPA-BTW), the Professional E-hailing Drivers and Private Owners Association of Nigeria (PEDPAN) and the National Coalition of Ride-Sharing Partners (NACORP)—last year joined together to form AUATWN.

“We cannot go to war with a divided mind,” says Ayoade. We must be united before we can achieve. The fact that we are united now, we are fierce. We’re trying to involve everybody.”

App-Based Workers Making Gains Worldwide

Unions face unique challenges organizing app-based workers, but by mobilizing members through online apps, unions also have the ability to involve more workers in meetings, education and other opportunities.

“Everybody is included,” says Ayoade. “It’s a more democratic process. We have delegates for unit leadership. If the delegates can’t join for a physical meeting, they can join anywhere.”

Members’ questions can be quickly answered on social platforms and the union operation is more transparent. For instance, he says, members “will see how the money to the union is moving from the app to the account. Every member knows how the money will be used.”

Platform workers in countries worldwide are joining together to better wages, job safety and other fundamental rights guaranteed by international laws. In Kyrgyzstan, gig workers at Yandex Go formed a union and won better wages, while a new report finds that workers on digital platform companies who are pursuing their rights at work through courts and legislation are making significant gains, especially in Europe and Latin America. The Solidarity Center is part of a broad-based movement in dozens of countries to help app-based drivers and other informal sector workers come together. Members of the International Lawyers Assisting Workers Network (ILAW), a Solidarity Center project, have assisted platform workers in many of these cases.

While celebrating the new union, Ayoade also is mindful of the cost some workers paid for a lack of decent work.

“Some of the people we started together with in this campaign, they lost their life along the line,” he says. The lack of insurance or social benefits mean that if drivers are attacked or robbed or even die on the job, they and their family are left all on their own. “They have children, they have parents, who received nothing,” he says.

Although he is bullied and even threatened for his work, Ayoade says such tactics only make him see his efforts are effective. “God gave me the opportunity to help people in this struggle. I am doing something that is improving people’s lives.”

Nigeria Launches Platform Worker Rights Campaign

Nigeria Launches Platform Worker Rights Campaign

In Nigeria—where 93 percent of working people toil in the informal economy for low wages, unprotected by labor law and without social services such as pensions and healthcare—app-based workers are fighting for their rights.

With Solidarity Center support, today the Federation of Informal Workers of Nigeria (FIWON), the National Union of Professional APP-Based Transport Workers (NUPA-BW) and the Professional E-Hailing Drivers and Private Owners of Nigeria (PEDPA) launched a joint campaign for formal recognition and adequate representation for all, regardless of classification.

“A worker is a worker,” says Solidarity Center Nigeria Country Program Director Sonny Ogbuehi. “And all working people have the right to join together to secure the decent jobs and fair wages they deserve.”

During the early part of the pandemic, employment in Nigeria plummeted. Although employment has since rebounded, most newly created jobs are precarious and the cost of living has skyrocketed. Many young people, including those who graduated university into the pandemic, are now employed in the gig economy or other informal-sector jobs because no formal-sector work is available.

Following a Supreme Court decision in the United Kingdom classifying Uber drivers as workers  rather than independent contractors, NUPA-BW drivers in May last year announced a class action suit against two international app-based ridesharing companies for compensation of unpaid overtime and holiday pay, pensions, social security, as well as union recognition. A month prior, drivers in Lagos embarked on a strike for an immediate increase in fares to compensate for the cost of goods and services that, PEDPA said, had increased by more than 200 percent without a commensurate fare increase.

“We want [ride-share companies] to respect the Nigerian constitution and labor law,” says NUPA-BW President Ayoade Ibrahim.

The joint campaign’s demands include full worker and union rights; provision of social protection programs, including pensions, adequate and affordable healthcare, and disability care; provision by the employer of basic workplace infrastructure such as electricity, water and toilets; improved safety and security measures; and worker input into pricing.

The campaign will:

  • Support a new NUPA-BW case at the national industrial court for classification of app-based drivers as workers
  • Produce a weekly call-in radio program to educate the public about the challenges faced by workers employed by app-based companies and other informal-sector workers
  • Facilitate platform workers efforts to organize and support their efforts to advocate for their rights with government and policy makers, employers and within the public domain.

Some 2 billion people work in the informal sector globally, as domestic workers, taxi drivers and street vendors, many of them women. This number has only increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Informal-economy work now comprises most jobs in many countries and is increasing worldwide. Although informal-economy workers can create up to half of a country’s gross national product, most have no access to health care, sick leave or support when they lose their jobs, and they have little power to advocate for living wages and safe and secure work. The Solidarity Center is part of a broad-based movement in dozens of countries to help workers in the informal economy come together to assert their rights and raise living standards.

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