Uber is being sued over its ‘racist’ facial recognition algorithm which is five times less likely to recognise darker-skin drivers, preventing them from signing on to work.
The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWUGB) is bringing the action on behalf of an anonymous driver who says they were locked out so many times that their account was terminated, claiming indirect racial discrimination.
It is also calling for a boycott of Uber and is protesting outside the the London headquarters of the ride-hailing company.
Drivers are asked to scan their face, at random intervals, in order to access the back-end of Uber’s system. If they are unable to gain entry, their contracts are at risk of being terminated.
Alex Marshall, IWGB President and a former gig economy courier himself, told The Independent: “The gig economy in itself is racist. It exploits predominantly migrant and ethnic minority workers. The way it’s set up is to systemically exploit these people and without fair processes in place, this just means that people are forced to accept really low pay and work in these conditions.”
“By legally challenging Uber then this is something that they can’t ignore and the idea is that this then blows the lid off the wider issue of unfair treatment.
“If something like an algorithm isn’t working and is firing people for the colour of their skin, then what else isn’t working at Uber? Hopefully it can kick on whether it’s Uber, Deliveroo, is to target vulnerable, precarious workers, who are completely mistreated, chewed up and spat out at the click of a button.”
One in five darker-skinned female faces and one in 20 darker-skinned men fail the algorithm, according to research — a significant issue in London where up to 95 per cent of drivers are Black or ethnic minority.
The case, which could force Uber to scrap its facal recognition system, has been made possible by the right to protection from discrimination affirmed by a Supreme Court ruling that found Uber drivers are workers who are protected up equalities legislation.
The driver strike marks the start of a campaign by Black Lives Matter UK and the IWGB to demand Uber drop its controversial facial recognition algorithm, reinstate unfairly terminated drivers and couriers and introduce the fair terminations process called for last year by more than 70 MPs.
Obinna Uzoeghelu, 37, who lives in London, started working for Uber Eats in August 2020. His account shut for three months with no reason, for some of this time he continued working without getting paid and was ultimately forced out of the sector.
Mr Uzoeghelu, whose wife was heavily pregnant at the time, said he very hard to have dialogue with Uber, sending many emails, using all the contact options, to no avail.
It was only when the IWGB intervened that the reason for his termination was revealed to be a facial recognition failure. Ultimately, the union was able to get the termination overturned but unfortunately it was much too late, the former employee would not have been able to make ends meet if he had waited; he now works for another food delivery service.
“As a family man whose wife was about to give birth, I couldn’t sleep when this happened. I kept thinking about how we’re going to survive this,” he told The Independent.
“During that period, you couldn’t even go and talk to people about how you’re feeling because of Covid regulations and lockdown. I was depressed; when you have an job that you think will help you to secure income and it’s taken away unfairly, it’s very difficult.
“I was shocked and even more so that Uber withheld wages that I had earned for a several months. I support the calls to boycott Uber and strike action; people should stand up and be counted.”
Apsana Begum, Labour MP for Poplar and Limehouse, said: “We know that Black and minority ethnic people are overrepresented in these areas of work but especially so in these terminations, so the facial algorithm is very concerning.
“I think everyone should log off their Uber apps if they’re passengers and show solidarity with drivers across London and beyond. It’s important to support strike actions such as this and, of course, this does have an impact in terms of the revenues and profits that the company makes – Uber London had profits in excess of £6million just last year.
“We’re talking about super profits year-on-year but employees who are earning poverty wages and not getting their basic rights respected as employees. I completely support the cause for strike action.”
A Black Lives Matter UK spokesperson said: “The impact of Uber’s facial recognition algorithm reflects a complete lack of care for black people and their livelihoods. The gig economy which already creates immense precarity for Black key workers is now further exacerbated by this software that prevents them from working at all, purely based on the colour of their skin. Racist practices such as these must come to an end.”