In Johannesburg, Uber Eats drivers are banding together to seek better working conditions and accountability from the food delivery platform. For over a year, around 50 drivers, led by individuals like Eddie Mlilo and Thando Dlodlo, have been meeting regularly at a recreational park to discuss their struggles and explore the possibility of unionization.
The drivers’ concerns include low earnings, lack of insurance support, and allegations of unfair termination. Many feel that the company does not adequately address their grievances. Mlilo, who has been with Uber Eats since 2016, highlighted the need to hold the company accountable, saying, “We have no safety gear. Yet, the job is risky and low-paid. It’s time to hold Uber accountable, and unionizing is the only way.”
Despite initial fears of losing work, the drivers have decided it’s time to collectively push back. They believe that forming a union will empower them to voice their concerns and demand better treatment from the platform. While most of Uber’s workforce consists of independent contractors, the company’s salaried employees have the legal right to unionize.
In response, an Uber spokesperson stated that the company remains committed to its delivery drivers, and they consult with them regularly to ensure a safe and rewarding experience. The company expressed its dedication to collaborating with representatives of delivery people, policymakers, and the industry to ensure benefits and protections while preserving worker independence.
Tebogo Thejane, spokesperson for the South African department of employment and labor, emphasized that gig workers should report their grievances to the agency for investigation. Thejane listed several labor laws that Uber Eats needs to adhere to, designed to protect workers’ rights.
Mlilo and Dlodlo have been consulting with various workers’ unions to explore unionization possibilities. This includes discussions with organizations like the International Transport Workers’ Federation, the Trade Union Competence Center for Sub-Saharan Africa, and the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union. They are also considering integration with existing unions rather than forming a separate entity.
Studies by Fairwork and the University of the Witwatersrand’s Southern Centre for Inequality Studies indicate that gig workers in South Africa face worse conditions compared to other regions. The lack of measures to compensate workers for income loss due to illness and not meeting minimum wage requirements are among the concerns.
Globally, unionization has been effective in helping gig workers gain rights and protections. In the UK, for example, court rulings and union agreements led to positive changes for drivers. The Johannesburg drivers hope to replicate similar successes in South Africa.
Currently, Uber Eats drivers in Johannesburg pay for their own safety gear and uniforms, and some claim that Uber’s compensation does not cover accidents that occur during deliveries. These drivers are eager to unite under a union to advocate for their rights and challenge the platform’s practices.
Zico Tamela, Satawu’s international secretary, expressed concern over the lack of regulation for international companies like Uber and Bolt in South Africa. Satawu, with over 90,000 members, aims to unite all gig workers in the country under one body to combat exploitation by multinational app companies.
As the drivers’ push for unionization gains momentum, it remains to be seen how Uber Eats will respond to their demands and how the gig economy landscape in South Africa may evolve in the coming months.