Leading trade unionists in Britain have slammed Uber UK chair Laurel Powers-Freeling's claims this week that drivers are offered considerable benefits along with good pay and conditions as "fictitious", "problematic" and "deeply ironic".

Speaking at a McKinsey event in London this week, banking veteran Powers-Freeling had claimed that there were myths surrounding the way Uber treats its drivers and how much they are paid.

iStock / Getty Images Plus / Photo: lovro77
iStock / Getty Images Plus / Photo: lovro77

She said that they are not paid "total dirt" and that the ride-hailing firm does not treat drivers as "cannon fodder", citing insurance policies and other driver concessions introduced in recent years. To dispel criticism over pay, Powers-Freeling cited an "independent" study from Oxford University that was in fact co-authored by two Uber employees.

The study notes that Uber provided data for the paper (PDF) and had the right to review the findings "but not to influence the analysis or dispute the findings or conclusions of the paper".

Speaking with Techworld, James Farrar, chair of the United Private Hire Drivers branch at the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) union – which has successfully challenged Uber in the courts over the company's employment practices – looked to counter the supposed myth-busting from Powers-Freeling.

"For Uber executives to co-author academic studies dealing with sensitive issues like pay and conditions, subject to ongoing litigation, is deeply problematic. If Uber is so confident in the results, why did they hand pick a sample of just 1,000 drivers out of 50,000 active drivers in London?" he asked.

"In New York City, where Uber is forced to hand over all driver data over to the regulator, truly independent academic studies found that 95% of drivers were earning below minimum wage. As a result of this study, the regulator intervened to protect workers from exploitation. Handling data volumes of 50,000 drivers should be no problem to a company that boast of being a technology leader."

He went on to ask why Uber continues to refuse to give drivers access to their personal data under GDPR rules so they can make their own calculations.

Mick Rix, national officer for the GMB trade union, which has also challenged Uber in the courts and represents drivers, added: "What would you expect from a company that has fought GMB through the courts because our members want workers' rights? Each court has ruled that they are entitled to worker rights, and Uber just keep appealing and appealing because they don't want to give their workers worker rights.

"So when the company are saying they're paying people above national minimum wage, when they're saying their drivers don't want worker rights, how come there have been huge court actions for the last three years and they keep appealing it?" he asked.

Farrar said that the Oxford study cited by Powers-Freeling is unclear on how working time is calculated and that it may exclude waiting time – which the judge in the IWGB's successful Employment Tribunal ruling said must be included in any minimum wage calculations. He noted that holiday pay allowance and National Insurance contributions are excluded as well, artificially inflating the results.

"Even if we take the Uber study at face value we find a substantial portion of the workforce earning below the legal minimum wage and suffering considerable stress on the job," he added.

On Powers-Freeling's claim that Uber pays parental leave as well as sick leave, Farrar dismissed this as "simply incorrect".

"Uber provides extremely limited insurance coverage for this, but the coverage is qualified and it has proven exceedingly difficult for drivers to claim against this coverage," he said. "The benefits are offered by Uber at their sole discretion while they continue to disobey UK law and deny drivers basic legal rights. Drivers want their rights under the law from Uber, including trade union recognition, protection from unfair dismissal and discrimination, not PR gimmicks and trinkets."

Rix at the GMB described Powers-Freeling's comments as "really outrageous" and that they were "fictitious as well". He highlighted the irony of the Uber UK chair's claims that the firm provides a social safety net while being a "huge avoider of taxation" and is "not contributing very much to the economy".

"Laurel Powers-Freeling's claims that Uber provides drivers with a social safety net while HMRC is investigating the firm for failure to pay VAT is deeply ironic," added Farrar. "Even in their own IPO filings Uber admits they could owe as much as £1 billion to the public Treasury. This shortfall in their fair contribution of tax denies many of us the access to the real public social safety nets like the NHS upon which we all rely."

Rix went on to talk about the efforts unions have taken to place pressure on Uber through the courts and regulators such as Transport for London.

"Yes, drivers want and appreciate the flexibility that jobs with Uber provide, but brutal and illegal exploitation is not the price they are willing to pay for it," Farrar added.

"The unfortunate thing about Uber is it will only move when it believes its share price is affected. Now that's not the behaviour of a modern, 21st-century company," said Rix.

An Uber spokeswoman said in response: "Drivers are at the heart of our service – we can’t succeed without them – and thousands of people come into work at Uber every day focused on how to make their experience better, on and off the road. Whether it’s being able to track your earnings or stronger insurance protections, we’ll continue working to improve the experience for and with drivers."