Why being an Uber driver is one of the toughest jobs in South Africa

Gallo Images / The Times / Moeletsi Mabe

Why being an Uber driver is one of the toughest jobs in South Africa

Dangerous, thankless… lawless. Uber drivers in this country are effectively operating inside a warzone

Why being an Uber driver is one of the toughest jobs in South Africa

Gallo Images / The Times / Moeletsi Mabe

At the click of a few buttons, anyone with a basic modern phone can order an Uber via the app. It’s revolutionised the way we travel, and has become a wonderfully affordable alternative to problematic public transport.

(We have decided to include Uber’s right to reply to this article, in the interest of fairness and accountability. All comments are provided by Samantha Allenberg, Uber spokesperson.)

However, what’s good for the consumer isn’t so good for the worker. Driving for Uber is a tough, tough task, and they are overlooked by everyone: the public, the authorities, and even their own employers. Every time an Uber driver is going to work, they’re essentially taking their lives into their own hands.

  • “Uber does not employ any drivers nor own any vehicles. Drivers choose to drive with Uber for the flexibility and control they have. They choose when they drive, for how long, and can dictate their own schedule, day-to-day, week-to-week. Some drivers own their own transportation companies and they use the Uber app to connect their drivers with riders and grow their business. Many work full- or part-time at other jobs. We are always working hard to connect drivers to riders and increase their chances for profits.”

A rising tide has swelled against these drivers from those on the other side of the tracks. Metered taxi drivers cannot compete with Uber’s lower fares and consummate convenience, and it has lead to some increasingly violent confrontations towards these employees.

  • “Our research show that lower ETAs and fares amount to higher demand. And higher demand means driver-partners spend more of every hour moving people, less time waiting around and therefore get more money.”

Uber is an open, non-exclusive app – that means drivers can drive using Uber or any other tech app (even Metered Taxi) to increase their earnings

Drivers fight off petrol-bombs

We aren’t being dramatic when we say Uber drivers are risking their lives when they get behind the wheel. The app’s popularity has seen metered drivers – the traditional forms of taxi travel – outmuscled in the industry.

This has lead to something bigger than a backlash: There is a sustained campaign of violence against Uber’s motorists, largely conducted by those in the metered business. Scores of drivers are having their cars torched by petrol bomb attacks.

It isn’t limited to one city. This is a nationwide issue. Drivers in Cape Town, Pretoria, Johannesburg, and Sandton have all been left severely injured or lost their lives due to these ill-fated ‘revenge’ attacks.

  • “Uber is bringing thousands of economic opportunities to a country of high unemployment, and a safe, reliable, and affordable alternative form of transport for thousands of citizens of South Africa. These incidents in Johannesburg, while terrible, have been isolated to areas around the Gautrain Stations.”

Unforgiving hours are commonplace

Even if South Africa could guarantee the safety of every Uber driver from an attack by the metered community, it wouldn’t even come close to addressing the myriad of problems these workers face.

Speaking to numerous drivers across Cape Town, many admit to working shifts of 14-18 hours in a bid to make ends meet. That same group also confirmed the rates they are being paid per trip, with many stating 20-25% of their fare is deducted by Uber

Working in cities, a lot of trips are short: A R40 trip can take up to 30-45 minutes in heavy traffic. That’ll make a driver R30 – R32 in most circumstances. By time they can begin and complete another trip, an hour has passed, and they have barely made peanuts.

In order to make any semblance of a profit, these drivers are forced to work horrendously long hours. This is incredibly dangerous for both them and other motorists; driving requires the utmost concentration and focus, but if you’re 50-hours into a working week and it’s only a Wednesday, staying alert becomes an uphill battle.

  • “Our 25% service fee ensures the app is seamless. We have a standard service fee in all cities which is 25%. The cost of running the Uber app and business comes out of Uber’s service fee from each fare. Software engineers, public policy lobbyists, customer support teams, incident response teams, marketing, driver operations, CRM management – these are just some of the departments of Uber, all of which work day in and day out to ensure that the app and business works in the best possible way for drivers”

Uber drivers feel ‘disrespected’

Those who drive Uber cars aren’t necessarily frustrated with their line of work. From the drivers we spoke to, a majority enjoy the flexible working hours and the ability to be their own boss. In a sense, it can be quite entrepreneurial.

But the business has been accused of failing to treat its drivers with respect. When they announced a fare decrease back in 2016, they failed to compensate for the money South African workers would lose. The same cut of a smaller fare means that the drivers were losing out. This was reversed by April, but employees reported on a 20% loss of earnings in that time.

As published in FT.com, Uber are taking a bigger slice of profits from cars registered after 2016. Anyone registered before then only sees a 20% deduction, but anyone who came afterwards coughs up 25% of their fare. It’s a skewed vision of loyalty that doesn’t sit well with many.

  • “Uber offers upfront fares so there are no surprises. With upfront fares, all you have to do is enter your pick-up and drop-off locations, and this feature will show you the price for that trip. Upfront fares are calculated using the expected time and distance of the trip, traffic conditions, as well as the availability of driver-partners. This way, you can always decide what works for you and your budget.”

Wages aren’t in line with inflation

Petrol prices have gone up. Car prices have increased. General maintenance costs more than it used to. But our anonymous clutch of drivers are claiming that they haven’t had a wage increase for four years.

The rates have never changed for some, and therefore, have never adjusted to inflation. An Uber driver working now technically makes less than what they would have earned a few years ago.

It’s estimated two-thirds of the money these workers make goes towards the general upkeep of their vehicles. The only way round it is to work longer, more unforgiving hours in the hope of making a more respectable wage.

  • “Uber in-app message reminds drivers about the importance of rest and break periods. Sleep is the only proven way to prevent drowsy or fatigued driving, which makes awareness very important. That’s why we send in-app messages to remind partners about the importance of taking the time to rest or take a break. We are also working with advocacy groups to increase awareness and education.”

No certainty for any Uber driver

The truth is, Uber drivers are taking on one of the most demanding jobs in the country right now. Because of their low, outdated wages, drivers have to work brutal shifts, sacrificing their health and the safety of other road users.

Though steps are being taken to make life fairer to the drivers, their safety is still up in the air. We haven’t even mentioned the rampant threat of carjackings in SA, nor have we spoke about the daunting prospect of spending every waking hour as a customer service worker.

They need protection, and they need a great deal more help than what they are getting right now.

  • “Driver-partners are our customers too and we are committed to their safety and well-being. We recently announced Uber Rewards which is exclusive perks will help driver-partners reduce costs and reward them for the time they dedicate to driving using the app. These rewards are fuel rebates, cellphone deals, maintenance and health.”
  • “We always closely monitor driver-partner’s economics to ensure they make sense and drivers using our app continue to thrive. Prices are designed to encourage more riders, help increase trips for drivers, while ensuring the basic economics of drivers are sustainable.”
  • “Drivers choose to drive with Uber for the flexibility and control they have. They choose when they drive, for how long, and can dictate their own schedule, day-to-day, week-to-week.”
  • “We are engaging with all relevant stakeholders and are taking all of the necessary steps to ensure riders and drivers can enjoy a safe, hassle-free time travelling however they choose to get around South Africa. We applaud the police for their swift management of the situation last week on the R21 and R24. However we encourage law enforcement to keep doing more, and urge them to do more regular patrols of the Gautrain stations and areas where high levels of intimidation are reported.”