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‘Resigned defeat and furious defiance’ – an Uber driver speaks

The NZ Uber wars are heating up with calls for a crackdown on non-compliant operators as drivers begin to challenge the company’s criteria and pay rates. We talk to one driver leading the charge.

The NZ Transport Agency says the company’s revised rules, with drivers no longer requiring P-endorsed passenger licences or to undergo NZTA-stipulated vetting, means that “the new way they are operating is illegal”.

Christchurch Uber drivers have meanwhile staged a protest over a cut to earnings,  while concerns about changes to compliance rules and payment rates have prompted the formation of the New Zealand Uber Drivers’ Association. The Spinoff talks to the group’s chairman, part-time Uber driver Ben Wilson.

Taxi drivers protest against Uber in Budapest. Photo:

Taxi drivers protest against Uber in Budapest. Photo: Elekes Andor

The Spinoff:  Uber has refused to say whether they will reimburse drivers who are pinged for failing to have the P-licence. Is that their message to drivers?

Ben Wilson: They give no better message to drivers than they do in those interviews [see footnote], wherein they very cagily say they’ll support you in every way, and when pressed on in what way, they never answer.

Do you know of anyone who’s been through that experience?

I know of people who are facing charges at the moment, in the Association itself, and we’re trying to get hold of people, too, who we’d like to get to approach Uber to get an answer to the question of what they’re going to do about it, because they are going to have to pay fines and they have lost their licences to drive a passenger vehicle. They will never get one now.

So they haven’t said back to them, “Don’t worry, we’ll cover your costs”?

No. Not so bluntly. But, look, I don’t know for sure yet. We’re still trying to get hold of these people. Most of the people who have been pinged are the non-compliant drivers – and it’s much harder to attract them to join the Association. They’re very cagey about getting in touch with us.

Do you think those drivers who don’t have the P-licence have been sufficiently vetted to be drivers for the service?

No. No, they haven’t.

Why?

For starters, they haven’t passed a medical check at all. They haven’t been subjected to background checks overseas, and most of the drivers are from overseas – they’re foreigners, immigrants, who have only been here a while. Uber’s not checking any of their past, whereas I was required to get my background [documents], my Australian federal police record to them when I signed up [at the start of the year].

They don’t have to do the re-sit of the practical licence, which I had to do, to prove that you can actually drive to a driving examiner. They don’t have to do the P-endorsement course, in which all the laws of driving passengers are explained. They make sure you know them. You’re tested on them. They don’t even check whether they can speak English.

When did Uber change those rules around the requirements for drivers?

They announced it to us on April 21.

And what was the response from existing drivers?

They were furious. They were furious about both aspects – more so than the change to money. It’s our belief that they did the two at the same time so that the compliance would be lost in the noise. The two changes happening simultaneously would divide the opposition.

What was the change in money?

They cut the per-kilometre rate by 20% for all trips for drivers, so, potentially you had to drive 20% more to get the same earnings. Drivers were furious. That was how the Association formed, essentially around that issue, which is ongoing.

What would you say is the mood among drivers today?

The mood among compliant drivers is resigned defeat in some cases, and furious defiance in others. Essentially they’re not at all happy, if they’re trying to continue driving for Uber. But I’d say that the bulk of the compliant drivers are simply just not driving for Uber any more, because it’s not worth it.

But that’s because of the income issue?

The income and the compliance drop both affect it. For starters, your income is directly affected by not getting as much per ride. But you’re also affected by supply and demand. They have massively increased the supply of drivers, which they can do because the compliance barrier drops. They’ve signed up 1700 drivers, apparently, in the last two months. That’s double the driver base. Unless they’ve doubled the customer base, how can that not have cost us all a lot of money?

Do you think the authorities – the NZTA and the Police – have responded in the appropriate way to Uber?

A half-appropriate way. They should certainly be enforcing the law against non-compliant drivers, and that’s all they’re doing. They should also be enforcing the law against Uber directly. That would get to the source of the problem. It would probably save them a lot of money if they did it that way, because they wouldn’t have to pay for giant sting operations to catch all these drivers if they just catch it at the source. It’s like they’re going after the drug dealers selling off the corner, rather than the people importing it.

What would your advice be to someone who was thinking of becoming an Uber driver in Auckland today?

I would tell them to get compliant, in every way they can, first. They should research how much that will cost, do the numbers. And they should consider whether getting paid $10 an hour, after all of that, is worth it.

Listen to Guyon Espiner’s interview with Uber NZ’s Richard Menzies on RNZ Morning Report here:

 

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