A special coronavirus fund set up by Uber to help workers affected by the global pandemic paid a Brussels courier just €67.64 for 11 days of lost wages when he was forced to quarantine after his wife tested positive for Covid-19.
The courier, David L., said he initially thought the sum might have been a per diem, but then learned it was the total amount for all 11 days in which he was legally required to remain in quarantine.
David spoke with The Brussels Times on condition his surname was not used in publication, out of concern that Uber might retaliate by closing his account.
“I was taken aback,” David said. “It was the end of the month, I was due to pay the rent. It was really crazy to go through all this.”
The amount of aid, which comes to just over €6 a day, didn’t come close to replacing the income David lost from being unable to work.
David earned just over €900 in the month before he was forced to quarantine. He says this amount is typical for him, with weekdays averaging between €50-60 a day and Fridays and weekends – when people are more inclined to order takeout – bringing in higher returns, between €70-80 a day. UberEats is his only source of income.
He was able to make the rent for the month, but only because his wife covered his share. She kept working while battling the coronavirus, because they couldn’t afford to lose both incomes for 11 days and she was able to do her job from home.
Uber temporarily locks the accounts of drivers or couriers who report that they’ve been ordered to quarantine, which is required for claiming financial assistance. This is done as a safety measure to help limit the spread of Covid-19, so that drivers or couriers don’t continue working after contracting the virus or being exposed to someone who has.
“Since I got my account reactivated again, I’m just trying to work as much as I can, doing extra work to make up for all these days that I lost, where I couldn’t get an income,” said David.
The €67.64 in financial assistance from Uber made almost no difference in terms of their finances.
“They don’t care,” David said of Uber. “They just say, here you go, have this 67 euros and do whatever you want.”
An Uber spokesperson asked to comment told The Brussels Times that “the disruption and uncertainty caused by the coronavirus is being felt by everyone around the world.”
“We know it’s especially concerning for people who drive and deliver with Uber. In these difficult times, their well-being is at the top of our minds, and we have rolled out various measures to support them with staying on the road and staying healthy.”
Uber set up its financial assistance program back in March of 2020 to help workers who are required to quarantine because either they or someone they were in contact with contracted the coronavirus.
The coronavirus aid initiative is separate from Uber’s Partner Protection Program, which is general insurance that contractors automatically receive through a private company called Axa. One of the world’s biggest insurance companies, Axa reported a turnover of €3.1 billion in 2019.
The separate Covid-19 financial assistance that Uber offers includes up to two weeks of financial support, which is calculated based on the average earnings in the 90-day period prior to self-isolation. Because Uber is a gig-work platform, couriers and drivers who use it often have highly variable monthly incomes.
Martin Willems, union secretary for United Freelancers, says Uber’s work model is deceptive and its insurance offerings are little more than window dressings designed to placate inquisitive media.
“Uber argues that the model of ‘self-employment’ is the best one to answer the quest for flexibility of the couriers, but that they combine this inherent ‘flexibility’ with added security from the insurances they subscribe to [in order] to cover the couriers,” Willems said.
“Here we see how deceitful those insurances are – contrary to the insurances whose coverage is defined by law (applicable to salary-workers), Uber decides here the level of coverage. In this actual example, we see that this insurance is little more than a ‘communication/advertising’ tool, rather than real security for the worker.”
Willems leveled similar charges against gig-work platform Deliveroo, saying that the company put insurances in place just to be able to respond to public opinion and journalists, and that in reality the insurance doesn’t provide substantial coverage.
“It is impossible for couriers to verify how the allowance is calculated and contest, because the rules are not transparent and discretionary,” Willems said of the Uber coronavirus aid initiative.
Uber argues that its couriers and drivers are mainly using the platform for supplementary income, or even deliberately keeping their earnings under the €6,000 tax threshold in Belgium, which Willems says isn’t the case.
“When Uber and other platforms say ‘this job is only complementary, it was never the purpose to make a living on it,’ we answer that Uber does nothing to prevent couriers from relying on it,” said Willems.
“On the contrary, they need dedicated and available couriers to run their business.”
Indeed, Uber’s CEO recently said he’s “not happy” with the long pickup times and high prices for fares in the U.S., which are turning many riders away from the app and are the result of a driver shortage there.
After the shockingly low amount of financial support he received from Uber, David turned to groups for UberEats couriers on social media and discovered others with similar experiences.
“I tried reaching out on Facebook groups, but some people are really scared to talk about such stuff,” David explained. “They don’t want their names or anything mentioned in anything like this because they don’t want to get their accounts blocked and lose it all.”
“Expats and foreigners live in Brussels and a lot of times when there’s a problem they post it [on Facebook groups], discuss it, but don’t want it to go beyond there.”
As for David, he’s looking for alternatives to employment with the American corporation, which has consistently come under fire in Belgium for its business model.
Uber’s drivers and couriers do not work directly for the company as employees, but are instead classified as self-employed contractors, a designation that affects taxation, working hours, and overtime benefits, which opponents say is out of step with progressive European employment practices.
Uber, whose 2020 Annual Report boasted a 64.57% return for its stockholders, has been taken to court a number of times in multiple countries over its treatment of couriers and drivers, who Uber clarified are “not workers, but independent operators.”
A 2019 lawsuit in the US ordered the company to pay US$650 million in overdue unemployment and disability insurance taxes.
A recent landmark Supreme Court ruling in the UK gave Uber drivers there more social rights – a verdict that doesn’t apply to UberEats couriers, and one that Uber spent five years opposing and trying to repeal.
“I’m continuing to do it, but at the same time I’m definitely looking for something else – maybe a restaurant or wherever, to have some stable sort of contract, to be called an employee,” said David.
With the reopening of the terraces, he expects the amount of money he earns from UberEats to fall.
“As the weather gets better, with less Covid restrictions, there are less and less people ordering because they prefer to just go to a terrace,” said David.
“Since they opened the terraces in May, it’s gone down a lot. It’s not like it used to be before, in February, January, December, or these past months when everyone was just stuck at home.”