Fighting for Workers’ Right to Data

Interview with James Farrar, Founder of Worker Info Exchange.

by Open Society Foundations, May 27, 2019

James Farrar is the founder of Worker Info Exchange, an organization that campaigns for workers to be given access to data collected by their employers. Earlier this year, using the EU’s General Data Protection Regulations, James launched a landmark case against Uber in an attempt to force the company to release driver data. Recently, the Open Society Migration Initiative's Elizabeth Frantz spoke with Farrar about the case and digital rights.

How did you become interested in digital rights? 

I have been a lifelong activist and worked for a major software company for several years, so I was always on the hunt for disruptive innovation. I later went to work as an Uber driver and formed the first dedicated trade union for private-hire minicab drivers, a branch of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain.

What information have you requested from Uber, and why?

Under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) laws, you are entitled to fair processing of your data. So, in 2016, I made my first access request for personal data from Uber. I wanted to see what they held on me. The employment law courts had ruled we are entitled to worker rights protection for every hour logged on to the platform.

This means drivers are entitled to minimum wage protection on net earnings after costs and so it is vital that drivers have access to all platform data including detailed GPS records, trips, earnings, and management action. Uber has appealed this ruling, however, and hasn’t shared with us the full log-off/on times, so we can’t calculate any of this.

Are there any other ways that this lack of information can hurt Uber drivers?

Some drivers have been fired—by an automated decision—for cancelling or not accepting work, and they’ve been given no right of appeal. This is where workers rights and data rights intersect: when employee performance management decisions are based on information that employees cannot see or challenge. These kinds of crucial decisions have now been automated, which means they are being made, essentially, behind a digital curtain. 

There is a significant imbalance in information power between platform workers and companies like Uber and Deliveroo. What Worker Info Exchange aims to do is to redress the balance somewhat by putting the power of data back in the hands of workers. We can use the data to calculate owed back pay, holiday pay, and also better understand how drivers are being managed and allocated work. 

How have other cities tackled this challenge?

One important way in which access to GDPR can positively impact drivers’ rights is ensuring that drivers are being paid minimum wage. Uber’s competitive edge is a quick response time, and a swift response time is made possible by having an oversupply of drivers on a city’s streets. Set aside, if you can, the impact this has on the environment—an oversupply of cars congesting the streets of a city, waiting for customers—the fact is that Uber drivers don’t get paid for the time that they wait.

When Uber was required to hand over data to New York City, in 2018, it became clear that fully 85 percent of Uber’s drivers in New York were earning under the minimum wage and that 42 percent of their time on the app was nonrevenue earning, which means they were either waiting for a fare, or driving to reach a fare. New York City set a cap on the number of ride-hail drivers allowed to work the city’s streets. Drivers’ wages rose, and congestion was alleviated. A win-win.    

Can you imagine a version of Uber that is better for workers? Or is Uber’s business model too inherently flawed?

I’m not anti-Uber. This technology is fantastic, and I do believe in flexible work. But Uber says that it’s an open marketplace; well, I say, let’s let other people see the data so they can make informed decisions of their own about whether working for Uber is really in their best interest. I believe that, ultimately, if we bring transparency to Uber, society, the company, and its workers will all benefit. 

Should people boycott Uber?

I wouldn’t call for a boycott, for a very simple and practical reason: it would punish the workers. The answer, instead, is regulation—not a boycott. I would rather that people raise awareness and lobby their politicians for better regulations. I’d hope to see people tell these companies that, as customers, they want and expect that their drivers are treated fairly.

This article originally appeared on the Open Society Foundations website. It is part of an ongoing series presented in collaboration with the Open Society Foundations. In this series, we shed light on some of the most pressing global challenges and the work that is being done to address them. For more stories like this, go here.