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Showing up to work on a Wednesday night recently, ready to earn some money, carpool driver Alice had a shock: she was suspended by a robot.
The application which is in fact her boss had dismissed her.
And it’s all because of a system glitch that has affected many other drivers in New Zealand as well.
“The security bot was on a rampage and sent me about 30 warnings and threats, then ultimately suspended me,” says Alice, who did not want her last name used.
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Alice spoke to Things‘s new podcast, True Story, for its first episode, My Boss is a Robot.
The episode details the experiences of rideshare drivers for Uber, Ola and Zoomy, whose lives rely on an almost entirely automated system through the apps they use.
When using Uber, for example, drivers start each shift by logging into the app which then gives them details of rides, tells them where to go, is the system by which they are paid and whereby they have to complain if there is a problem.
Alice’s “robo-suspension” in October came from the Ola platform. A fatigue management system designed to prevent drivers from working too long began randomly forcing drivers to stop, even if they had not accrued excessive hours.
“The software is supposed to time drivers after 13 hours of work,” Alice told True Story. “But it doesn’t seem to be able to do any basic additions…putting me offline six hours into my shift. The software also blocks drivers from accessing phone support, automatically rejecting their calls and indicating that they are on a forced break.
Alice says when she later contacted a call center operator, she was told the problem was with the system and it was affecting other drivers as well.
“Ola’s rep said to me, ‘it’s not on our side, it’s the fatigue management system doing the deactivations,'” Alice explains.
Being prevented from working was very disruptive and costly, she says.
“Some drivers only have a limited time to do their daily bread, so they will be deprived of the day’s pay, and some will be forced to work much later or earlier than their usual shift. I would have had to work all night until 6 am to make up for the hours, but I preferred to give up half a day’s wages.
The problem – which had happened at least once before, in 2021 – was eventually resolved and Alice was able to resume driving. True Story approached Ola for comment, but he did not respond.
The frustration of having a faulty software system that keeps you from working is typical of the problems drivers say they experience when they have a robot as their boss.
“It’s disturbing and scary,” Alice said.
Uber has had a separate battle on its hands since last month after four of its drivers were declared employees.
“There is also a lingering effect. Every time that happens, it’s worse and scarier. I feel incredulous that in New Zealand at this time we actually have a robot with such control over my life.
A former Uber driver, Julian Ang, told True Story that when he started driving in Wellington in 2016, the company had a physical presence, including drop-off sites called “green light hubs”. . But the hubs ended up closing.
“So whatever kind of human-to-human contact we used to have, it was all down to ‘you have to register that through the app’.”
Ang was a party to an employment tribunal case in which four Uber drivers sought to be declared employees rather than contractors. Labor Court Chief Justice Christina Inglis ruled in favor of the drivers last month, but Uber said it would appeal.
Ang told True Story that one of the reasons he was drawn to being a rideshare driver was the lure of being his own boss. But he says over time he realized that wasn’t true: The terms were still dictated by Uber’s requirements.
“Sometimes you could connect [to the app] and there might be a change in your terms and conditions and you just have to accept it if you want to continue driving on the platform.
“Otherwise it’s like, ‘well, get the hell out of here, get another job’.
“We, as so-called driver partners, had no say.”
Nureddin Abdurahman, a part-time Uber driver who was also a party to the lawsuit, says he hated the fact that he basically had a robot as his boss.
“If there’s trouble, I think it’s my boss,” Abdurahman says. “If there was evil that got Adam kicked out of heaven, it was my boss. I really hate that.
However, he says he is like many drivers who rely on platforms to make money.
True Story approached Uber for comment. A spokesman in Sydney said the company was committed to improving conditions for drivers.
“Gig workers play an important role in our communities and our economy,” the spokesperson said. “We want to improve the quality of on-demand work while preserving the flexibility and autonomy that on-demand workers tell us they value. We are committed to industry-wide reform.
True Story is a new topical podcast from Adam Dudding and Eugene Bingham, the creators of Things’hit podcast, The Commune. Each episode of the first season features a different story and will be released weekly for the next six weeks across all podcast platforms.