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African ride-hailing unions ineffective

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By Abraham Adekunle

Union reps say strike efforts failed as they struggle for traction.

Nigerian Uber driver Ibrahim Ayoade co-founded Africa’s first gig drivers’ union in 2016. This is the Amalgamated Union of App-based Transporters of Nigeria. He has since advocated for the rights of drivers who work with ride-hailing apps like Bolt, Uber, and inDrive. He has utilized different means from sharing their grievances on social media to organising strikes and rallies to draw the government’s attention. Through WhatsApp and Telegram groups, Ayoade has gathered and mobilized hundreds of gig drivers in the country. However, he believes there has been minimal improvement in the lives of those he represents.

He told the media that ride-hailing drivers have gone through years of struggle as African drivers and have organised ourselves dating back to 2016. But as ride-hailing unions and organisations in Africa, he said that they are struggling to gain momentum. Ayoade said that the industry is taken for granted because the drivers do not have the capacity to fight the capitalist companies they work for. According to him, gig drivers in major African countries continue to make little money, there are few regulations in place to safeguard their interests, and security measures against crime are still missing.

These unions lack capacity to fight ridesharing companies.

Most large African countries have unions representing their gig drivers. These include the Ghana Online Drivers Union, South Africa’s E-hailing Partners Council, the Transport Workers Union and the Ride-hailing Transport Association in Kenya, and Tanzania’s Communication and Transport Workers Unions. In 2023 alone, driver unions in at least two African countries (South Africa and Nigeria) went on strikes, protesting low pay, substandard work conditions, lack of government support, and the high commission fees charged by the ride-hailing platforms. There were several similar protests in 2022, but these unions have failed to replicate the kind of success their counterparts in countries like the US, the UK, New Zealand, and Germany have seen.

Shane Choshane, a researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg), who has consulted with the International Transport Workers’ Federation, told the media that in the Global North — for example, in Germany — there is no Uber there because it was regulated. The company was banned in Germany following pushback from native companies and regulators. “Currently, African unions do not have the capacity to take on companies like that. They are still far away,” he said. Representatives of driver unions in Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, and Ghana said that their members’ working conditions have worsened over the years. They said that drivers are now frustrated because multiple negotiations with ride-hailing companies have failed to make a difference, and their governments are also not doing enough.

Many have criticized labour practices of these companies.

In South Africa, the E-hailing Partners Council has blamed the Department of Transport for failing to support the ride-hailing industry. It has also struggled to formalize itself as a union, citing a lack of support from the government. “We need full support from the government in our country because, as an organisation, we cannot deal with the battle against ride-hailing companies alone,” Nomagugu Damba, the council’s deputy chairperson, said. “Uber and Bolt have been engaging with government officials, but nothing is changing because our government is doing nothing for us as drivers.” In an emailed statement, Lorraine Onduru, Uber’s head of communications for East and West Africa, said the company has engaged with drivers in South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya in the past year.

Uber’s labour practices have been criticized in many countries. In some cases, the company has faced government action. In 2021, the UK High Court ruled that the company’s business model was unlawful because it employed drivers as contractors instead of making them employees. The same happened in New Zealand in 2022 when a group of drivers won a court case that required Uber to identify them as employees, not as contractors. In Africa, the company saw government pushback in Tanzania. In 2022, it suspended operations in Tanzania after being asked to follow a “fare guide” that doubled per-kilometer rates for ride-hailing companies due to increasing fuel prices. But in January, it resumed operations in the country “after engaging with the government,” Onduru said. Ride-hailing unions in Tanzania have raised concerns that the government is backtracking on previous regulations and leaving drivers out in the cold.

No point in joining a union, some drivers say.

Meanwhile, some drivers in Nigeria do not even see the need to join a union anymore. For instance, Oluwaseyi Abiodun Shokoya, an Uber driver from Abuja, said that he reached out to Ayoade’s union to resolve an issue with his car after it was impounded by Uber’s vehicle financing partner, Moove, earlier in 2023. But the organisation was unable to help him in any way. “I do not see the point of joining a union because they never helped me when I lost my car,” Shokoya said. “There are some things which unions cannot do, and some drivers here in Nigeria lack trust in unions.”

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