I’m an Uber driver who watched a young colleague die from coronavirus. Now I’m suing the government for failing to protect us
I was friends with Ayub Akthar, the Uber driver who lost his life to Covid-19, for years. We were fellow activists, meeting around the time of the formation of United Private Hire Drivers in 2015, when licensed private hire drivers became increasingly anxious by the treatment meted out to them by employers including Uber, Addison Lee, Transport for London and others. We went to countless driver meetings and demonstrations together – which usually ended up with a gang of us spending the evening at one of the all-night charcoal grills either in Kilburn, Hackney or Wood Green, where we’d talk for hours about putting the world to rights.
The world now is suddenly a very different place because of the coronavirus, and not just for me.
I last saw Ayub a few months ago, in Hackney, at a driver meeting. He was in good form and was looking forward to our upcoming battle against Uber at the Supreme Court in July this year. I am one of the listed drivers in that case. Ayub was always a great support for me and was excited about the potential badly need changes the case could bring about to improve the lives of drivers.
As fate would have it, we both became very ill with Covid-19 around the same time. Ayub told his family he believed he contracted the illness from a sick Uber passenger, and I believe the same thing happened to me. The disease is highly contagious and can be passed in droplets from your breath or from touching contaminated surfaces. It’s hard to avoid the virus in the confines of a small vehicle without some fairly determined precautionary action.
I eventually recovered from my illness, but sadly Ayub did not. In the early hours of 3 April, Ayub passed away while being cared for in the intensive care unit of St George’s hospital in Tooting. He was only 33 years old and should have had so much life ahead of him. There is a cruelty to the randomness of fatality. Ayub and I went down the same path at the same time. Why was I spared and he not?
Inevitably I have very mixed feelings about even going back to work for Uber – from fear, to anger, to guilt. For weeks Uber has promised its drivers it would provide sanitising gels, but has yet to distribute a single drop. It has closed its offices and driver service centres for safety, leaving us to serve to its customers and to fend for ourselves while it continues to profit from the risks we take just to work.
Regulatory guidance from the government for drivers like me has been confused and contradictory, at a time when we need clarity. The Department for Transport said we are not essential workers and should stay home. However, after lobbying by industry bosses, the Department for Health has judged that ours is an industry that should continue to operate without restriction.
Local licensing authorities such as Transport for London in turn have done little to do their part to address the risk of infection for drivers and passengers other than to ban passenger sharing services such as UberPool.
Meanwhile, the regulator in the Netherlands has introduced tough new Covid-19 safety rules for Uber, including the requirement of a 1.5 metre separation between the driver and passenger and where that is not possible a physical barrier such as a Perspex glass or plastic sheeting must be fitted in the car. There are requirements for vehicle sanitation and the use of personal protection equipment. Uber cars can only take on passenger at a time and there are separate, much stricter safety protocols for the transportation for at risk passengers.
Uber and Addison Lee have offered free and discounted travel to NHS staff. But without the implementation of strict safety standards, both drivers and frontline NHS staff are being placed at unnecessary risk. This is a consideration that seems to have escaped the health secretary Matt Hancock before he rushed to publicly thank Uber for its efforts on Twitter. I now see that the game of employment misclassification not only cheats drivers out of minimum wage and holiday pay, but it also leads to some employers abdicating responsibility for worker and customer safety.
That is why we have launched a CrowdJustice appeal and have begun emergency legal action to force the government to intervene. We must have minimum standards of personal protection equipment, separation and sanitation as well as strict operational safety protocols.
Abdurzak Hadi is the London chair of United Private Hire Drivers, the trade body for private cab drivers