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Striking Uber drivers demand end to ‘racist’ facial recognition software

Union IWGB is calling for a 24-hour boycott of Uber in support of the drivers, who have staged a protest outside the company's London HQ.

Uber drivers and members of Union IWGB protest outside Uber HQ in London holding a banner saying "end unfair terminations stop ruining lives."

End unfair terminations, stop ruining lives. Image: Jake Thomas, IWGB

Striking Uber drivers are protesting outside the company’s London HQ to demand an end to facial recognition software can fail to identify dark skinned drivers.

The 24-hour strike comes after The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) filed a claim for indirect racial discrimination on behalf of a Black driver and union member whose account was terminated following a facial recognition error.

Drivers are calling for a fair, transparent process for terminating accounts and also want better pay fololwing Uber’s recent decision to take higher commission.

The facial recognition algorithm used by Uber is five times more likely to fail to identify Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) drivers.

“Facial recognition failure is just one of the reasons hundreds of Uber’s majority-BAME drivers and couriers are terminated and lose their livelihoods without any due process or evidence of alleged wrongdoing” the IWGB said.

MPs and Black Lives Matter UK are supporting the strike, demanding Uber end the use of the facial recognition technology and reinstate drivers who have been unfairly dismissed.

“We can only infer that Uber’s failure to address the issues with its facial recognition algorithm reflects a complete lack of care for Black people and their livelihoods,” said a BLMUK spokesperson.

“The algorithm that is used by Uber is five times more likely to fail in identifying dark skinned drivers. This has led to hundreds of unfair dismissals. The gig economy already creates immense precarity for Black key workers and it is now further exacerbated by this software.”

Nine out of 10 private hire drivers in London are Black or Black British, Asian or Asian British, or of mixed race, according to a recent survey by TfL.

Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP for Streatham, Apsana Begum MP for Poplar and Limehouse and  Zarah Sultana MP for Coventry South have all tweeted their support of the strikers. 

“Uber is a mega-corporation, worth billions of pounds with bosses earning fortunes. But the drivers are exploited, underpaid & unfairly deactivated… Show your solidarity by switching off the app for 24 hours,” wrote Sultana. 

The Uber Eats driver involved in the IWGB claim, Abiodun Ogunyemi, spoke to The Big Issue last month. He had an approval rating of 94 per cent and lost his job after the facial recognition software failed to recognise him.

The software, named the Real-Time ID system and made by Microsoft, triggered the company’s safeguarding protocols – which stops people other than drivers using an account – and terminated his profile.

At least 35 other drivers have had their registration with Uber terminated as a result of alleged mistakes with the software since the start of the pandemic, claims the IWGB.

An Uber spokesperson said: “Our Real-Time ID Check is designed to protect the safety and security of everyone who uses the Uber app by helping ensure the correct driver is behind the wheel.

“The system includes robust human review to make sure that this algorithm is not making decisions about someone’s livelihood in a vacuum, without oversight.” 

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