Uber is facing a lawsuit over claims that the facial recognition software it requires drivers to use locks out workers whose complexion is too dark for the application to recognize. The situation is reminiscent of an episode from the short-lived IT comedy, Better Off Ted, which featured a racist facial recognition system that was unable to detect darker-skinned individuals.
According to the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWUGB), which brought the action on behalf of an anonymous driver who claims to have been locked out so many times that their account was terminated by Uber, the facial recognition software Uber uses is “five times less likely to recognise darker-skin drivers, preventing them from signing on to work,” the Independent reported.
The union is also urging a boycott of Uber and is staging protests outside the company’s London headquarters.
Drivers contracted with Uber are required to scan their face using the company’s software at random intervals in order to access the system. If drivers do not sign in, their jobs are at risk of termination.
Speaking to the Independent, the president of the union, Alex Marshall, claimed that “the gig economy itself is racist. It exploits predominantly migrant and ethnic minority workers. The way it’s set is to systematically exploit these people and without fair processes in place, this just means that people were forced to accept really low pay and work in these conditions.”
“By legally challenging Uber then this is something that they can’t ignore and the idea is that this then blows the lid off the wider issue of unfair treatment,” claimed Marshall.
“If something like an algorithm isn’t working and is firing people for the colour of their skin, then what else isn’t working at Uber? Hopefully it can kick on whether it’s Uber, Deliveroo, is to target vulnerable, precarious workers, who are completely mistreated, chewed up and spat out at the click of a button,” he added.
The issue is reported to affect the vast majority of rideshare drivers in London, 95% of which are Black or belong to an ethnic minority, according to Wired. In March, Wired reported that the company’s facial identification software cost the workers their livelihoods.
The Independent reported that “one in five darker-skinned female faces and one in 20 darker-skinned men fail the algorithm.”
The publication reported:
The case, which could force Uber to scrap its facal recognition system, has been made possible by the right to protection from discrimination affirmed by a Supreme Court ruling that found Uber drivers are workers who are protected up equalities legislation.
The driver strike marks the start of a campaign by Black Lives Matter UK and the IWGB to demand Uber drop its controversial facial recognition algorithm, reinstate unfairly terminated drivers and couriers and introduce the fair terminations process called for last year by more than 70 MPs.
“We know that Black and minority ethnic people are overrepresented in these areas of work but especially so in these terminations, so the facial algorithm is very concerning,” said Labour MP Apsana Begum.
“I think everyone should log off their Uber apps if they’re passengers and show solidarity with drivers across London and beyond,” she added “It’s important to support strike actions such as this and, of course, this does have an impact in terms of the revenues and profits that the company makes - Uber London had profits in excess of £6million just last year.”
“We’re talking about super profits year-on-year but employees who are earning poverty wages and not getting their basic rights respected as employees,” said the Labour MP. “I completely support the cause for strike action.”