Forget The New ABC Series, Here's The REAL Diary Of An Uber Driver

The ABC recently announced plans for a new six-part television drama called 'Diary of an Uber Driver'.

The mini-series is based on an online blog and subsequent book by Ben Phillips, a 30-ish Sydney man who began driving for Uber after his own small business went belly-up.

Funny and neurotic, Phillips relates strange encounters with customers, taxi drivers, police and others. The series will also draw on his own personal dramas -- including fears about becoming a father.

In short, it’s like Taxi Driver for the gig-economy: a chronicle of mini-dramas compiled by an angst-ridden driver, ferrying equally colourful passengers around the big, lonely city. There will surely be entertainment value in some of the scenarios, but the whole concept raises questions that the broadcaster and its viewers should ponder carefully.

For starters, why would the ABC explicitly name a TV series after a private global corporation? Uber is the best-known of the new breed of car-hire companies, but it has many competitors.

Moreover, conventional taxis are still a mainstay of urban transportation –- and taxi drivers surely have as many interesting stories as Phillips. But taxis are old-fashioned, while Uber is “cool”.

By explicitly naming its series after Uber, the ABC hopes to ride the coattails of Uber’s brand.  Unfortunately, it also provides profile and endorsement to a troubled and controversial American corporation -- one gearing up for a potential $120 billion (U.S.) stock offering.

Zahra Newman as “Beck” and Sam Cotton as “Ben” in ABC's 'Diary of an Uber Driver'. (Image: Tony Mott/ABC)

Let’s leave that ethical issue to the ABC’s directors. An even bigger concern is that the series will whitewash, even glamorise, a highly exploitative employment practice whose legitimacy and even legality is under siege in courtrooms and parliaments around the world. Uber has recently lost precedent-setting legal cases in France, Italy, the U.K., the U.S., and Canada. More challenges are in process elsewhere, including Australia.

READ MORE: Ridesharing Drivers Call For Fare Limits As Fatigue Hits Hard

READ MORE: NSW Taxi Drivers Join Forces To Sue Uber For Almost A Billion Dollars

Uber has been avoiding the risks, costs and responsibilities that come with directly employing drivers -- inconveniences like minimum wages, workers’ compensation, paid holidays, and more.

Drivers pay all vehicle costs (including depreciation, maintenance, tyres, petrol, phone and insurance). Uber controls all payments (through the app), deducting booking fees and a fat 27.5 percent commission; the driver is stuck with all other costs (including GST), hoping there’s enough left at the end to buy groceries.

Uber drivers protest outside the company's London headquarters during a 24-hour strike demanding employment rights, in October last year. (Image: Getty)

They can be fired if their app logs inadequate consumer ratings (through a 5-star system). Uber claims its drivers are “entrepreneurs,” not employees, but that fiction is crumbling in the face of multiple legal challenges.

READ MORE: Workers Left Underpaid And Without Rights In Australia's 'Gig Economy'

In practice, many Uber drivers make well under the minimum wage: my 2018 research  indicated average pay (after vehicle expenses) of $14.62 per hour across six Australian cities; other surveys suggest even less.

Taken for a ride? (Image: Getty)

Other issues faced by drivers include dismissal without severance or recourse; traffic fines (including for operating the Uber app while driving); unlimited competition (there’s no cap on how many drivers can sign on); and deadening, dangerous hours.  Little wonder studies have found 90 percent or more of Uber drivers quit their jobs within a year.

READ MORE: Uber Passengers With Bad Ratings Could Be Banned From The App

It’s hard to believe this feel-good drama will portray the ugly side of ride-share driving. Instead, working for Uber will come off as a humble but meaningful vocation: one where human interaction (rather than earning the minimum wage) is the main remuneration.

At a moment when the exploitative practices of Uber and other gig employers are finally receiving critical attention around the world, this smells like corporate propaganda, not high-quality drama.

An honest look at the Uber experience? (Image: Getty)

What is ride-share driving really like? Phillips’ stories hardly typify the hour-to-hour reality of most drivers. After all, he is selling books: who wants to read about monotonous hours waiting for another fare?

Let me suggest some entries for a more realistic diary (based on real observations and conversations with drivers)

5:25 am. Shower and quick breakfast. Uber says I can “work when I want.” So why am I up at 5? Because that’s when there’s customers.

6:10 am. Got one ride to the City, now deadheading back to suburb where the app says they need cars. 20 minutes of my time, plus petrol, down the tube.

7:38 am.  Been waiting 7 minutes for fare to come out of her house; I can charge her extra –but she’ll likely give me 2 stars instead of 5.

8:12 am.  Asshole office guy demands to get out at a traffic island. Totally illegal. If I refuse, I’ll lose stars.

8:35 am. Driving obnoxious kid and dad to school. Kid waving a stuffed animal out the window, dangerous and illegal. If I tell the dad to stop it, I’ll lose more stars.

9:20 am. Buy petrol.  Price up another 3 cents.  Apparently I operate an “independent” business, but I can’t raise my price when costs rise. In fact, I never even touch the money – it all goes through the app.

9:28 am. Go next door to Aldi’s to buy crate of bottled water, candies, and gum. $16. Customers expect these perks – and I gotta buy them, or lose my stars.

10:35 am. Been waiting 15 minutes without a fare. Waits that long cut my effective hourly wage by a third. Think I’ll go home and go back to sleep.

It's more comfortable than it looks. (Image: Getty)

3:20 pm. Back on the app. Deadhead back to the City for rush hour.

5:17 pm.  Waiting 3 minutes in no-stopping zone for guy who said he’d be right there.  Risking a big ticket.  Could move, would lose stars.

6:20 pm. Cop eyes me at traffic light as I accept next fare on the app.  I know it’s illegal, but it’s the only way to work it.  If he fines me ($484 and 4 demerits), that’s 3 days’ net pay. I’m lucky.

7:18 pm. Arrogant stockbroker gives me 2 stars, even though nothing went wrong. Why? Maybe it was the colour of my skin, not the quality of my service.

8:25 pm. Drunken kids demand I go through McDonald’s.  If I refuse, 2 stars for sure.  Car now smells like French fries.  They spilled coke on my carpet; another cleaning.  They give me 2 stars anyway.  I could give them 2 stars (as their rating), but it doesn’t matter.  The customer is always right, and they’ll always get a driver. I might not find another job.

Eau de maccas. (Image: Getty)

10:33 pm. More drunks, demanding to play their tunes through my sound system. Cranking it to the max. Stars at risk if I intervene.

1:18 am. Slow night, too many drivers out there. Getting very tired. Uber limits me to 18 hours work in any 24 (how strict), so I gotta sign off soon. I could then switch to Lyft and drive a few more hours. App sends rah-rah message that I am almost at $250 for the day, reachable with just a couple more fares.

1:52 am. Deadhead home.  App tells me I made $276 for 15 hours on-line. That’s before petrol ($60 today), vehicle costs, data charge, and the damn gum. I’m lucky if I keep half that.  Didn’t make the minimum wage today… what else is new?