Threatened at knife point, wages clawed back: Uber drivers decry working conditions after high-profile assault

Uber driver Aman Sood was the victim of a brutal attack in Abbotsford, B.C., in April. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC - image credit)
Uber driver Aman Sood was the victim of a brutal attack in Abbotsford, B.C., in April. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC - image credit)

Jackie Smith delivered food for Uber Eats nearly full time for three years, until the night when he was threatened at knife point.

The 29-year-old, who immigrated to Canada five years ago, was struggling to find parking in downtown Vancouver and sent the customer a text message asking if he could come down to the street to pick up his order. When the customer arrived, he brandished a knife in Smith's face, saying he would use it next time he didn't deliver his food directly to his unit.

"I was in shock. I didn't know what to say. I gave him the food, and I said, 'I'm sorry,'" said Smith. "I was just thinking to leave the scene as soon as possible."

Smith said he immediately reported the incident to Uber. He said a representative called the interaction "unfortunate" but didn't ask about his safety or well-being.

Smith said the incident ultimately led him to deactivate his account with the ride-hailing giant. He said the work, which started as a good way to make cash when the pandemic shut down many workspaces, has become more volatile, unpredictable and less lucrative.

Smith isn't alone in voicing his concern about the safety of workers employed as gig-economy contractors.

On April 18, Abbotsford Uber driver Aman Sood's dashcam captured footage of a brutal attack by a passenger, who punched him in the back of the neck and threw him to the ground outside the vehicle. Sood's injuries from the attack have left him unable to drive, which was his full-time job.

Police said they arrested 38-year-old William Tickle of Abbotsford on Thursday evening in connection with Sood's attack.

The B.C. Prosecution Service has approved charges of assault causing bodily harm and uttering threats. Tickle remains in custody on Friday, awaiting a court appearance later in the day.

Stories like Sood's and Smith's have become alarmingly regular and are bringing to the forefront the vulnerabilities of workers who depend on apps like Uber for their income, says Sussanne Skidmore, the president of the B.C. Federation of Labour.

"We're hearing that workers are feeling very unsafe in their jobs. We're hearing stories from women drivers who won't drive by themselves, and they'll only do food delivery and things like that because they don't feel safe," she said.

"At the end of the day, the company who is employing these workers has a responsibility to them to ensure they are safe."

Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press
Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press

Safety a main concern for app-based workers: report

There is little available data on how frequently workers in the gig economy face violence on the job. Police detachments do not collect data specific to app-based workers, and Doordash, Uber, Lyft, and SkipTheDishes did not respond to a CBC News request about the number of assaults reported by their workers in time for deadline.

But a September 2022 report from the B.C. Federation of Labour listed safety as a main concern for app-based workers, saying, "Workers may find they lack appropriate insurance to protect them in case of an injury or accident involving themselves, a customer, or a member of the public."

Under the Employment Standards Act in B.C., Uber drivers are considered contractors, meaning they have no guarantee of minimum wage, protection from termination without cause, or health and safety protections. Sood, for example, has no access to disability pay, despite becoming injured while working for Uber.

Smith said he also felt he had little recourse when it came to disputes over his wages. On one occasion, he worked an eight-hour day, earning around $150. The next day, he received an email from Uber saying it would be docking $50 from his pay because of a calculation error.

He also said drivers feel pressure to not talk back to aggressive customers because negative reviews can cause Uber to unilaterally cancel driver accounts, cutting off their income.

"You have to be such a nice guy. You can't say anything negative to a customer [...], or Uber will say, 'Oh, you didn't follow our guidelines."

Sood said that after being attacked, he immediately logged on to the Uber app to report the passenger, fearing the passenger would report him first.

Nature of contract-based work

The province recently conducted public consultations with gig workers across B.C. and says it's working to introduce improved protections.

Uber spokesperson Keerthana Rang said Uber hopes the government will set up industry standards for app-based workers, which could introduce benefits including occupational accident coverage. When asked why the company could not provide workers' compensation independently of government, Rang said it would detract from the nature of gig work.

"We can't introduce this ourselves because otherwise drivers would be considered employees, and this would take away the unique nature of app-based work, which is the flexibility."

But the B.C. Federation of Labour report found that "much of that 'flexibility' disappears under real-world conditions."

"Theoretically, they can choose when to work, but if a driver wants to make a profit, they need to drive evenings and weekends, when there is a concert or an event or when the weather is bad. Their schedule is significantly controlled by consumer demand and weather," the report found.

Smith said he believes drivers should have access to the same protections as other workers.

"They're spending their gas. They're spending their time. They're doing their best."