An Uber Technologies Inc. car service driver uses a navigation app on his smartphone while driving (Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg)  

With Appeal Looming, Uber Wheels in Academics and Happy Drivers

(Bloomberg) -- With weeks to go until Uber Technologies Inc. heads to a London court to appeal a November decision about driver benefits, the ride-hailing firm is stepping up its public relations campaign with an academic approach.

The San Francisco-based company published a white paper Friday that draws from its own anonymized data, as well as a survey it commissioned from market-research firm Orb International, which concludes the majority of its drivers are happy, earning above the U.K. minimum wage, and didn’t sign up to the platform as a last resort. Instead, most drivers were attracted by the flexibility Uber offers them, it suggests.

Entitled “Uber Happy? Work and Well-being in the Gig Economy,” the 54-page deep dive was co-authored by University of Oxford fellows Thor Berger and economist Carl Benedikt Frey, and by Guy Levin, Uber’s public policy manager, and Santosh Rao Danda, one of its research scientists.

Uber is set to appeal a court ruling that its drivers should be entitled to benefits, including overtime and paid vacation. The court is expected to hear Uber’s arguments in October.

The company will be preparing for a tough battle: Top U.K. judges ruled in June that London-based Pimlico Plumbers Ltd. should’ve treated one of its tradesmen as a “worker,” giving him the right to vacation pay and to sue the company. And in May, taxi service Addison Lee Ltd. lost an appeal over whether drivers were independent contractors or employees with rights to benefits.

The paper said that most drivers believed that being able to choose their own hours was more important than paid vacation time or a guaranteed minimum wage. It also said that a growing share of workers valued being able to trade stability for flexibility. In a preface, the authors said that Uber was able to review the paper in order to "confirm that confidential information is being represented in a non-misleading fashion," but was not permitted to influence the findings.

The analysis estimated that the median driver earns about 11 pounds ($14.42) per hour while logged into the company’s app, after the deduction of Uber’s service fee and necessary expenses, which would place it above the London Living Wage of 10 pounds and 20 pence per hour.

Less flatteringly highlighted is the driver gender imbalance. “Similar to the general black cab and private hire vehicle driver workforce, the Uber driver pool has an extreme underrepresentation of women,” the authors conclude. “In contrast, immigrants are vastly overrepresented among Uber drivers.”

Tom Elvidge, Uber’s general manager for the U.K., said it was “encouraging” that drivers can make more than London’s Living Wage and keep “being their own boss.” But he also said that “we know there’s more to do,” and that Uber was introducing new policies to protect drivers who were injured or had to take time off for family reasons.

Uber Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi has taken effective strides to pivot his company’s public and governmental perception since taking over from his predecessor, Travis Kalanick. At the time, the ride-hailing company was dogged by scandals related to its male-dominated culture, the use of controversial software to bypass regulators and the concealment of an enormous data breach.

Since taking the job, Khosrowshahi has been on a charm offensive, which in June successfully helped win Uber a 15-month probationary license to keep operating in London after Transport for London -- the city’s transit authority -- concluded months earlier that it wasn’t “fit and proper" to hold an operator license.

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