Wednesday 6 October 2021 12:00 pm

Uber strike over 'racist' facial recognition algorithm as case heads to tribunal

A union is taking legal action against Uber for what it claims is indirect racial discrimination.

The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWUGB) is taking Uber to court on behalf of one of its members who says their account was terminated because of a facial recognition algorithm used to identify drivers incorrectly mis-identified drivers and removed them from offering rides on the platform.

The claim, filed on 13 August, was made by IWUGB on behalf of an Uber driver who worked for the tech-giant from 2016 to 2021. The complainant, who wishes to remain anonymous, claims to have been logged out of his account when the facial recognition algorithm failed to recognise him and, despite attempts to contact Uber, never managed to be reinstated. London’s Central Employment Tribunal set a preliminary hearing date for 28 February 2022.

Wired reported Uber’s facial recognition software has a 20.8 per cent rate failure when it comes to darker-skinned female, while the percentage for darker-skinned males is six per cent . For white men, the percentage is zero.

The IWUGB, a trade union counting more than 4,500 members, has also announced a 24-hour boycott of Uber in solidarity with drivers who are currently protesting outside the tech giant’s City of London headquarters.

Protesters striking today want a fairer process for account terminations, especially since BAME drivers make up 95 per cent of Uber drivers in London.

“Uber’s continued use of a facial recognition algorithm that is ineffective on people of colour is discriminatory,” said the IWUGB general secretary Henry Chango Lopez. “Hundreds of drivers and couriers who served through the pandemic have lost their jobs without any due process or evidence of wrongdoing and this reflects the larger culture at Uber which treats its majority-BAME workers as disposable.”

When approached for comment, an Uber spokesperson said that drivers can get verified through the algorithm as well as by a team of human experts that review any decisions before removing a driver. They said: “Our Real-Time ID Check is designed to protect the safety and security of everyone who uses the app by ensuring the correct driver is using their account.”

The strike marks the beginning of a joint campaign by Black Lives Matter UK and the union to drop the racially discriminatory facial recognition, reinstate those drivers who were unfairly terminated and introduce the fair terminations’ process that last year was called for by a cross-party group of 60 MPs.

“The gig economy which already creates immense precarity for Black key workers is now further exacerbated by this software that prevents them from working at all, purely based on the colour of their skin,” said Black Lives Matter. “Racist practices such as these must come to an end.”