Auckland driver 'heartbroken' after Uber fires him for sexual remarks without the chance to clear his name

Toby has effectively been banned from working for Uber ever again.
Toby has effectively been banned from working for Uber ever again. Photo credit: Getty

"We value each and every driver who chooses to partner with Uber."

That's how a representative for the global ride-share company ended a message to Auckland driver Toby* last Friday, just before deactivating his account.

The move effectively bans him from ever working for Uber again.

His sudden dismissal - which came without warning and left him without the source of income he'd relied on for nearly five years - raises renewed questions over Uber's treatment of its drivers.

The reason for Toby's firing was simple: a passenger had reported him for "verbally abusive behaviour and sexually suggestive remarks" - a clear breach of Uber's community guidelines.

The only problem is Toby is adamant he never did what he's accused of, and says Uber has refused to give him the opportunity to clear his name.

Toby has a dashboard camera installed which captures video footage of the road and audio from within the car. He says the audio would absolve him of any wrongdoing - but Uber won't tell him when the alleged incident occurred, so he's unable to prove his innocence.

'What did I do?'

"It was totally heartbreaking," Toby told Newshub of the moment he learned his account had been terminated.

"How is that possible? I could turn against any customer and say he or she's been racist; it's word against word - they have to provide evidence. Did I touch the customer? Did I meet her outside of my job? Did I hug her? Did I kiss her?

"What did I do? There has to be an investigation."

Uber told Toby his account had been terminated for "verbally abusive behaviour and sexually suggestive remarks".
Uber told Toby his account had been terminated for "verbally abusive behaviour and sexually suggestive remarks". Photo credit: Getty

Toby says he has a marriage and a house, and would never do anything that would put them in jeopardy. He points to a cancellation rate of four out of every 100 trips and a star rating of 4.91 out of 5 as proof he goes to efforts to provide a good service.

He has no idea why he would've been reported for verbal abuse or sexual remarks.

"Normally I just have a conversation with my customer and say, 'hello, how are you and how has your day been?'" Toby explained.

"I know I didn't say anything [worthy of termination]. Maybe they took it in the wrong way, I don't know... Why would I touch somebody or abuse somebody or swear at somebody - for what reason? There's no point."

He suspects the complaint that caused Uber to fire him may have come from a customer he contacted to let her know she'd left her keys and purse in his car. Texting, calling or visiting a passenger after a trip is completed is prohibited under Uber's community guidelines - unless it's to return a lost item, which Toby said it was.

Uber's decision to drop him has left Toby scrambling for a steady income. Driving for the company had been his primary job for close to five years, the majority of which were spent in London before his move to New Zealand about a year ago.

He told Newshub he'd been making about $900 a week through the app, and would top this up by occasionally working for rival ride-share company DiDi. Now he's completely reliant on DiDi, and after three days using that app alone had made just $300.

Toby had also recently splashed out $13,000 and purchased insurance for a new Toyota Prius, which he says now feels like a waste. He still doesn't know how he'll scale back up to the money he was making before his dismissal.

We have responsibility to keep people safe - Uber

Newshub contacted Uber asking for the evidence that led to Toby's sacking, and for information on its protocol for dealing with allegations that may lead to drivers being dismissed

They wouldn't provide it, nor comment at all on the record about Toby being let go.

In a statement, a spokesperson said Uber had a "responsibility to help keep people safe and we take every incident report seriously".

"While no form of transportation is 100 percent free of incidents, we are committed to doing our part and promoting safe use of our app, tackling tough issues, and mitigating any incidents.

"Our community guidelines make it clear to both driver-partners and riders the behaviour that is expected of them when using the Uber app and how they can lose access. We work to inform driver-partners and riders about these standards and take action to hold them accountable for their behaviour."

There is good reason for Uber's promise to keep its users safe. Over the years there have been myriad news stories about passengers being raped, sexually assaulted and harassed, and concerns had been raised that the company hadn't been doing enough to protect them.

Toby has no problem with Uber taking complaints of this kind seriously, but is outraged the company has taken to deactivating his account so easily without giving him a chance to defend himself.

"When you are investigating something, you have to ask," he said.

"That's fine a customer reported that, but they could have contacted me for ... any evidence against this accusation. Then I could have said 'yes I have' or 'no, this is a false accusation' - not just block my account without letting me know.

"They just emailed me on the Uber app and said they'd received the accusation and are permanently blocking me without hearing my side."

He says dashcam footage from his car will prove his innocence, but he's been given no opportunity to use it because they won't tell him when the alleged incidents occurred.

"I don't know what the date requirements [are] so I can get it done," he said.

"First Uber needs to tell me 'OK, bring me from 17th of March or 13th of March' so I can go on the recording and check. Because otherwise I don't know who has or hasn't done it, and I can't check which customer it was."

Uber driver contracts are 'draconian' - lawyer

Employment lawyer Max Whitehead, the managing director of Whitehead Group Employment Solutions, said Toby has good reason to take legal action against Uber if what he claims is true.

"My advice to this employee, if they feel Uber didn't even listen to them, is that the rules of natural justice do apply in New Zealand," he told Newshub.

"The rules of natural justice are that if the employee has a reasonable right of expectation - which this Uber driver would, he'd expect to carry on doing his duties - and he was terminated unreasonably and they wouldn't give him a fair hearing, that's a breach of natural justice.

"And he could, in fact, seek legal intervention."

Whitehead says he recently read one of Uber's driver contracts and "my goodness, I will describe it as draconian".

"It is a one-way document which is purely for the benefit of Uber," he said.

Employment lawyer Max Whitehead says Uber driver contracts are "draconian".
Employment lawyer Max Whitehead says Uber driver contracts are "draconian". Photo credit: Whitehead Group

"One of the sections within [the contract] says that Uber or the driver can terminate at will given 30 days' notice, and there are other circumstances where it could be terminated without any notice for certain things, like bankruptcy or insolvency.

"There's another sub-clause … [which allows] Uber to restrict their access to any of their apps or anything at will. So it is very, very difficult."

New Zealand recognises Uber's drivers as contractors, which means they're not entitled to many of the basic rights of employment they would be if they were considered employees.

Uber's insistence on treating its drivers as contractors has come under scrutiny internationally and seen several jurisdictions successfully challenge it through the courts.

Last month, the UK Supreme Court ruled Uber drivers should be considered 'workers', meaning they are entitled to the minimum wage and holiday pay, and Whitehead anticipates New Zealand legislators could adopt it here, too.

"New Zealand law is based upon United Kingdom laws," he said.

"You'll find our Government is watching intently whatever legislation is passed over there, and we'll actually mimic them. So we're still following the Crown, we're still following our roots from the UK, right or wrong.

"I would be saying that if a high court got hold of this - and it's rumoured that decision may be appealed or another decision sought at a higher-level court in New Zealand - that [Uber drivers] could, in fact, argue they're employees."

That's cold comfort to Toby, though, who is now relegated to driving for New Zealand's lesser-used ride-share apps to earn a living.

He just wants Uber to investigate the allegations properly.

"We are struggling to pay our mortgage. This has added more stress on," he said.

"It is stressful because it is so easy for Uber to just do whatever they want to do, basically, without any investigating or a fair decision.

"If I had done it, I wouldn't really care about it, I would just feel sad. But when you haven't done anything, it breaks your heart."

*Toby is not his real name.