First driver to sue Uber in Brazil: “The algorithm is the new foreman”

Wagner Oliveira reports judicial battle in a book and launches YouTube channel to encourage colleagues to seek rights

Translated by: Julia Abdalla

Brasil de Fato | São Paulo |
Read about Wagner Oliveira’s saga to demonstrate the employment/labor relationship between drivers and companies like Uber - Reprodução / Youtube

“I am the first driver to be ousted from Uber in Brazil, and the first to file a legal suit against the company to have them recognize an employment relationship”. This is now the business card of Wagner Oliveira, who has been denouncing abuses from passengers' transportation applications for five years.  

In March 2021, Oliveira converted his saga against the US multinational into a book. In My battle against Uber (Minha batalha contra a Uber, in Brazilian Portuguese), the 60-year-old former driver reports his defeat in the legal courts and is relentless in his criticism of the company.

“Uber is nothing but a global criminal organization that commits crimes using algorithms”, he says.

“The algorithm replaces the company’s manager in watching the worker and the foreman of the plantations, who whipped enslaved people. It never sleeps. It is a machine, a computer function, and it surveils drivers ruthlessly, 24 hours a day”, he stresses.  

In technical jargon, the algorithm is a finite sequence of instructions or operations executed to solve a computational problem. 

In the case of driver applications, the algorithm gathers all the information made available by the driver and the passenger. It then uses it to define prices and itineraries, prioritize one worker over the other, establish punishments and rewards.

Oliveira's expulsion from the application was due to his display of behavior that Uber deemed inappropriate: he broke the rule that forbids talking to passengers during luxury services, which, according to the driver, the company found out by “spying on him".

Uber is nothing but a global criminal organization that commits crimes using algorithms

Ironically, Oliveira’s negative experience as an app driver paved the way for other work positions for him. Besides the book sales, he also makes a living off a YouTube channel, where he posts daily videos of the abuses by Uber and similar companies, and works as a consultant to drivers who intend to go after their rights in courts. “I have emboldened over 2 thousand drivers to file lawsuits against Uber and about 3 thousand to leave the platform”, he prides himself. “But unemployment is rampant and the worker sees a lifeline in the application when actually he is about to fall into a deeper hole”. 

The channel targets app drivers and has about 16.7 thousand subscribers. In his most-watched video this year, with over 25 thousand views, Oliveira comments on an interview with Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi about the Brazilian market. 

Do app drivers have employment relationships? 

With a Master’s degree and a Ph.D. in labor law, Adriana Calvos posits the debate about application workers in the context of a digital revolution that brought along the idea of collaborative economies. 

“A collaborative economy is a minimalist vision that suggests sharing goods as a way to reduce costs and improve services”, she explains. “Its initial goal was positive, but companies took it as an opportunity to create a new form of work, precarious and without regulation”. 

For Jorge Pinheiro Castelo, president of the Commission of Labor Rights of the São Paulo Chapter of the Brazilian Bar Association (OAB-SP) and full professor in the University of São Paulo (USP), the relations between the companies making transportation applications and the drivers working for them are clearly employment relationships. 

By presenting itself as a technology business, not a transportation one, Uber evades its obligation to provide adequate working conditions. “The operational costs are entirely on the driver. He has to rent the car, support its maintenance, and pay for gas, which is painfully overpriced. The platform doesn’t make only the 25% it establishes as profit margin, it also receives the data from the people involved in the service, now priceless”, the lawyer adds. 

However, lawyers disagree on whether the jobs with Uber and other similar applications can be understood as formal employment under the Brazilian Constitution and labor laws. 

Brazil is not the only country where the legislation did not accompany transformations in society. In North America and Europe, different solutions have been presented to ensure the rights of app workers. 

“The United Kingdom uses a third category, the parasubordinate worker, who is understood as neither fully employed nor completely autonomous”, illustrates Adriana Calvo. 

“From the perspective of American law, I look at the driver and think about what he or she isn’t: he is not the employer, not an entrepreneur, and not completely independent either”, she adds. 

“For that reason, I see the thesis of the third category in a positive light. It would result in something similar to what we have for commercial agents and port workers, who have specific rules and minimum rights”.

If there is any consensus among lawyers, it is that the current situation of precarious work with no rights is unacceptable. 

The other side 

Brasil de Fato has contacted Uber’s press office and reported all the complaints, criticisms, and questions placed by the former driver. The company did not respond to requests to comment before this publication’s deadline. 

The company informs users that a monitoring mechanism called U-Camera is available, but it needs both the driver’s and the passenger’s approval to be activated. 

Edited by: Leandro Melito