On Monday, April 17, 2023, the Amalgamated Union of App-based Transport Workers of Nigeria (AUATWON)—the union for ride-hailing drivers threatened a million-man protest in response to Bolt and Uber’s move to revoke the new union’s licence. AUATWON was established this year after years of continuing friction between ride-hailing apps and drivers. A primary source of contention is driver earnings and the commission that the apps take. Many drivers argue that companies like Uber and Bolt refuse to reduce their commission—both companies charge 20% commission on each ride—and price wars have significantly decreased their earnings.
But the most recent fallout between the drivers and ride-hailing companies centres on Uber and Bolt are challenging the legality of the newly formed AUATWON. According to the union’s secretary general, Comrade Ibrahim Ayoade, “Uber and Bolt wrote to the Ministry of Labour to withdraw our certificate because they didn’t employ us therefore we don’t have a right to form a union. They are crossing their boundary. They are playing with fire this time. And very soon we shall lead a million-man protest against them.”
In a statement to Technext, Uber admits that it wrote to the Registrar of Trade Unions at the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment but insists that its letter does not “close the door on dialogue” but seeks to clarify “incorrect claims that drivers are employees, not independent contractors.”
Uber and Bolt’s letter to the Ministry of Labour will highlight a legal question that both companies have across the countries they operate: are drivers full-time employees or independent contractors? Both companies have argued in US and UK courts that their drivers are independent contractors, not employees. This distinction is important because in the US, for instance, independent contractors cannot form unions or bargain collectively. In Africa, there have been a string of lawsuits against Uber in Kenya and South Africa, with drivers contesting the independent contractor status the ride-hailing company has ascribed to them. In Nigeria, the ride-hailing drivers finally scored a major victory in January 2023.
AUATWON’s legality will be contested
The Nigerian Trade Unions Act grants AUATWON legal authority to participate in making decisions about the working conditions of ride-hailing drivers. Despite the Trade Unions Act, Uber and Bolt’s letter to the Ministry of labour suggest that AUATWON’s legality will be questioned.
According to Ayomide Ogunsanwo, a legal practitioner, “If the Nigerian Trade Unions Act (which is an overriding law backed by the Nigerian Labour law) empowers the union to have a say in determining the terms and conditions of drivers, there is nothing Uber and Bolt can do about it.” According to Ogunsanwo, Bolt and Uber should engage in dialogue with the union rather than resorting to license revocation threats.
On December 4, 2018, the National Industrial Court (NIC), Lagos division, delivered a landmark judgment in Suit NO. NICN/LA/546/2017 between Oladapo Olatunji & Daniel John v Uber Technologies System Nigeria Ltd & Taxify Technology Nigeria Limited. The Plaintiffs, Olatunji and Daniel, sought declaratory reliefs and urged the court to hold that they were employees of the Defendants, Uber and Taxify (now Bolt) and not independent contractors.
The court dismissed the Plaintiffs’ claim because they failed to provide sufficient evidence to demonstrate an employment relationship between the parties (Taxify and Uber). However, the court did not also pronounce that the Plaintiffs were independent contractors.
Following the court judgment, the drivers filed an appeal which is yet to be determined. Even though the court is yet to clarify the position of the drivers, if Uber or Bolt file a suit, the court may be forced to make a ruling. Ibitayo Reju, a Senior Counsel at Dentons Acas Law, told TechCabal, “Although the court is yet to ascertain the position of the Nigerian drivers, if Uber and Taxify had filed a counterclaim and asked the court to pronounce that they were independent contractors, the court would have been constrained to take a position.”
Ibitayo expressed optimism in the Nigerian Court of Appeal making a pronouncement as to whether the Plaintiffs are indeed employees of Uber and Bolt or independent contractors. “Given the decision of the NIC in this matter, I hope that the Court of Appeal will invoke its statutory powers under section 22 of the Court of Appeal Act and emphatically make a pronouncement as to whether the Plaintiffs are indeed employees of the Defendant or independent contractors,” he concluded.