Two unions have taken legal action against Uber, claiming that software used to verify drivers’ identity is racially biased, and the firm has unfairly dismissed drivers.

The unions say the Microsoft facial verification system used is worse at identifying people with darker skin.

The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) this week, backed an employment tribunal claim for indirect racial discrimination on behalf of one of its members whose account, it says, was terminated following a facial verification error. The IWGB is asking Uber to scrap the use of the technology.

It follows a decision by the App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU) earlier this year, to bring two employment tribunal cases against Uber.

In support of the aggrieved drivers, the Equality and Human Rights Commission told the BBC that, “a person’s race should not be a barrier to using technology in any part of their life, including for their livelihood.”-

“We are supporting the drivers in their cases against Uber as part of our work to challenge race discrimination, including the use of potentially discriminatory AI in automated decision making.”

Uber says it’s for the “safety and security of everyone who uses the Uber app by helping ensure the correct driver is behind the wheel”.

“The system includes robust human review to make sure that this algorithm is not making decisions about someone’s livelihood in a vacuum, without oversight”, the firm said.

It has said it is committed to fighting racism and championing equality.

 

Before starting work, a driver submits a selfie to Uber which it then checks for a match against the account photo in its records.

Uber says drivers can choose whether their selfie is checked by Microsoft software, or by humans.

The human review comes in, when the photo does not match automatically.

If the human review agrees there is not a match, the driver is “waitlisted” for 24 hours.

The next time a driver logs on, a further human review is carried out. If there is still no match then the driver’s account is deactivated. The affected drivers may appeal against the decision.

But Pa Edrissa Manjang, one of the two people supported by the ADCU to bring an action against Uber, found the fact that humans had not spotted that his selfies matched “mindboggling”, and questioned their professionalism.

“It’s hard to get that wrong”, he said, “but in my case they have got that wrong”.

The other person supported by the union to bring a tribunal case, Imran Javaid Raja, successfully contested Uber’s decision, but lost his private hire-license following his dismissal.

It took months to get his licence back: “It affected my wife, my son, my daughters, it affected my whole family.” he said.

 

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