‘All ready to work’: Immigrant Uber and Lyft drivers create communities others envy



Three nights a week, Iraqi-born Uber driver Mohammed sleeps in his car in a parking lot in San Francisco’s Marina District, one of the only places he knows he won’t get a ticket.

Mohammed, 43, is not alone. He is often accompanied by two other Uber drivers, both Iraqis. In this parking lot, where burglaries are not uncommon and piercing North Pacific winds pass, the three cars point in the same direction like a small fortress against the night, allowing drivers to keep an eye on each other as they sleep.

The carpooling business can be “a very isolated job” according to Gabriel Cardenas, a campaign organizer Gig workers on the rise. For many drivers, who focus almost exclusively on their earnings, it’s an unimaginable luxury to socialize at work or even say hello to fellow drivers, even though they pass dozens of others every day. “I don’t know any pilot. Like, I don’t communicate with anyone,” said Rondu Gantt, an American-born driver who has driven for Uber, Lyft and DoorDash since 2018. “How am I going to get to know other drivers?

But immigrant drivers (who make up 56 percent San Francisco gig workers) sometimes have a slight advantage. Unlike US-born drivers, who often face the algorithm alone, they are able to do it as a community.

“They know each other because they’re an ethnic minority, they’re immigrants,” Gantt said, with a hint of envy. “It’s like that when people come here: they have integrated networks that are interested in their success, their support networks. They have a greater sense of urgency to help people they identify as from their country.

“Everyone to work!”

a message on the WeChat group of 495 Chinese drivers

“When I go out, I am alone.”

Ilja Miller, born in Ohio

Safety and the community in numbers

Take Mohammed, who landed in the United States in 2010 as a refugee. (He and several other immigrant drivers declined to give their last names, saying they had to protect their identities.) His home is 90 miles north of Sacramento, and to find a place for him and his car in San Francisco – which is supposed to offer taxi drivers the best rate per mile in the country – could cost as much as $90 to $120 per night. Sleeping in the parking lot is the most economical option.

At 11:30 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, the trio of Iraqis had just arrived in their “room” and had parked their cars. The three men were talking and laughing near their cars as other drivers silently entered the parking lot. From the reclined driver’s seat, which was his “bed”, Mohammed had recently seen homeless people fighting a few dozen meters away. Just after midnight, the trio returned to their respective cars to sleep.

Ukrainian-born driver Andrey tells similar stories about his small circle of fellow Lyft drivers, all Ukrainian men. “I don’t feel alone,” the 42-year-old said, waiting for new orders by the side of a road in Outer Sunset. “We can talk to each other around the corner when we have payment problems. Like if someone is a new driver, we can help. Sometimes when a buddy gets hit in a traffic accident, they might even call Andrey for a ride.

As the number of cultural groups grows, most activity may move online, but the underlying support remains. Nearly 500 Chinese-born drivers belong to a WeChat group under the name “SF Bay Area Warriors Mutual Help and Sharing Group”. His group proclaims: “To provide a service is not to be enslaved”. Group administrator Eric Zhang, who started driving Uber and Lyft eight years ago, says he started the group to provide the kind of information and support he lacked when he arrived in America.

New posts are posting day and night.

At 5:19 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, a driver texted in Chinese, “Go to work! Soon many voices were heard, with complaints about Uber not notifying destinations in advance, discussions about how to fix a glitch in the app, lucrative orders, a debate heated over whether to drive 20 minutes to Oakland International Airport and ferry passengers to Richmond. Many drivers have been looking forward to September, when colleges resume and demand for Lyft is expected to increase.

In between were dirty jokes, advice on the cheapest gas station, advertisements for other job opportunities and a debate about the FBI’s search for Donald Trump’s house. At 3 a.m., a driver shared a location in Oakland’s Chinatown. He had just gotten off work and asked if any other drivers who might be awake wanted to join him for a late-night snack.

An organized community can also be an advantage when it comes to work

According to Jason Munderloh, a volunteer organizer with Gig Workers Rising, sometimes strong ties between immigrant drivers lead to a higher level of organization when negotiating with platforms. “They have something that makes them organically connected,” he said, mentioning Los Deliveristas United, a New York collective of gig workers, mostly Latin American immigrants. They were impeccably organized at a labor conference Munderloh attended, he recalls. “They had a flow,” he said.

He attributes this in part to shared identity. Unlike other drivers, he said, immigrants are likely to feel “we’re all on the same side. They just know that they are not in competition. They know they have to rely on each other. They know it’s us against society.

Ilja Miller, a 31-year-old Lyft and Uber driver born in Ohio, does stretching exercises alone against the trunk of her car. Photo by William Jenkins. Taken June 23.

Munderloh, a 45-year-old San Francisco-born Lyft driver, doesn’t even have a small network. His only driver friend is Gantt, a gig worker/activist he met through their common cause. “I’m talking to Rondu, that’s who I’m talking to. Just us,” he said. “I see things in Rondu that I see in myself.”

While some drivers who are not part of the immigrant social network say they don’t care about deprivation, for black drivers like Gantt (who make up 12 percent of VTC drivers in San Francisco), this lack of community is a glaring absence. “It’s a different build,” he said. “In my country, there are people who don’t even treat me like it’s my country. It’s just a matter of power.

Cherri Murphy, spokesperson for Gig Workers Rising, says the sense of isolation instilled by the gig economy is demoralizing and unhealthy. “When you experience the kind of economic exploitation that you think only happens to you, by not having a network, there’s this frame in the mind that, ‘I’m the only one working long hours .I am the only one being discriminated against.I am the only one being disabled due to a lie.I am the only one having health factors such as weight gain,high stress and chronic pain due to the fact to sit in cars for long practice sessions. I’m the only one.'”

For drivers like the three Iraqi refugees, there is safety and community in parking together at night. But while the three men were relaxing together, a dozen parking spaces away, Ilja Miller, a 31-year-old Lyft and Uber driver born in Ohio, was doing stretching exercises alone against the trunk of his car. After sitting in a car for hours, he hoped to ease his back pain.

Miller had stopped in the parking lot to use the bathroom at a nearby store, but it was past midnight and no one had told him the market was already closed. Finishing his stretches, he went off alone into the night.

“When I go out, I’m alone,” he said.

Finishing his stretches, Miller leaves alone in the night. Photo by William Jenkins. Taken June 23.

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