Polish Uber’s travels

The first time I got into a car ordered through the application was on the 14th of March 2015. Since then I have taken 312 rides through the application. Unfortunately, I don’t remember anything from that first ride, but there are a few other rides that I remember perfectly

There was a time in my life, exactly three years ago, that I would end nearly every Warsaw party or social gathering, which tended to go on into the early hours of the morning, by telling someone about how Uber works. After giving exact instructions on how to use the application I would say: “You get in and you speed off. You don’t need to have cash on you. The bank and the application take care of everything. You just get a notification of how much they charged.” I had no personal interest in this. I did it, because I had really fallen in love with Uber, thanks to how much easier it had made my life. I wanted to praise it and help it make others’ lives easier as well.

A universal remedy

Ever since I can remember, I have found it difficult calling a taxi on the phone. I hated doing it, especially in the middle of the night, when it would be difficult to get through, and once I did, I would sometimes end up having to convince a stranger over the phone that the intersection at which I was currently standing did in fact really exist.

Uber had also won over my heart with its payment method; I no longer had to carry cash. Since I live on the outskirts of Warsaw, fifteen kilometers away from the city center, every weekend ride with a regular taxi company would cost me a small fortune. To top this off, the price could fluctuate by even 1/3 – it seemed to be dictated merely by the mood the driver might currently be in. I could never quite calculate what a reasonable rate for a kilometer might actually be or understand where one zone ended and the other began.

People who lived a similar distance from the center as me, but in neighborhoods still within the city limits, payed half of what I was being charged. This felt like a great and incomprehensible injustice.

It was also rarely nice. The vast majority of the drivers were glum and weren’t very talkative, they would listen to irritatingly loud music, and their cars had that specific stench of aged upholstery. They would make snide remarks about the distance, or my heavy baggage or the flowers I received for my birthday.

After these experiences, I was thrilled when I heard about Uber. It was like a cure for all my problems. It didn’t require calling any corporation’s headquarters or having any cash on me. It didn’t care about zones or city limits. The rates I had to pay went down significantly and didn’t depend on what day of the week it was. The impossible became possible. Finally, I felt I was paying a fair price.

The beautiful beginnings

It was the middle of the summer and the night was nearing its end. I was returning home from one of those hip places by the Wisła river, which I can’t quite tell apart. My driver looked like someone I could have met just a second ago at one of these spots. His car was new and well kept, and it smelled nice inside. The radio was playing, not too loudly, one of my favorite songs.

The driver worked in an advertisement agency as an art director, and, in his free time, he organized a small, yearly film festival outside of Warsaw. He explained that he drove Uber at night because he liked to meet people, and he liked when there was a lot going on. It relaxed him. He didn’t need to make extra money because he could afford everything. He treated Uber as a hobby.

We rode down a bypass road, off on the horizon the sun was slowly coming up illuminating the gray serpentines of the road.

“I’d drive down to the seaside, since we’re already on this road” I joked.

“So would I. Let’s go.” He said sounding fairly serious.

We sat in silence for a moment, as though both of us were contemplating actually doing this.

“I don’t think I can afford it.” I said finally.

“We could split the costs fifty-fifty, but I don’t think I could, I have some boring but important meeting tomorrow.”

A few minutes later, we drove up to my house and discussed life while the engine was still running. A week later I saw him with his friends at one of the Warsaw clubs. One of my first Uber drivers was someone from “my world”. He didn’t resemble the taxi drivers I had met up until then in any way. For the next two years, none of the drivers I met resembled those from my now fading memories of uncomfortable taxis. Uber really did bring into my life a new standard, not just because of its technical solutions but, most of all, for its “human” aspect. The drivers were usually about thirty; they were happy; they had something cool to say; they treated driving as side job. It gave them pleasure and was an extra source of income, which no one was forcing on them. They showed no signs of fatigue or anger.

Thanks to these experiences for a long time I believed that Uber had come close to my understanding of what “sharing economy” means. I trustingly accepted the whole package. I felt no need to further analyze the situation. Everything appeared to be clear, honest, and simple. So you have your own car, you have time, and you want to earn some extra money, then “drive when you want to and as much as you want to”* – as the slogan says on Uber’s main web page. Peer-to-peer. That’s the deal!

Business is business

After two calm years, individuals rooted in the old system started seeping in, trying to make money off of the work of others or fix some kind of side deal. I rode with a driver who, right after I closed the door, asked me what I did for a living. I told him that I’m a photographer and asked him the same question. He told me he had a printing business which due to too much competition recently wasn’t doing very well, so he started driving through Uber on nights. He would look for new clients this way, and since he seemed to meet so many interesting people he gave them his business card. He already had regular customers. He would regularly drive Agnieszka Holland and Paweł Pawlikowski, the creator of the Oscar winning “Ida”. He wanted to write a book about interesting people. He even hired a ghostwriter, who would do it for him. They would meet once a week and he would tell him about how the rides went.

“This book will be a hit. I’ll call it “Uber Life! Everyone I drive wants to be in it!” he said excitedly.

Next, I discovered drivers drawn in by the “dynamic price list”. They worked on the weekends for 12 hours a day. They would drive to the center from towns tens of kilometers away from Warsaw. They would sleep in their cars and drive out again. On Friday and Saturday nights, when there was the highest demand for drivers, the price would go up several fold usually, so it became profitable for them. Thanks to these rates one could earn in two days a pretty decent monthly salary.

Then came the companies that lent cars to drivers who didn’t have their own cars. Back in the first days of Uber’s activity in Poland, a driver had to meet strict requirements. Today, you can have a car produced in 1999 and still drive for Uber, in a nineteen-year-old car. To add to this, Uber requires that drivers be self-employed, so pretty soon companies that would deal with this problem started popping up. Companies offering the service of “joining a partner”.

Self-proclaimed Uber businessman put advertisements on the internet:

“Work for Uber without being self-employed, only 40 zlotys a week! We are a business offering complex cooperation with Uber, without the necessity of starting your own business. (…) This offer is for drivers who have their own car, or for those who would like to rent a vehicle from our fleet (this offer is only for active Uber drivers).

Working with us you get all the benefits of being an Uber driver – you drive when and how much you would like, you choose your own hours, there is no boss hanging over your head, and we transfer money to your account once a week.”

And a little more point-blank:

“We will hire you on a job order contract, take care of your taxes and pay your insurance. We are against “bamboozling”, everything we do is 100% in accordance with the current law, so you rest assured that you are not working ‘off the books’.”

The cost of “joining a partner” depends on the company and the range of services they provide. Looking through different websites and posts left by drivers on forums on recruitment sites, I noticed that their range is quite significant, sometimes tenfold. Additionally, once a week the partner will charge a provision of 30-45% of the driver’s income. Uber itself takes a 25% provision. Taking this into account, it is difficult to calculate the average salary a driver makes. There are many factors to be taken into account such as what kind of gasoline the driver might use, and does he have to pay for it on his own.

I’m not going to go into the controversies that Uber has sparked in many countries over the years, such as insisting it’s only role is of an intermediary between drivers and clients as opposed to that of employer. It has sparked similar controversies in Poland, and there have been proposals to limit Uber’s activity, though among neoliberal politicians this is unlikely to gain support.

The rise of animosities

One night, I got lost in a little-known neighborhood in Warsaw. I ordered an Uber. “Good evening!” I exclaimed getting into the car. Dark eyes merely blinked at me through the driver’s rearview mirror. I had seen similar eyes during my short visit in the UK. He was a young man from Iraq or maybe Pakistan. What was he doing out here in the middle of nowhere? We drove for quite a while in silence. I had the impression that he was afraid of me. He’d sometimes just glance at the mirror and then make sure we were going in the right direction, because he had never been here.

At some point, I asked him where he was from, and I saw him hesitate. He was from Iraq…. He had been living here six years. He quickly added that he doesn’t usually tell people this because their reactions tend to be quite varied, but he had a feeling that he could trust me.

Recently, he’s been afraid to leave his house because there isn’t a day that someone doesn’t insult him or give him a hard time. He didn’t like to take public transportation or walk on the street for this reason. If someone asked him where he was from he’d say “from far away”. He said this was all television’s fault and that the media aren’t aware that they are stirring up fear in people, feeding hatred, and raising racists. He said that Poland has changed a lot in these last few years.

This was one of the shades of hatred that I came to know thanks to Uber. The second wave of hatred came to me thanks to taxi drivers waging war on the application. I once met the head of such a gang.

It all happened in Łódz; I left the train station, and after hesitating for a moment whether or not to order an Uber, I decided on taking a taxi instead. In the car, I had to listen to a rant about Uber drivers – my driver had turned out to be the leader of the Taxi Drivers Union. When our ride came to an end he handed me a flier containing tons of false information defaming Uber drivers.

It didn’t take long for this hatred to spill out. Not much later in Warsaw and in other Polish cities, there were incidents of “Uber driver hunts” and “civil arrests”, which brought to light the truly shameful way the discussion on the legality of work tied to the application. The accusations made by the taxi drivers regarding their new competitors – such as not using a taxi license, cash register, or paying their VAT tax abroad – would have sounded more reasonable had they not reverted to violence. Facebook erupted with fan pages propagating hatred and encouraging “witch hunts”, and their followers boasted about their disgusting accomplishments.

Today, we can see that the taxi drivers couldn’t stop the changes being brought about by Uber, some corporations even created their own applications for ordering cars. But a certain driver who once came to pick me up, seems to be really making the most of this new reality. He drove up to my house in a taxi cab even though I ordered him on Uber. Noticing my bewilderment, he explained that he uses the application when he doesn’t currently have any rides commissioned from his taxi corporation because he doesn’t like to waste time.

The clash

It’s the middle of the day as I get off a train at the Dworzec Zachodni (Western Train Station). I order an Uber because I don’t feel like taking the bus with my heavy suitcase. A few minutes pass and a brand new shiny car rolls up. A young man sits behind the wheel, the “poet” or “pianist” type, complete with a swirl of curly hair, wearing a purple velvet shawl and a stretched out brown sweater. He sat in a seat with a cover made of interfacing, which of course caught my attention.

The driver was from Belarus and had recently come to Warsaw to study. We have a long and interesting conversation about the history and relationship between our countries; we exchange words which sounded similar and looked for those that sounded completely different. He has an incredible knowledge of history and memory for dates, dropping them with ease. He will be doing his Masters in Chemistry. I find out many fascinating things from him about a country that is so close, yet seems so far away. I ask him many questions, but I didn’t have the courage to ask him about the covers on the seats, which in my head has crime-film connotations. We arrived at my house, I wished him all the best and got out.

That was I think the only time, that I was certain, that I was riding a rental car, and I felt very uncomfortable in it, even despite the warm feelings that my driver evoked. This episode was one of the first times something didn’t feel right, so I decided to look into how indirect people could cooperate with Uber. I looked for information on the internet and found forums where drivers that were used by their partners would cry out a river, and a war waged between the “zloters” and the “uberers”. There were no discussions about anything except for money, every conversation revolved around it.

This seemed to correspond with what I saw on Uber’s official page. After reading their enticing blurb “Work with specialists from your field – people who care about your development and are eager to help” I clicked on the link that read “Meet people”, which lead me to a page which that said “Sorry, this page doesn’t exist. Over the years we have moved things, and this must have gotten lost in the process.” Indeed, something in Uber’s ideals based on the values of a “sharing economy” must have gotten lost somewhere. The application grew so intimidatingly fast, so much so that Uber seems to be living a life of its own, with the associated collection local problems.

After reading dozens of comments on forums, I am under the impression that there is no longer anyone in control of the process of choosing and employing drivers and that the beautiful ideals once boasted by Uber have crashed into reality and shattered.

Unprofessional “partners” are feeding off of the work of immigrants, offering them indecent conditions of work often not paying them their salaries. People work for 70 hours a week and have no real benefits from this, and sometimes (no idea why?) they even end up in debt towards their employers. It happens that dishonest partners pay them their monthly salary and suddenly inform them that they had been earning from three to six zlotys (0.80 – 1.70 USD) an hour.

Unfortunately, this problem most often affects economic immigrants from Ukraine, who, if one is to trust information from forums, make up now 80% of Polish Uber drivers. Amongst the people I have had the pleasure of riding with, there have been citizens of various countries, as well as retired people and those hard of hearing. As a matter of fact, the only issue that came to mind – when considering the question of diversity amongst the drivers – was the fact that throughout my three years of riding with Uber, I have been driven by only six women. Over three hundred rides and just six women. I tell myself that this is because of the late hours I usually order Uber. Maybe women for some reason don’t want to work at night. From conversations I’ve had with friends who often take daytime rides, I know that more women drive during those hours, though the scale still isn’t mind blowing.

I order Uber much less recently, but I sometimes still meet interesting personalities who are worth telling another story all together, although they treat Uber as an extra means of making money, contrary to what the creators of the application had in mind. One of them is Janusz, who drove Madonna.

Janusz embodies everything that could be considered a classic example of a positive image of a Warsaw taxi driver with principles – incredible stories, a con-artists twinkle in his eye, and bling on his finger. He’s seventy five years old already and is still searching for love. He drives Uber to earn some extra money on top of his retirement pension although he used to drive a cab. He is passionate about gambling, although we’d probably call that an addiction these days. He’s won a lot, and he’s also lost a lot – supposedly a million dollars in the casino in the Marriott.

I met him in June last year on a day when I was in a big hurry. He showed up and started the conversation himself, talking about the prices of land in the area in the 90s, then the subject changed to Lublin, from which I had just gotten back.

It turned out Janusz really loved visiting that part of country, recalling fond memories. “You know how much I drove there? I had this job, I drove Hassids there, I drove Cabalists. For years I’d drive them around Poland. From New York, from Israel, they’d come to visit graves of important Hassids. I got the job by accident. What happened was, a few days before Martial Law was enforced, I ended up in America and couldn’t go back home. So, I stayed until communism in Poland fell. During those years I worked in a grocery store in Greenpoint, I had many friends there. I also had friends in many casinos. When they learned I wanted to go back to Poland, they promised they’d get me a job here. I got back. I lost everything I had, and then the phone rang.

A friend who was a New York rabbi said, that he’s got a bunch of Jewish friends that need to be driven around. They pointed out where to go and I started driving them.” This sounded on the verge of unbelievable, so I asked him “Have you ever been to Leżajsk?” (because I kind of know Leżajsk). “Of course I’ve been to Leżajsk, I stayed at the Elimelech ohel!” He said and started describing how everything looks there. It turned out there are many places connected to Cabala in Poland, and at the end I found out that “You know what lady? I once drove Madonna, she sat right next to me, just as you’re sitting next to me right now! And the funny part is, that they had to explain to me, who she is. He called me, this guy Michael, and he says “Janusz! Madonna is coming!” And I say to him “Who?” “Madonna!” “Who the hell is she?”

Kamila Szuba – professional photographer, graduate of Polish Philology at University of Warsaw.

Translated by Maja Karina Rozbicka

Illustration: Kinga Limanowska / rzeczyobrazkowe

*note from translator: this is a translation of the Polish slogan. Uber may have used other slogans in different countries.