Three nights a week, Iraqi-born Uber driver Mohammed sleeps in his car at a parking lot in San Francisco’s Marina District, one of the only places he knows he won’t get a parking ticket.
Mohammed, 43, is not alone. He’s often flanked by two other Uber drivers, both from Iraq. In this parking lot, where break-ins are not uncommon and the piercing winds of the North Pacific whip by, the three cars point in the same direction, like a small fortress against the night, allowing the drivers to watch out for each other as they sleep.
The ride-hailing business can be “a very isolated job,” according to Gabriel Cardenas, an organizer with the campaign Gig Workers Rising. For many drivers, who focus nearly exclusively on their earnings, it’s an unimaginable luxury to build connections on the job, or even say hello to their fellow drivers, even if they cross paths with dozens of others each day. “I don’t know any drivers. Like, I communicate with no one,” said Rondu Gantt, an American-born driver who has driven for Uber, Lyft and DoorDash since 2018. “How am I gonna know other drivers?”
But immigrant drivers (who make up 56 percent of San Francisco’s gig workers) sometimes have a slight advantage. Unlike American-born drivers, who often face the algorithm alone, they are able to do so as a community.
“They know each other because they’re an ethnic minority, they’re immigrants,” said Gantt, with a trace of envy. “It’s like that when people come here: They have built-in networks that are interested in their success, their mutual help networks. They have a greater sense of urgency to help people who they identify as being from their country.”
Safety and community in numbers
Take Mohammed, who landed in the U.S. in 2010 as a refugee. (He and several other immigrant drivers declined to give their last names, saying they needed to be protective of their identities.) His home is 90 miles north, in Sacramento, and to find a place for both himself and his car in San Francisco, which is said to offer ride-hailing 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 “bedroom” and parked their cars. The three men talked and laughed near their cars as other drivers silently pulled into the lot. From the reclined driver’s seat, which was his “bed,” Mohammed had recently witnessed homeless men fighting a few dozen feet 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 of them men from Ukraine. “I don’t feel lonely,” said the 42-year-old, waiting for new orders on the side of a road in Outer Sunset. “We can talk to each other by the corner when we have problems with payment. Like if someone is a new driver we can help.” At times, when a buddy is struck in a traffic accident, he might even call Andrey for a ride.
As the numbers in any cultural group grow, most of the activity might shift 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.” Its group proclaims, “To provide service is not to be enslaved.” The group administrator, Eric Zhang, who started driving Uber and Lyft eight years ago, says he established the group to provide the sort of information and support he lacked when he first arrived in America.
New messages post day and night.
At 5:19 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, a driver texted in Chinese “All up for work!” Soon many voices chimed in, with complaints about Uber not providing advance notice of destinations, discussions on how to fix a glitch in the app, boasts about lucrative orders, a heated debate on whether it is wise to drive 20 minutes to Oakland International Airport and ferry some passengers to Richmond. Many of the drivers looked forward to September, when colleges will start again and the demand for Lyft is expected to grow.
In between, there were dirty jokes, tips about the cheapest gas station, advertisements for other job opportunities, and a debate over the FBI’s search of Donald Trump’s home. 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 in labor issues
Sometimes the strong bonds between immigrant ride-hailing drivers yields a higher level of organization when bargaining with the platforms, according to Jason Munderloh, a volunteer organizer with Gig Workers Rising. “They have something that makes them organically connected,” he said, mentioning Los Deliveristas Unidos, a New York City collective of gig workers, mostly immigrants from Latin America. They were impeccably organized at a labor conference that Munderloh attended, he recalled. “They had a flow,” he said.
He puts this partly down to the shared identity. Unlike some other drivers, he said, immigrants are likely to feel “that we’re all on the same side. They just know that they’re not competing. They know they need to rely on each other. They know it’s us versus the corporation.”
Munderloh, a 45-year-old Lyft driver who was born in San Francisco, lacks even a small network. His only driver friend is Gantt, a gig worker/activist whom he met through their shared cause. “I talk to Rondu, that’s who I talk to. Just us,” he said. “I see some things in Rondu that I see in myself.”
While some drivers who aren’t part of the immigrants’ social network say they don’t care about the deprivation, for Black drivers like Gantt (who make up 12 percent of ride-hailing drivers in San Francisco), this lack of community is a glaring absence. “It’s a different construct,” he said. “In my country, there are people who don’t even treat me like it’s my country. It’s just about power.”
Cherri Murphy, spokesperson for Gig Workers Rising, believes that the sense of isolation instilled by the gig economy is demoralizing and unhealthy. “When you are experiencing the type of economic exploitation you think is only happening to you, by having no network, there is this framing in one’s mind that, ‘I’m the only one that’s working long hours. I’m the only one that’s getting discriminated against. I’m the only one that’s deactivated because of a lie. I’m the only one that’s having health factors such as weight gain and high stress and chronic pain from sitting in cars for long workouts. 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 relaxed together, a dozen parking spaces away, Ilja Miller, a 37-year-old Lyft and Uber driver who was born in San Francisco, did stretching exercises alone against the trunk of his car. After sitting in a car for hours, he hoped to relieve his back pain.
Miller had pulled into the lot to use a nearby store bathroom, but it was past midnight and no one had told him the market had already closed. Finishing his stretches, he went off alone into the night.
“When I’m out, I’m by myself,” he said.