Mohamed Yusuf has tried his hand at many things. He has been a graphic designer, a delivery driver, a retail manager for Poundland and Superdrug, and a driving instructor. But since 2015, he has driven with Uber – and he has “never looked back”.
“The key is the fact that I can start when I want and finish when I want,” says the 44-year-old from east London. “If that changed, I would leave and look for something else.”
In 2008, when he was a newlywed, Yusuf left retail and became a driving instructor. His wife was working full-time as an A&E nurse and, because they wanted to start a family, he says “one of us had to get a job that was a bit flexible, and that was me”. Yusuf thought being a driving instructor would give him the control he sought, but, he realised he “wasn’t actually choosing the hours or the days – it was all down to the students. I was teaching most evenings and most weekends.
“One evening,” he recalls, “I was actually moaning to one of my friends, saying ‘oh, I’m not making enough money’. And then they were like, ‘well, I’ve started with this company, Uber. You like driving – why don’t you give them a try?’”
Being able to work exactly when he wants is vital for the father of five, the youngest of whom is nearly two, but what also appealed was the reliability of his earnings. “It doesn’t matter what three days or four days I work,” he says because, in his view, “the money is consistent as long as you put in a shift.”
Yusuf varies his working hours to fit with the requirements of being a dad. Some days he starts at 4am, getting into his Tesla Model 3 and making sure the mats are dusted, the tyres are OK and the windshield fluid is filled up. He picks up passengers for three or four hours before taking a break. After another three or four hours behind the wheel, he breaks for the school run. Sometimes he flips things around, starting at 6pm and working through the night. Since the pandemic, he has done more nights, he says.
One thing he is less keen on is the randomness inherent to driving with Uber. Yusuf never knows who he is going to pick up, but then again, interesting passengers can be a perk of the job, too.
“Everybody has a story and most people are quite talkative,” he says. Once, he recalls, he drove footballer Faiq Bolkiah from Chelsea to Leicester. “We got chatting and I dropped him off and he said, ‘yeah, look me up’, and so I looked him up and he was actually the richest footballer in the world [due to family wealth – his uncle is the Sultan of Brunei]… he was playing for Leicester but he was still casual, you know.”
Born in Somaliland, Yusuf left in 1988 to escape civil war. His family travelled through Ethiopia, arriving in the UK in 1990. His father, who happened to be in England on business, applied for asylum and the rest of the family were able to join him.
Yusuf, around 12 at the time, recalls the day they landed in the UK. “Oh, it was shocking,” he says. “I mean, coming off the plane at Heathrow, getting in a lift.” It was the first time in his life that he had used an elevator, and he has “vivid memories” of the experience. “You go in one floor, you come out another floor, and it’s like, ‘woah, what’s just happened?’”
Thirty-odd years later, driving with Uber is now something that runs in his extended family. Yusuf’s brother, two of his uncles, and two of his cousins also earn on the app. The appeal for most of them is flexibility, but also the consistent earnings. There are a lot of lines of work “where you get that flexibility but not the consistency of income as well”, Yusuf says.
Flexibility is front of mind for drivers. According to research by consultancy Public First, drivers value it three times as much as the general public. But on top of that are the benefits drivers have access to. Since March 2021, all Uber drivers in the UK have been treated as workers – the third category in employment law between self-employed and traditional employment – giving them access to holiday pay (an additional payment of 12.07 per cent on top of weekly earnings, not currently offered by any other major app-based operator), a pension plan and a guarantee to earn at least the National Living Wage. Two months later, Uber and GMB signed the first trade union recognition agreement in the gig economy.
The GMB estimates that there are currently 200,000 drivers in the UK working for other operators without the protections to which they’re entitled.
The “worker” protections are in addition to the wider set of benefits that are available on Uber. One benefit that has made a real difference to Yusuf is the “new parent” payment. Drivers are protected from the cost of major life events such as sickness or having a baby through Uber’s partner protection insurance with Allianz Partners. Drivers who become parents receive £900 as partial compensation for loss of earnings. Eligibility criteria may apply.
Yusuf made the most of that, taking two weeks of paternity leave when his two-year-old was born. He used the money to buy the start-up equipment the family needed, like a buggy and travelling cot. “It was the height of Covid – I wasn’t working as much,” he says. If the money wasn’t available, the family’s income would have taken a real hit.
While the ability to control his own time is the main positive for Yusuf, another plus is that it indulges his one great love (aside from his wife and children): cars.
“Obviously, as a driver it’s easy to get bored and I love driving, I love cars,” he says. The predictability of earnings has meant he has been able to afford a car he wants for the job, but also for driving his family around. “I am now lucky enough to say that I have had the Tesla Model 3 for almost two and a half years. There is no way I would have driven that car if I wasn’t working with Uber.” Yusuf purchased the car by leveraging another benefit, Uber’s Clean Air Plan, in which over £145m has been raised to help drivers in London switch to electric vehicles. The company aims for all drivers using the app in London to be in electric vehicles by 2025.
And what do his kids think of what he does for a living? “They book an appointment,” Yusuf laughs. “They ask: ‘Dad, are you picking us up from school today?’
“But seriously,” he adds, “I’m sure they are proud of their dad.”