Ahmad Fawad Yusufi, 31, was sleeping in his car in between shifts driving for Uber when he was murdered. Yusufi, an Afghan immigrant who had come to the United States on a special visa after serving as a translator for the US military, had driven into San Francisco from his home in Sacramento and was resting in the parking lot of a playground around 5 a.m. on November 28 when someone walked up to the car, attempted to steal his wallet, and shot him to death. 

Since that awful night Yusufi’s family, which includes his cousin and his wife and three children, have been desperate for answers, and now they are saying Uber needs to do its part to help. In a letter to the company released today through the labor group Gig Workers Rising, Yusufi’s cousin Mohammed, who goes by the name Ilyas and refers to Ahmad as a brother, outlined three demands: access to Yusufi’s Uber account, $4 million in immediate aid to be paid to the family, and better pay for all Uber drivers. (Ilyas also works as a driver for the company.)

Uber initially responded to the murder by saying Yusufi “appeared to be offline” at the time of the shooting, and declined to share any logs or documentation of his account activity with his family or the press.

In the letter, Ilyas challenged whether being offline on the app meant that Yusufi was not working for Uber, calling into question one of the core drawbacks of gig work. “My brother Ahmad was killed while driving for your company. You lied when you told the press that he wasn’t working for Uber at the time he was killed. He was in San Francisco to work for Uber … He’d stopped for a break after working for Uber that night.”

Yusufi moved to California from Afghanistan three years ago—a necessary safety measure after his time spent aiding the US military. Yusufi was a core provider for th family, Ilyas says, and though they are trying to get by through measures including a GoFundMe page, Yusufi’s wife and children are without adequate financial means.

Growing safety concerns

Gig drivers in the US are no strangers to violent crime. A recent investigation by the Wall Street Journal revealed that while the company declined to share statistics, drivers account for 11% of the carjackings in Minneapolis, and a report from the Markup in July tallied 124 confirmed carjackings and attempted carjackings of ride-share drivers over the previous year and half. 

Uber has rolled out several new safety features, such as rapid access to 911 dispatchers, the ability to broadcast GPS coordinates to police responders, and an audio recording option released this month. But by some measures this is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, and some drivers and labor groups, like the Independent Drivers Guild, have accused the company of not doing enough to keep its workers safe. Some have started taking matters into their own hands, toting pepper spray, installing security cameras, and even carrying guns.

Yusufi is one of many Afghan refugees living in Sacramento who drive for Uber in San Francisco, where there is more demand for rides (some 56% of all gig workers in San Francisco are immigrants). Ilyas says Yusufi left Sacramento for the Bay Area on Friday, November 26, to work for Uber and slept in his car as he could between rides—a common practice for drivers who cannot afford hotel rooms. According to Ilyas, a friend who was also a driver and present with Yusufi said they were resting in the car at the time of the shooting.

Uber allows drivers to stay active on the app for only12 hours before requiring a six-hour break, a move meant to ensure safer riding conditions. During breaks, naps, or meals, drivers will turn off their app so as to maximize their time available for making money. 

In the letter, Ilyas says that the low wages of Uber drivers “sustains such precarious working conditions that hundreds of Afghan drivers drive from Sacramento to San Francisco each week and sleep in their cars in unsafe environments—just to earn enough each week to provide for their families.” 

What counts as work

Uber has not yet responded to the letter, though the company is in touch with the family. In a statement to MIT Technology Review before the letter was released, an Uber spokesperson said, “We’re saddened by this senseless act of violence that took Mr. Yusufi’s life. Our hearts go out to his family during this difficult time.” 

Without answers from the San Francisco Police Department, Ilyas and his cousin’s family are desperate to learn more about the circumstances of Yusufi’s death. Ilyas has tried to access Yusufi’s Uber account and says that it has been disabled. He has attempted to reach out to Uber regarding the issue and says Uber has replied that it is against their policy. 

On December 5, local news channel ABC10 reported that Uber said Yusufi “appeared to be offline” at the time of the shooting. 

In a phone conversation with MIT Technology Review, an Uber spokesperson said that Yusufi wasn’t active on the app from midnight to 5 a.m. on November 28, around the time police responded to the situation, but was active on November 27. Uber declined to disclose the associated times. The company also declined to provide documentation of Yusufi’s driving logs to MIT Technology Review when requested, citing privacy concerns.

Yusufi’s case cuts to the heart of a contentious debate about whether gig workers qualify as a company’s employees. California state law has gone back and forth on the issue over the last few years, and in 2020, Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Instacart spent about $200 million to lobby in favor of a measure that would exclude gig workers from benefits such as paid breaks. That law, Proposition 22, was passed in 2020 but has been struck down by a judge as unconstitutional. Gig workers will remain unprotected as the appeals process plays out.

For Yusufi’s family, whether he was actively using the Uber app at the time of the shooting is irrelevant. From their perspective, Ilyas says, he was in San Francisco to drive for Uber. “We are refugees in this country. We don’t have good information. We are new,” he says. “We don’t have someone to back us up. They can do anything they want,” he says.

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