For years now ride-sharing app and technology company Uber has been in the headlines for its abysmal labor practices. These include algorithmic management practices which surveil workers and constrict their decision-making power; and its classification of its workers as independent contractors or self-employed rather than employees.
As the company goes public today, drivers will be out on strike across the globe. With this work stoppage drivers are demanding a say in how Uber works, a pay raise, and above all being recognized as employees.
Thus, today’s strike reflects the emergence of a collective consciousness among drivers which would have been impossible even a few years ago. Moreover, it underlines the double-edged nature of contemporary employment relations and the way they employ technology. By classifying workers as “self-employed” or “independent contractors,” Uber has created the conditions in which these groups of workers once again want to be counted as workers. Historically such struggles for recognition have been the basis for broader social and economic struggles which brought about the eight-hour day, the right to vote, and the welfare state.
On the other hand, Uber drivers are using the very same digital technologies which control their working lives to organize across cities, countries, and even across borders. Unlike previous decades where an employer’s control over the physical worksite could prevent communication and action between workers, technology has reduced the effectiveness of such tactics. Lastly, today’s work stoppage shines a light on how the replacement of localized taxi cartels by multinational rideshare companies, backed up by venture capital and private equity, are creating a globalized sector of workers. Such global action would have been unthinkable in formerly localized industries regulated by local municipalities. In effect, Uber unwittingly created the basis for shared consciousness and action among workers across borders.
The company promises flexibility and freedom for its drivers. But this promise remains unfulfilled, as journalist Sarah Kessler’s Gigged has shown. Workers might have begun ridesharing because of these promises, but quickly came to realize that they had become indentured servants in late techno-capitalism.
Uber lured people into taking out loans for high-end cars and refused to cap the number of drivers as the taxi industry previously had. This means that individual drivers can hardly live off the number of rides available, creating a battalion of indebted workers unable to pay back their loans. The freedom Uber promised is simply the freedom to work away one’s leisure time, or what the company calls “monetizing one’s down-time.” Instead of flexibility, drivers are thrown into a life of being constantly “logged on.”
Governments and legislators have embraced this model of indebted servitude. A detailed report showed that rideshare lobbyists succeeded in getting city- and state-level legislators in the United States to simply copy and paste companies’ draft regulations for their industry. These companies’ political links to municipalities and governments are what’s made their business model viable. This is not only the case in the United States but also in Europe, where the European Commission frequently invites Uber lobbyists to high-level conferences on the future of work, and hailed the company as an employment motor, particularly for groups of workers previously deemed “unemployable.”
Some governments are finally taking action to curtail Uber’s power. The California Supreme Court decided to make it more difficult to classify workers as independent contractors, if a group of workers is central to the company’s core business. Yet this alone will not suffice. Governments and municipalities also need to re-classify Uber as a transport company. This would force them to set pay according to sectoral collective agreements. In January an Italian court ruled in favor of five former Foodora riders, forcing the company to pay them according to the collective bargaining agreement in logistics and merchandise transport. The same could work in the case of Uber.
Other approaches involve projects like the Fairwork Foundation, which rates the working conditions of the digital labor platforms. It will operate much like the Fair Trade Foundation by providing a label to companies with good work practices. However, these approaches rely on the voluntary choices of consumers, and offer no enforceable mechanisms. Another alternative would be to have a worker-controlled ride-hailing app which would distribute the profits generated by drivers equally and would re-invest surpluses into a retirement and insurance fund for workers. This would allow drivers to have a long-lasting career as drivers.
If one thing is sure it is that drivers cannot rely on the goodwill of governments and legislators. The Uber drivers’ strike reminds us that it requires collective action to change the balance of power in the industry and create the conditions for legislative change.