There is an old poker saying: “If you are wondering who the sucker at the table is, it is probably you.” So it goes with the new “gig economy,” where nearly one million North Americans are driving people around, delivering packages and pizzas, renting out their homes and condos, providing babysitting, tutoring and cleaning services — not as employees, but as independent contractors, paid by the piece, with uncertain hours and few benefits. A recent piece in the Financial Times, provocatively entitled, “When your boss is an algorithm,” peels back the layers of the Uber economy to reveal its seamy underside.
Workers, mostly underemployed millennials, initially lured by promises of fast money, flexible hours and hip bosses, instead find themselves hounded by robotexts that track their every move. Everything from the time they take to answer a delivery or pickup request (in some cases they are expected to reply in 20-30 seconds) to how well they are rated by the customer is monitored. In the case of Uber, a complicated formula that calculates time, distance and customer ratings, minus Uber service fee adjustments and volume bonuses has replaced a flat pay rate.
London, England couriers for UberEats are staging protests and appealing to their customers for support, but it is no easy feat for 100 low paid, unorganized, self-employed contractors to stand up to a Silicon Valley-funded behemoth with very deep pockets. How deep? Uber is currently valued at $23 billion.
Centrepieces of the gig economy like AirBnB, Lyft and TaskRabbit argue that they are creating jobs, driving down consumer costs and offering transparency and fairness, while at the same time exploiting inefficiencies in monopolistic markets. Uber claims to not only have upended the traditional taxi industry by providing better service, lower prices and improved convenience, but to have also provided thousands of drivers the chance to work flexible hours with minimal investment. Is Uber right? Or have we crossed the line between a “service economy” and a “slave economy”?
The first industrial revolution of the 19th century drove people from the farm to the factory. Working conditions were often deplorable. As manufacturing proceeded into the 20th century, workers formed unions and fought for workers’ rights through collective bargaining. We have now come full circle and new technologies are threatening workers’ hard won rights again. Many workers find the “algorithmic management” used by gig economy companies oppressive.
Some of these workers are fighting back. In addition to its dispute with the London UberEats couriers, Uber is currently involved in an $850 million class action suit launched by drivers in California and Massachusetts. The drivers argue that they have little control over their work hours, cannot refuse rides without sanctions and lack the autonomy of “independent contractors.” Like their steelworker, coal miner and teamster forbearers before them, they are taking up the fight for fair treatment and decent working conditions. Uber, in turn, has recognized that it cannot simply offload all the employment risk to its drivers, and has taken steps to provide them with some benefits, but it still refuses to classify them as employees. In the end, this may not matter as Uber has announced that its ultimate goal is driverless cars by 2025.
Whether or not the fight with Uber is a lost cause, it has highlighted greater issues concerning technology in general. Ideally, new technology should improve working conditions, not make them worse. Uber workers do not want to be treated as “labour inputs” and micromanaged by their smartphones — they want a culture that values them as people. Though Uber is still stuck in “start-up” mode, it is slowly recognizing that it has to create an enduring and sustaining culture. It is not enough to have a cool app. You have to have a cool culture. That’s the only thing that counts in the end.