Image: IWGB-organised Precarious Workers demo, 30/10/18. Credit: Anabel Bennett, rights reserved.
French philosopher Michel Foucault once observed that the liberty of men is never entirely assured by the institutions and laws that are intended to guarantee them, as all of them are quite capable of being turned around. Liberty, on this view, is a practice - a constant dialectic between the forces that may encroach on the existing laws and rights protecting individual freedom, and those social actors who mobilize to protect them.
The current phase of ‘flexible capitalism’ sees production and employment arrangements being transformed, resulting in growing disruptions to secure and predictable career trajectories, the development of precarious employment, irregular scheduling, the extension of working hours and the erosion of worker rights and benefits. The recent emergence of connective platforms in different sectors - urban transport (Uber, Lyft), housekeeping (Helpling, TaskRabbit), childcare (Bambino, UrbanSitter) or food delivery (Deliveroo, UberEats) - pushes these ‘flexible’ employment arrangements to the extreme. The workers are no longer treated as employees but as ‘independent contractors’, ‘freelancers’ or ‘entrepreneurs’ that these platforms ‘simply connect’ with clients. Because of such categorization, platform workers have no rights and protections usually assigned to employees, such as benefits related to health care, pensions or parenting. Nor do they have any collective bargaining power. They are, to use Guy Standing’s term, members of the ‘precariat’ – a social class formed by people suffering from existence without predictability, security, labour rights or safety nets. Platforms take advantage of this large pool of precarious labourers ready to make themselves available to earn extra money even at the lowest possible wage rates.
Digital platforms argue that they aren’t employers but simple intermediaries helping ‘service providers’ and customers find each other in the marketplace. In the employment tribunal case against Uber, brought by the GMB and Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), Uber’s defence argued that the company acted as nothing more than a booking agent. Such arguments, however, are clearly unsustainable – and this view was confirmed by the Tribunal’s ruling to grant Uber’s drivers statutory workers’ rights. The Supreme Court later rejected Uber’s appeal observing that the idea that the company is a “mosaic of 30,000 small businesses linked by a common ‘platform’ is to our minds faintly ridiculous”.
It is obvious that Uber is much more than a simple ‘connector’. It organizes and controls the ride-hailing market through the data that it continuously gathers and the algorithms that it uses to match supply and demand and to set the prices. When, for example, demand in that area surpasses supply by a certain magnitude, Uber’s algorithm increases prices (the phenomenon known as “surge pricing”). In 2017 Uber also introduced “route-based pricing” in some markets, which is calculated by algorithms based on an analysis of how much a passenger from a given neighborhood would be willing to pay for the ride in question. Uber also controls its drivers in a variety of ways. It sets default route for each journey, requires drivers to accept jobs, and excludes drivers from accessing passenger information.
On October 9 Uber drivers organised a 24-hour strike staging rallies outside the company’s offices in London, Birmingham and Nottingham. The demands? Higher rates per mile, reductions in the commission charged by Uber and an end to unfair deactivations of drivers from Uber platforms. They also called for the implementation of the Tribunal’s ruling which had granted them statutory workers' rights but which, two years after the ruling, have still not been implemented by Uber (as a result of Uber’s continued court appeals of the Tribunal’s decision).
Regardless of the results of this action, and the outcomes of the next stage of the legal process, the strike by Uber drivers should already be seen as a success. It demonstrates that workers who do not share a common workplace and for whom a joint mobilization is particularly hard to organize can still undertake a collective action and target a digital platform. Uber drivers’ action shows that it is possible to combat the ‘uberisation’ - the increasing platformization of the economy with the growth of precarious and non-unionized ‘individual contractors’. This destructive ‘labour market Uber-culosis’ has been spreading to a growing number of sectors.
Platforms push the commodification of human labour to the extreme and reduce workers to subjects without substance: to aggregated scores and rankings, trajectories calculated on the basis of their reactivity, punctuality or speed of task execution and traceable histories of jobs performed, stored in a digital form and processed in ways that workers do not control and may not even be aware of. And crucially, workers continue to be able to work only so long as platforms continue to display their profiles online. If platforms decide to ban them from using the service (which usually happens when the score of the ‘independent contractors’ in question declines below a certain threshold), they will lose their jobs. Such asymmetry in power relations and the corresponding erosion of worker rights and social protections and safety nets is clearly untenable in the long run.
To return to the argument of Foucault quoted earlier, liberty - as a guarantee of certain fundamental rights - is a practice; it is a constant dialectic between attempts to encroach upon it and actions to resist such attempts. This month’s Uber drivers’ strike has the potential of launching such practice to protect the rights of platform labour. But this, of course, would happen only if similar actions are consistently undertaken in all sectors affected by the process of platformization.