The ride-sharing service Uber has exploded in popularity since it first launched internationally in 2014. Almost immediately, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said ‘UberX’—the app’s flagship service that summons an ordinary vehicle, rather than a cab—would operate illegally in Montreal. Despite this, Uber exists in Montreal. But contention is brewing amongst licensed taxi drivers who argue that the lack of regulations on UberX creates unfair competition. Taxi drivers have staged protests and in one instance even egged Uber’s Montreal office.
The sharing economy that Uber represents places labour in a precarious position. As Uber continues to expand, its growth depends on the drivers who voluntarily use the app to match them with a person in need of a ride. But as California’s Labor Commission indicated, Uber’s involvement is beyond simple logistics. Ridesharing drivers do not share anything; they sell their labour to Uber, who in turn, refuses to provide any stability for their position in order to keep fares low. Uber’s continued misrepresentation of the status of its drivers keeps their workforce easily expendable, without the basic provisions of the law. The most important first step is recognizing drivers as employees and granting them the collective bargaining rights so they may effectively negotiate with their employer.
Uber argues that drivers do not work for the company, but are more like partners operating independently of Uber. This model is by no means unique to Uber. The sharing economy rests on the idea that technology can act as a facilitator between people who have needs and people who can fulfill those needs. For Uber, the app brings drivers to people who need a ride. The term “sharing” implies that this transaction is somehow charitable or even personal, but as the Harvard Business Review opined, the companies in the sharing economy generate purely economic exchanges with “utilitarian, rather than social, value.” By this definition, the company supplying the technology simply facilitates an otherwise unlikely transaction between two people. Uber’s insistence on the autonomy of its drivers directly draws on this definition. Flexible hours, being your own boss, and the ability for anyone with a car to become a driver all create the false image that Uber drivers are more business partners than employees.
But Uber exercises much more control over its ‘partners’ than vice versa. Drivers take on enormous and often understated liabilities and costs. They must pay for the maintenance of their vehicle, for gas, and for insurance, while at the same time Uber management sets their rates and terms of labour, including the right to deactivate drivers for a multitude of reasons beyond poor performance. In October 2014, Uber deactivated a driver’s account after he made “hateful statements regarding Uber through social media.” The hate speech cited was an article the driver tweeted out questioning the safety of Uber. Driving for Uber is more than simply using an app to facilitate an exchange. There is a power relationship between the driver and the company.
Driving for Uber, not much safer than driving a taxi http://t.co/rEJhvYlK4G
— Christopher J. Ortiz (@ChrisJOrtiz) August 25, 2014
The sharing economy appeals to certain demographics, such as those who are already employed, as a way to make extra cash with low startup costs. Sites such as eBay, Craigslist, and Kijiji allow people to sell items and make money on something they otherwise might not have sold. Uber is different. In 2006, 50,110 people across Canada reported driving a cab as their primary source of income. Close to 40 per cent of Uber drivers have no other source of income. Uber doesn’t just attract potential drivers who are eager to work harder to supplement their income—it actively undercuts traditional taxi drivers and erodes the few protections awarded to those drivers in the first place. While Uber’s lower fares create a competitive edge against traditional taxi services, arguably to the benefit of consumers, this model is harmful to drivers for both Uber and traditional taxi services. In September 2014, Uber drivers argued that, “You can’t make a living working only for Uber.” This protest highlighted the core of what enables the service’s low pricing: The lack of collective bargaining power for its drivers.
Recently, the US Chamber of Commerce, a pro-business lobbying group unaffiliated with the US Government, sued Seattle for allowing Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize. A similar class-action lawsuit was launched by Uber and Lyft drivers who are seeking classification as full-time employees rather than independent contractors. Drivers argue their work deserves the basic protections awarded to employees such as a minimum wage, while Uber has argued the diversity of Uber drivers makes their classification as independent contractor necessary.
As traditional taxi drivers are squeezed out, more and more drivers are forced to move to Uber where they are stripped of their protections and considered increasingly expendable. So what’s to be done? A few have gone so far as to reimagine the future of Uber as a workers’ cooperative, in which workers who already own all the capital required to run the company control their own wages and collect the profits. But in the present, companies that expand precarious piecemeal work must be met with matching regulations to ensure the protection of their workers by recognizing them as employees, allowing their unionization, and providing benefits that full-time workers are guaranteed in other industries. As Uber continues to undercut traditional taxi companies and those drivers are forced to join Uber, this number will surely rise leaving many drivers without any basic protections.