I hear it a lot. Friends will ask their Uber (or Lyft, etc.) drivers if they enjoy working for the ride hailing service. The answer is often a variation on “yes,” and might have a few qualifications.
It’s easy to guess that these answers aren’t the whole truth. Uber drivers have a high turnover, and while this doesn’t necessarily mean that drivers are unhappy, it certainly suggests it. More convincing are the complaints of drivers on forums, the myriad protests around the world of Uber’s business practices (and regulators’ tolerance of the company), and the fact that many Uber drivers make below minimum wage.
But I’m less interested in the actual answers drivers give than examining the dynamics that are going on, including why passengers might think that Uber drivers would answer their questions honestly.
For one, the question seems to completely ignore the inherent power dynamics of the driver–passenger relationship, which is mediated by the app and Uber’s rules. Drivers rely on high ratings from passengers to stay active on the platform and ensure that they make enough money to survive; passengers need decent ratings from drivers in order to continue to use the service.
Yet it’s important to note that the stakes for passengers are much lower than those for drivers because their livelihoods do not rely on the service. Passengers could simply migrate to a new ride hailing service if they are prohibited from using Uber. But if an Uber driver receives bad ratings, or if Uber corporate gets complaints from passengers (or even from their own employees, who used to check in on drivers in the early days of the company), drivers could be deactivated without due process.
There are also more informal dynamics at play. For example, Uber drivers are often expected to provide bottled water and phone chargers, handle baggage, accommodate music requests, and adjust the temperature of the vehicle, among other luxuries. It’s undeniable that drivers are in the service of passengers in a much different way than regular taxi drivers are, and that realization is a potentially embarrassing one for both parties. What kind of liberal-minded hipster wants to admit that they are paying to be shuttled around a deeply divided and unequal city by an underpaid and economically precarious driver because they are too lazy to use public transportation? What kind of driver would be happy being paid below minimum wage to deal with the harder parts of the job, like obnoxious and drunk passengers?
Uber does try to obscure this in various ways. Passengers aren’t supposed to tip drivers, keeping the monetary part of the transaction hidden in the app (less glaring than the Lyft mustache or fist bump, but serving the same purpose). Passengers and drivers alike are told the fantasy that drivers could make up to $90,000 per year — yes, Uber actually used to say this — which is likely more than what most Uber passengers make. Uber also talks up the “flexibility” of its drivers’ independent contractor employment, which in practice, marries the downsides of being an employee of Uber with the downsides of being an independent contractor, without any of the benefits of being an employee of Uber, of course. “I’m only driving for Uber part-time,” can cast doubt on the precarity of the driver, too.
So it’s not surprising, although it’s seriously misguided, to think that the driver–passenger relationship is anything but that of a service worker and a customer, more akin to a housekeeper and a hotel guest than people sharing a car together. (It’s the “sharing economy”, remember!) Keeping up the fiction that both the driver and the passengers are on equal footing probably assuages passengers’ guilt, somewhat, of using an exploitative service, as do the answers to the question “Do you like your job?” (which people never seem to ask waiters or waitresses or hotel maids).
Another trend I’ve seen is that there is often discussion on what platforms are better for workers, so I’ll note that this critique extends to similar ride hailing platforms, including Lyft. Regulated, traditional taxi cabs, despite their problems, seem to be better for workers, but often these discussions only revolve around new ride hailing companies.
Lyft could be marginally better than Uber, but I’m really not interested in discussing whether it is or not because it would likely reflect its position in the market and not its values or how its platform is structured. Many apps in the gig economy are situated similarly to Uber, i.e. they use contract workers and labor platforms and concentrate power and decision-making within the company. This is not conducive to treating workers well in the long-term, and is of dubious legality here and abroad.
No one would expect Walmart, for example, to start treating its workers much better without a counterbalance to its power, usually accomplished via regulation or unions (or the threat of either). No one should expect differently from Lyft or Gett. If one of these companies does want to treat its workers fairly by paying them enough and classifying them as employees rather than contract workers, it makes sense that they would also build this into the structure of the company.
So instead of wondering whether treatment of workers is sufficient, or if it will stay that way, we should be demanding that all gig economy companies submit to necessary regulation, for both users and workers, and permanently give up concessions to workers. This isn’t a revolutionary idea, but with much of Silicon Valley producing companies that are only successful because they skirt regulation and treat their workers poorly, it definitely should be the focus of anyone looking for better alternatives.
Update, September 2017: A video of an Uber driver dealing with obnoxious passengers illustrates the passenger-driver dynamic I talk about. The passengers in the video are very obnoxious: they enter the vehicle saying “white privilege” for some reason, ask for an aux cord and to change the music, and then start messing with the driver’s personal effects. When the driver finally asks them to leave, the main instigator calls him the n-word and tries to fight him. While these problems certainly exist with regulated taxis as well, it seems to me that it is worse with services like Uber which deprofessionalize the profession, e.g. the passenger-driver dynamic is mediated mostly by an app and Uber rather than the government.
Image: Protest of Uber in London, via zongo on flickr.