So. I helped out my sister with her 16-year-old’s birthday party. As we began to shuffle them all out around midnight with their partial romances and their teary micro-dramas, most of them were whipping out their smartphones and getting an Uber.
I asked them why they preferred Uber to taxis, and as well as price, the principle attraction was that they didn’t have to talk to anyone. They tracked it arriving in real time on their phone, it arrived, they slid in to the back seat, and it simply clicked onto their credit cards.
The taxi companies – particularly the lower-order ones – are getting creamed.
I don’t hate Uber because it’s good for my nephew’s people.
According to Travis Kalanick, the pugnacious co-founder of Uber, the new techno-platforms liberate the little guy from full-time wage slavery. “They can push a button and get to work. They can also push a button and stop working.” Apparently, Uber (and its copyists) are fundamentally empowering because the move the individual from ‘provider of labour’ as it has been for centuries, to individual owner of the ‘means of production’.
What could possibly go wrong?
Capitalism’s oldest trick in the book is to exploit workers. Uber’s ‘partners’ must provide their own car, their own smartphone, and must comply with Uber’s brand, standards set, and the tricky variable fare determination. It deactivates them if their passenger ratings dip below a certain level. Even if they work 24 hours a day, they are not employees. Uber takes 20-25% of the takings.
No holiday pay. No overtime. No minimum or maximum hours. Not required to speak English. Currently, as a contractor, they don’t even have to get minimum wage on average. And of course, can’t unionize.
In return for that they get the right to use the app, and some branding.
And from the customers’ point of view, the driver isn’t a registered Taxi driver (P endorsement), so they don’t have recorded cctv on board, aren’t required to keep log books so who knows how long they’ve worked without a break, don’t have to have their names displayed, don’t have to speak English, don’t know whether they have a criminal record, or medical record, or transport complaints, and just need a license. What could go wrong?
Of course, the gig economy of Uber and Air B & B is revolutionary, generating the greatest number of tiny contractors and the smallest number of actual staff for billion-plus companies that we’ve seen since, er, serfdom. On the asset base of one app. All as startups over the last decade. It’s amazing.
But while digital-era service may feel very cool to teenagers, don’t think for a moment this is the “sharing economy”. This is the fighting for the scraps economy.