Originally published on Futures of Work, a blog offering radical and critical thinking on ongoing and emerging issues associated with work and employment.
I graduated two years ago in Philosophy and Film studies. Whilst the destined occupation for such a degree is philosopher-cum-filmmaker, becoming an entrepreneurial Uber driver seemed the next best step.
Uber likes calling us entrepreneurs. This is because it goes hand in hand with the status of being self-employed. Uber desperately wants us to remain classed as self-employed because it means they’re absolved of the responsibilities that employers traditionally have. For example, providing drivers with holiday pay or ensuring that we earn a minimum wage. We could be on £5.10 per hour like drivers in North Carolina for all that Uber cares. Quite the partnership!
You may not see a problem with this, but in the gig economy ‘self-employment’ is not self-employment in the traditional sense. We are not like self-employed plumbers, able to set our own prices. Our prices are set for us by Uber. Neither are we like the self-employed street merchant, able to cancel a sale whenever they wish. Instead, we are found ‘in breach of Services Agreement’ for cancelling jobs that we don’t want to take.
It almost sounds like we’re employees, selling our labor/time for a price set by an employer. But this isn’t quite right either, since employees work for a set amount of money per hour. As Uber drivers, meanwhile, we constantly receive a different rate per hour depending on how many rides we’ve decided to take on. This is all part of the flexibility package that Uber praises. And this is the main line they use when defending our classification as self-employed. For Uber, drivers should be flexible and if they’re classed as employees instead of self-employed contactors – or “entrepreneuring go-getters” if they’re feeling especially spicy – they’d have to work set times and therefore lose their flexibility.
As a student of philosophy I recognise a fallacy when I see one. Uber present a false dichotomy of the facts: we have the choice between either self-employment (with Uber) or employment (via other work options).
Employment law provides for at least one further option: the status of ‘worker’. As defined by the Employment Appeal Tribunal, ‘workers’ are entitled to the national minimum wage and holiday pay. Categorisation as ‘self-employed’ persons denies us these protections, let alone other benefits. As such, Uber can afford to put extreme emphasis on the recruitment of drivers, offering current drivers a £300 reward for signing up budding ‘entrepreneurs’. In other words, Uber are paying their drivers to recruit their own competition. The more drivers there are, lest we forget, the less work there is.
Thankfully, in June 2016, the Employment Tribunal unanimously held that Uber was wrong to class its drivers as self-employed contractors in the case of Uber v Aslam. Instead it stated that they should be classed as workers entitled to the National Minimum Wage and holiday pay. Inevitably, Uber appealed it, arguing that the company is not an employer but merely provides the platform for ‘self-employed’ drivers to find customers via the app. The court decided that this was false, discarding the idea that Uber drivers are a “mosaic of 30,000 small businesses linked by a common ‘platform’ as ‘faintly ridiculous.’” Uber’s appeal was dismissed. The firm continues to dispute the court’s judgement, the most recent hearing taking place on 30th October 2018, with Uber arguing that private drivers have always been self-employed. The verdict is expected in the coming month.
But why are Uber so hell-bent on making sure that its drivers don’t receive the National Minimum Wage, holiday pay, paid breaks and so on? Like any conglomerate, Uber wants to make as much money as possible, and granting us worker status would impinge upon its profits. The only reason they brought in the so-called ‘partner protection insurance’ scheme earlier this year was to appease the judges come the next case. It is supposed to cover drivers for any loss of earnings during sickness or injury. But it only applies if you get sick during ‘on trip’ time, when you are driving passengers to their destinations. Sickness coverage is only for those certified as unable to work for seven days or more by a doctor or physician; six days of sickness just won’t cut it. This applies across the board. If you plan on dying accidentally, you best be sure that it’s during a journey with passengers. Only then will your loved ones be entitled to their ‘accidental death payment’ compensation. The same goes for funeral expenses, or if you suffer an accident rendering you disabled.
A few months back, I gave one of Uber’s regional managers a lift. His shoes were shiny and his haircut expensive. Before telling me his occupation, he sneakily carried out some driver-satisfaction research, asking me how I found the job and what it’s like to drive an electric vehicle (EV). It’s chilling how calculated his questioning was. I now see that his reasons for asking about my EV experience pertained to his employer’s recently-announced plans to be 100% fully electric in London by 2025. Although Uber has said that it will contribute a maximum of £4,500 towards EVs for its drivers doing 40 hours per week – and that is a maximum – electric cars still cost an extortionate amount. They are approximately £20k at the very minimum, leaving drivers to pick up the bill of £15,500 over the next few years.
If we don’t gain worker status, there is a serious possibility that we will return to Victorian labour conditions. As Oxford University’s Jeremias Prassl has argued, the ‘outworkers’ of London’s docks also suffered from a lack of worker rights and being excessively expendable. Thousands of men would show up at the London Dock gates at 7:30am in the morning, their only hope of being recruited never guaranteed. Reading journalist Henry Mayhew’s shocking witness report draws me to the thought that Uber drivers could face the same dystopian situation in the not-too-distant future:
Then begins the scuffling and scrambling, and stretching forth of countless hands high in the air, to catch the eye of him whose voice may give them work… Some men jump upon the backs of others… All are shouting… [I]t is a sight to sadden the most callous, to see thousands of men struggling for only one day’s hire, the scuffle being made the fiercer by the knowledge that hundreds out of the number there assembled must be left to idle the day out in want.
I remember the Uber regional manager boasting to me of his youth, being just in his late 20s. But I also recall the sincere way in which he spoke of us as ‘partners’ and how much his bosses at Uber ‘care’. I realized how he’d worked his way to regional manager at such a young age: as a reward for his blind allegiance to the script Uber wanted him to believe.
It could get to the stage where Uber drivers are bidding for jobs, as London’s clothes traders did in the late 1800s, and this corporate yes-man would still call us valued ‘partners’ lucky to be affiliated with Uber Technologies Inc. Thankfully, he is in a minority. Most don’t buy the script. On October 30th I was in London protesting for worker status for me and my fellow Uber drivers. Just before Halloween, Uber had donned the unconvincing costume of an ethical company, and our search for worker recognition continued.
 Humans as a Service: The Promise and Perils of Work in the Gig Economy, Oxford, Prassl, Jeremias, 2018. Pp.78
Henry Palmer is an Uber driver.
Image credit: Henry Palmer