Justice Everywhere

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Freedom for Uber Drivers?

Labour Market Injustice

Labour markets are rife with questions of justice. This series of blog posts explore cases of injustice, highlight theoretical puzzles and point towards possible solutions. They emerged from debates at the ‘Labour Market Injustice’ Workshop co-hosted by Newcastle and Durham Universities and generously sponsored by the Society for Applied Philosophy.

In this first blog post James Hickson explores how the growth of the platform economy affects the values of freedom and independence. Does the rapidly changing nature of work signal a need to debate how we should understand workplace freedom in the first place?  

In April 2016, Travis Kalanick, the CEO and co-founder of Uber, published a blog post defending the company’s classification of their drivers as “independent contractors” rather than standard employees. Kalanick argued that drivers choose Uber “because they want to be their own boss. Drivers value their independence—the freedom to push a button rather than punch a clock, to use Uber and Lyft simultaneously, to drive most of the week or for just a few hours”. Kalanick even quoted one driver who claimed “I would quit if they tried to make me an employee, because I value my freedom as an independent contractor too much”.

Such language may lead us to view non-traditional, flexible forms of work, for companies such as Uber, as a route to greater worker freedom. Yet, this rhetoric appears to contrast starkly with the actual experiences of many Uber drivers themselves.

Once drivers log on to the Uber system they are heavily monitored and managed by the company, and Uber drivers are aware that they can be penalised, and even permanently suspended, for failing to meet performance targets. As one driver recently interviewed last year by The Guardian put it, “I am my own boss…but if my rating goes down I am fired. So technically they are the bosses”.

Moreover, as “on demand” workers, Uber drivers are not paid a set wage for a set day’s work. Instead they are reliant on being able to give enough rides each day to gain a sufficient income. However, Uber retains control over the pricing levels charged for journeys, meaning the rate of returns enjoyed by drivers is completely dependent upon the prices set by the company. In a recently leaked video, one Uber driver confronted Travis Kalanick, arguing “you’re raising the standards, and you’re dropping the prices…I’m bankrupt because of you…You keep changing every day”.

Whilst they are classified as “independent contractors”, Uber drivers are also excluded from access to normal employee rights such as paid holidays or sick leave, and must carry the full cost of insuring and maintaining their vehicles.

In this sense, working for Uber can be seen as highly precarious, with its absence of predictable working hours, stable income, or secure employee protections. But how can we challenge these forms of precarious work, when they are defended on the grounds of greater freedom and independence for workers?

The answer may lie in rethinking how we conceptualise freedom at work in the first place. Kalanick’s blog post implies a broadly “negative” or liberal understanding of freedom. Here freedom requires only the absence of any direct interference or constraint inflicted by others. From this point of view, we might agree that the Uber model of work could remove important constraints on workers. For example, your negative freedom may be enhanced because, by working for Uber, you can (in principle) choose when you work rather than following a shift pattern dictated by the employer.

However, if we revise our understanding of freedom, we might find it harder to view working for Uber as a path to greater independence. For republicans, such as the philosopher Philip Pettit, freedom requires not just the absence of actual interference, but also the absence of the capacity for others to interfere in your life at will and with impunity. If we consider the case of Uber through this rival conception of freedom as non-domination, we see that the liberty of drivers, in contrast to the company’s rhetoric, may actually be undermined in significant ways.

Uber’s capacity to interfere unpredictably in how much drivers can make from their work, as well as their capacity to unilaterally suspend drivers from the system could be seen as examples of the sort of arbitrary interference, or domination, that underpins the republican conception of freedom. Importantly, from this standpoint, a driver’s freedom is eroded even if they manage to avoid any actual interference. The mere potential for such interference is enough to create an unfree relationship of domination between Uber and their drivers.

It seems clear from the freedom-based narratives used by companies such as Uber, that we do value greater independence and control over our working lives. However it is also clear that we need to consider in much more detail what freedom in the workplace should mean, and what it would practically require, given the rapidly changing nature of contemporary work. In this sense, whilst the recent UK court ruling against Uber’s classification of drivers as “independent contractors” is welcome, it should encourage us to challenge companies like Uber further and design a truly emancipatory vision of work for the twenty-first century.

James Hickson is a PhD student at the University of York working on republican political philosophy and precarious work.

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2 Comments

  1. Hi James, thanks for the post. A question I am interested to ask here is how to balance some of the different interests and moral concerns. You mention both the concern for control over work life and the interests of some drivers in it. But I imagine that there are some Uber drivers who do not place such value on control over work life and/or would not value it over other benefits if this control came at their expense. At any rate, such value conflicts are possible and I would be interested in how you think they might be resolved?

  2. Lisa Herzog

    Hi James, thanks for raising these interesting and important questions! I find the theoretical strategy you use, to go via republican freedom, very interesting (and I wonder whether one might want to also use an even more demanding notion of freedom, namely as autonomy – being able to lead one’s own life seems an important concern here). But I also wondered, similar to the points raised by Andrew, whether this is (only) a question of different kinds of freedoms, or whether we are also dealing with the problem of a one-size-fits-all-approach to what have in fact become very different models of life and work: the guy who does a few hours of uber to earn a bit extra from time to time versus the person who depends on it as the equivalent of a full time job. Maybe one simply needs different sets of rules for weighing the different concerns for them? This would, of course, lead to tricky questions about where to draw the lines, and what incentives and/or pressures to miscategorize this would create, but one could probably draw on existing labour market experiences for addressing these. Do you think this could be a way forward?

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