The Revolt Against Uber
My interest in Uber as a topic for my digital media project was sparked by the recent outbreak of protests and petitions against the company throughout my college career. Those participating in such events are mainly arguing in favor of the drivers’ rights and against the agenda of the company itself. Uber was created in March of 2009 as a convenient and efficient way of transportation for the general public, all while helping to boost the international employment rate and maintaining stellar opportunity costs for all parties involved. The birth of Uber fulfilled many of the immediate needs of its customers, but ties between the drivers and the company have only become more twisted and tangled since day one. The treatment of drivers and their purpose within the company are both unjust and diminished among the public eye.
The root of the eruption of outrage surrounding Uber stems from the conditions of the drivers. The specific demands vary by the general area, but most locations are asking for the same thing: Changes in earnings as well as an improvement in the overall treatment as an employee connected to the company. Uber is just over ten years old and has progressed significantly, specifically over the past four years, making additions such as Uber Pool, driver tips, and an improved navigational system. The company is about to hit its ten year mark and has proven immense progression over the years. The most recent of the strikes appeared internationally in at least a dozen major cities last Spring on May 8th. The strikes included drivers who purposely intended to step away from their work during the busiest commuting hours in order to decrease the company’s dependence on it’s “employees” for the physical transportation. Uber has planted itself within a short- term, reliant system within the economy, stating that its drivers are “independent contractors,” meaning “Workers don’t get the same rights as employees, such as a minimum wage, overtime, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, paid sick leave or on-the-job expenses” (O’Brian). To treat Uber drivers as proper employees would only hurt the company, forcing many binding connections and deals between the two parties that the company’s executives believe to be unnecessary.
Instead, the company strongly denies that the individuals who are driving and participating in their system are actually not even their own employees. The number of drivers in relation to the company’s employees, however, is radically high: “The ratio of contractors to direct employees is high: While Uber has roughly 4 million drivers, the company has 27,000 employees.” (Bensinger) Therefore, to disregard its drivers as formal employees ultimately makes it seem like Uber is ignoring the presence and impact of the majority of its company. Furthermore, the main problem that Uber believes it is facing when referring to their drivers as employees versus a third party transportation system comes with management of liability. Granting their drivers with benefits as if they are employees and allowing drivers to easily refer to the company for support would ultimately make Uber a public company with full force and responsibility for all parties involved. Although it may seem like this is a fair case for the company to not want to hold responsibility, it is true that drivers lack proper treatment by the company and many believe they are deserving of improvements among their work for Uber.
Indeed, the drivers are participating in a gig economy, which is a low commitment, short term market that allows for collaboration among multiple parties. Through the cellular app system, Uber is able to create a profit by “deducting a commission from the automatic electronic payment made for every ride or gig arranged on their apps” (Riley). This structure of a rideshare app allows for the maximum use of products and time in order to ensure the greatest possible outcome. For example, if Uber didn’t exist, those drivers would be searching for jobs or lying on their couch during those working hours. Meanwhile, the riders themselves would be overpaying for a taxi ride across town. Through Uber, riders are able to save money and can even minimize traffic on the road if they choose to participate in Uber pool as well.
The negative outlook on gig economies come from the lack of protection and secure incomes that is provided to those involved. There is only so much they can do to ensure their participation, and if there are some drivers that are better than others, all are still compensated at the same rate. Examples of superior drivers include being early for pickup/ arrival, driving responsibly, having snacks or drinks, and overall, giving their riders an enjoyable experience. Most recently, riders have even been given the option to tip their drivers, further compensating those who are deserving of it for their hard work. However, more generally, the risk of a gig economy is that all those who participate are receiving their compensation from the company at a minimum and there is an equal form of communication among parties in order to ensure simple connection as separate from any type of security (provided by Uber for the drivers).
Uber drivers continue to strike due to the inefficiency of the support under the company’s general mission to provide the best service to both the driver and the rider. In fact, according to Joellen Riley’s chapter in New Directions for Law in Australia, titled “Brand New ‘Sharing’ or Plain Old ‘Sweating’? A Proposal for Regulating the New ‘Gig Economy’”, she states that Uber doesn’t even “provide any tools of trade for the worker, apart from maintaining the app that connects supply and demand in the market for the work.” (Riley 60) Indeed, the driver must maintain their own car while they work and keep up with the demands of the job. They need to please customers with their physical space as well as their general experience among their treatment as a rider. The pleasure of the work comes from the fact that the workers decide how much time they want to put into the job. Furthermore, Uber argues that the drivers can’t be direct employees of the company, for they would then all have to follow rules of general regulation. Currently, the beauty of the job is its flexibility as a driver. Therefore, if Uber were to refer to its drivers as more than just a third party transportation system, the drivers would most likely have to follow regulated hours of work and commitment to the company.
For more information regarding the role of the drivers and their actual dependence on the company within this gig economy system, read here (Riley, New Directions for Law in Australia, Chapter 4):
What’s most fascinating about the relationship between the drivers and the company is the fact that the company still has great control over the drivers despite its denial of any profession relation between the two parties. Most recently, the company actually altered the costs of rides in order to solidify a plan for the future that would decrease pay of drivers, increase the price of rides, and succeed in increasing total revenue for the company’s future. However, this idea was not enough for the company to rise up against competitors. In fact, Uber had to let thousands of its employees within their corporate offices go, cutting many jobs from its marketing team and even letting go of some of its top executives. They simply could not afford to continue paying so many employees within its own corporate system because financial debt was getting to its peak increase: “Everybody knows that Uber can’t lose billions of dollars a quarter forever, but it’s always been a question of when the money might run out.” (Conger, Isaac) Rideshare participator, Harry Cambell, goes on to say that “We’ve seen Uber institute a number of cost-cutting measures at the driver and rider level and now the cuts are coming to the corporate side of the business in order to move towards profitability.” (Conger, Isaac) Uber has more to worry about as a general business, considering its most recent quarterly loss with a number of 5.2 billion. Therefore, the issue of driver wages/ benefits stems from an even greater mess of the company just trying to maintain a profit that is regularly successful.
There isn’t much that can be done regarding the relationship among workers and Uber as a company, since treating them like employees would ultimately take away the flexibility that comes with the unique job. Although, the biggest goal or the company right now would be to increase profit among drivers without having to change too much about the system on the riders’ end. Perhaps, because it is a technological system, the jobs within the corporate office are the foundation of this issue. The capability of technology seems limitless, so I am curious if the work done by elite executives within Uber’s office could easily be completed through the power of digital media. If so, the money that is being paid to individuals in the office could be redistributed to the company’s drivers in accordance to their commitment and hard work!
Riley, Joellen. “Brand New ‘Sharing’ or Plain Old ‘Sweating’?: A Proposal for Regulating the New ‘Gig Economy.’” New Directions for Law in Australia: Essays in Contemporary Law Reform, edited by RON LEVY et al., ANU Press, Australia, 2017, pp. 59–70. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1ws7wbh.9.
Conger, Kate, and Mike Isaac. “Uber Lays Off Hundreds More Workers as It Struggles to Make Money.” New York Times, 10 Sept. 2019.
Bensinger, Greg. “Uber: The Ride-Hailing App That Says It Has ‘Zero’ Drivers.” The Washington Post, 14 Oct. 2019
O’Brien, Sara A. “Why Uber and Lyft Drivers Are Striking.” CNN, 8 May 2019.