Daily Maverick

Why you should start talking to your Uber driver

An Uber app is seen on a mobile phone Photo by EPA/DAVE HUNT AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT

Next time you take an Uber, consider sitting in the front seat and asking your driver some questions. If you’re stuck for an opener, there’s always the trusty, ‘How long have you been driving for Uber?’ Yes, small talk can feel like work, when you just want to get to your destination, but if you make the effort, you are likely to gain an insight into what it is to strive for a decent living in the gig economy when the odds are against you.

I’ve never worked in the gig economy and there is plenty I don’t know. But I’ve learned a lot about everyday struggle and resilience in South Africa in conversations with Uber and Bolt drivers. While researching gig workers happens to be my job, I value the human connection that goes with using digital labour apps. Platforms try hard to remove human variables, to algorithmically micro-manage and depersonalise your experience, but resist! Talk to your driver, and be reminded that behind the algorithm and sleek interface, are hardworking people. 

Digital platforms like Uber and Bolt have a carefully calibrated sales pitch to drivers. They offer flexibility and independence – freedom from a human boss. I believe they fundamentally sell the aspiration of dignified work. Every driver I have spoken to places great stock in the autonomy that gig work ostensibly affords. The problem is that more and more, we are seeing it revealed as a lie. 

Greater insight into the reality of driving for Uber and Bolt was provided in last week’s Competition Commission provisional report on e-hailing and metered taxis. The inquiry shines a light on the negative experience of South African Uber and Bolt drivers. The submissions from drivers and groups representing them echoed much of what we have heard in our research into the labour conditions of gig workers in South Africa.

One important finding of the Competition Commission inquiry is that Uber drivers’ earnings have diminished over time – from R68 for a 2km trip in 2013, to about R18 now. Bolt drivers have also seen a fall in their net earnings. Costs are high – fuel, insurance, maintenance, data, with many drivers also paying rental on their cars. As a result, drivers are online for longer and longer hours – often working over 100 hours a week.

This is not an accident, but a built-in feature of the logic of the platform economy. With the potential for competition from many quarters, all Uber and similar platforms have to trade on is consumer recognition and number of downloads. In 2018, Uber had 5.3-million users in South Africa and Bolt had 2.1-million. When Uber first enters a market, it needs to recruit drivers fast. It relies on the network effect of a lot of drivers signing up quickly, so consumers can be assured of finding a ride. To do this, it offers drivers initially high earnings.

The more drivers that come on board, the less time consumers need to wait for a pick up. By continuing to crank up the labour supply, Uber can then drop prices, boost app downloads on the user end and secure a dominant market position. It’s great for riders – we can expect a cheap, safe ride on our doorstep in two minutes. It is not great for drivers, who are now dependent on the platform and who see the supposed freedom to work whenever they want, transform into pressure to be online constantly, competing for fares. Labour oversupply is a big part of Uber’s and Bolt’s business model.

On top of downwards pressure on earnings, driving for Uber or Bolt can be dangerous. Drivers face threats from passengers, especially if taking a cash trip or discovering the destination is a high-risk area. In the absence of other forms of security, drivers join stokvels to try to provide some cover in the event of loss of income – through sickness, deactivation by the platform, or crime.

I’ve spoken to many drivers who have experienced traumatic hijacking ordeals after accepting cash trips. A woman driver was robbed of her shoes, phone and car. Another driver was held for five hours while his captors discussed ending his life. Uber and Bolt provide in-app panic buttons. But drivers point out that these are ineffective if one’s phone is taken.

Platforms claim to work for drivers and to support entrepreneurship. “We’re just a technology company,” the refrain goes. But this narrative shifts the buck. Uber may call their workers “driver-partners”, but this belies the huge power imbalance that it maintains. By exposing them to extreme competition with peers, controlling their labour through sophisticated systems of penalties and incentives, and setting and slowly eroding their earnings, Uber acts very much like an employer – and an exploitative one. 

Beyond being anti-competitive, as the Competition Commission has pointed out; it is unethical. Thousands of drivers are dependent on Uber and Bolt for their income, and their precarity is deepened by the absence of any labour protections or benefits. Whether technology or transport companies, Uber and Bolt have a responsibility to provide decent conditions of work, and that responsibility should be enforced through regulation. 

The commission has recommended some fairly inoffensive changes to the National Land Transport Act to ensure greater fairness for e-hailing and metered taxi operators. Responsive labour regulation is also needed to protect gig workers from the extremes of casualisation and precarity.

In South Africa, of course, it must be acknowledged that new jobs are desperately needed. Digital labour platforms can provide income opportunities for many. But it is a pernicious argument to say security and dignity are acceptable trade-offs for job opportunities. That permits a race to the bottom of job quality and worker protection, with a serious human cost. 

Uber has introduced a new “quiet mode” feature on their premium service, which allows you to avoid conversation with your driver. It may be attractive to us introverts and jetlagged travellers, but it is another way to rob gig workers of dignity. I urge you to resist the temptation. Talk to your Uber driver, ask about their work, and take the opportunity to understand the real human conditions which allow you to benefit from a cheap ride from A to B. The algorithm dictates a lot, but it can’t dictate everything. There is still space for connections and alliances to form, and it starts with a conversation. MC

 Kelle Howson is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Fairwork Foundation, based at the University of Oxford, but working in partnership with the University of Cape Town, the University of the Western Cape and the University of Manchester. Fairwork rates digital labour platforms against five principles of fairness: Fair pay, fair conditions, fair contracts, fair management, and fair representation. By exposing harmful labour practices and rewarding fair practices, Fairwork aims to help build a fairer future of work in the digital economy. Fairwork’s 2020 South Africa scores and league table will be launched in Cape Town on March 17 2020.

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