Over on Working-Class Perspectives there’s an interesting post byKatie Wells, Kafui Attoh, and Declan Cullen about the working lives of Uber drivers. I’ve copied a few bits below. Read the whole post here.
The Work Lives of Uber Drivers: Worse Than You Think
To be an Uber driver is to work when you want. Or so Uber likes to say in recruitment materials, advertisements, and sponsored research papers: “Be your own boss.” “Earn money on your schedule.” “With Uber, you’re in charge.” The language of freedom, flexibility, and autonomy abounds, and can seem like a win for workers.
But the reality of our research shows something very different. The price of flexibility in the gig economy is substantial. Last year we conducted 40 in-person interviews and online surveys with Uber drivers in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Our project—which creates one of the first independent, qualitative datasets about the rideshare industry—found that the economic realities of precarious work are a far cry from the rosy promises of the gig economy. In exchange for flexible schedules, Uber retains near total control over what really matters for drivers, namely the compensation and costs of work.
The problem isn’t just uncertainty about what drivers can earn. Some also end out in deeper financial trouble by leasing cars from Uber’s Xchange program. One driver, Joan, got caught in this trap after she hit a pothole and damaged her car’s suspension system. She spent nearly all the money she had to get the car fixed. Then, when efforts to repair the vehicle failed, she spent more to lease a car from Uber. While Xchange offers lower credit barriers than traditional lenders, the payments which Uber automatically deducts from drivers’ paychecks, are high. Joan pays $138, more than the national lease average of $100 per week. Another driver we interviewed pays $290 per week and, at the end of her 3-year lease, she will have paid two or three times her car’s value. Think company town, or as one of our other drivers said, “indentured servitude.” The costs of these subprime leases are exorbitant, but, according to the Federal Trade Commission, Uber has actively deceived drivers about those costs. A Massachusetts Attorney General also found that Uber’s former lender charged higher-than-allowed interest rates to drivers in low-income communities.
Workers do not know how much they earn largely because of the fluctuating algorithms on which pay is based and the numerous expenses they must deduct. Of the 40 drivers we interviewed and surveyed, only a handful knew what percentage of their fares Uber takes. The majority did not know how Uber determined how much drivers take home on a single ride (whether, for instance, the booking fee is removed before or after Uber takes its commission), whether they are required to buy commercial insurance, or how tax filing works at the end of the year.
What can be done about the working conditions of Uber drivers? The biggest fix, though the least likely at the moment, would be for regulators to require Uber to treat its drivers as employees, which would mean the company would provide worker protections in line with national labor laws. An easier inroad would be for federal legislators and prosecutors to confront the subprime auto-lending practices that proliferate in the Uber world. Until these two steps are taken, cities should be wary of partnering with Uber for any kind of public transit provision, workers should be wary of driving for Uber, and rideshare users should patronize worker co-operative taxi fleets, or barring that, should tip their drivers — a lot.
Katie Wells is a Visiting Scholar and Declan Cullen is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Geography at George Washington University. Kafui Attoh is an Assistant Professor of Urban Studies in the Murphy Institute for Labor Studies at the City University of New York. This research was funded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors. For more information on forthcoming pieces about driver strategies and the rise of Uber in D.C., contact Katie Wells.