Regulating Flexibility: Uber’s Platform as a Technological Work Arrangement
New article from the network, by Sigurd M. Nordli Oppegaard.
Oppegaard, S. (2020). Regulating Flexibility: Uber’s Platform as a Technological Work Arrangement. Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies. https://doi.org/10.18291/njwls.122197
Summary of the article:
This article explores the labor process and working conditions of Uber Black drivers in Oslo. Uber Black is a high-end transportation service organize through limousine companies that own the cars and employ the drivers. In Norway, Uber focused its 2014 launch on this particular model, as the Norwegian taxi regulation required drivers to have taxi licenses, which made it impossible for Uber to operate legally using its most common model of self-employed drivers using their own personal car. Still, Uber also launched Uber Pop, where everyone with a less then ten-year-old car can sign up and become drivers, but the model was discontinued in 2017 after 138 drivers were fined, 94 lost their driver’s license and 67 had their earnings confiscated, and Uber Nor-way and Uber B.V. received a shared fine of 500,000 EUR.
The data was collected through a “traveling ethnography” where interviews were conducted as a passenger in the drivers’ cars during rides. In total, 20 drivers were interviewed. Based on these interviews and observations of the drivers’ labor process, the article presents a theoretical distinction between Uber’s formal work arrangement and technological work arrangement. This distinction highlights the role of the formal work arrangement – the drivers’ form of employment, the organization of their working day and remuneration – and the technological work arrangement – the way in which Uber’s digital platform is used to control the drivers’ labor process. The article argues that the digital platform functions as a tool for coordinating the labor of formally very flexible workers (the Uber Black drivers are in principle free to set their own schedule), by adjusting the fares through dynamic pricing, evaluating and sanctioning drivers through the bilateral rating system, and allocating rides through algorithmic trip assignment.
The analysis shows that while the platform is experienced as an opaque form of management that limits the drivers’ formal flexibility, the effects of the technological work arrangement is contingent on the drivers’ formal work arrangement and the characteristics of the Uber Black market in Oslo: First, the algorithmic trip assignment regulates the pace of the drivers’ working day by allocating requests automatically. While the drivers can decline requests, they do not control when and which passengers to pick up, which make it difficult to plan their work day. Second, in the context of the low demand of the Uber Black market in Oslo, the drivers are grateful for every request the get. The dynamic pricing scheme then indirectly regulates the drivers’ working hours, by making it more lucrative to supply their labor power during weekends and late hours when they receive more requests. Most Uber Black drivers in Oslo are eager to increase their earnings, and ‘surges’ constitute an opportunity they cannot miss out on. This illustrates that even though the drivers in theory can set their own schedules, the combination of the piecework system and low demand for Uber rides in practice forces them to work long and unsocial hours. Third, the lack of customers makes it inconceivable for most drivers to decline a request based on passengers’ low ratings. Furthermore, as five-star ratings are the norms, both for drivers and passengers, the threat of deactivation is only a potential threat. While the rating system do make the drivers conscious about their interaction with passengers, it does not take the form of an actualized struggle for survival.
Uber combines formal flexibility with rigid technological control over the drivers’ labor processes. This makes it easier for Uber to engage drivers without being concerned about their skills and qualifications. One can thus hypothesize that such platform-based technological work arrangements might facilitate the increased flexibilization, outsourcing, and nonstandard employment, as centralized digital control mechanisms make it easier to coordinate a fragmented workforce.