Au­thor hits Uber, says it’s chang­ing the rules of work

Waterloo Region Record - - Local - TERRY PENDER tpen­[email protected]­ Twit­ter: @Pen­derRecord

WATER­LOO — Alex Rosen­blat al­ways gives Uber rid­ers the high­est pos­si­ble rat­ing.

She spent four years and 40,000 kilo­me­tres on the road with them be­fore pub­lish­ing “Uber­land: How Al­go­rithms are Rewrit­ing the Rules of Work.”

So Rosen­blat knows Uber driv­ers who re­ceive too many less-than-per­fect rat­ings are not al­lowed to use the plat­form, and they may re­ally need the money.

“You are look­ing at a com­pany that also af­fects work in much broader ways, it might be set­ting a tem­plate for other in­dus­tries,” said Rosen­blat dur­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion last Fri­day or­ga­nized by the depart­ment of so­ci­ol­ogy and le­gal stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Water­loo.

Based out of the Data & So­ci­ety Re­search In­sti­tute in New York City, she’s a tech­nol­ogy ethno­g­ra­pher — or so­cial sci­en­tist who sys­tem­at­i­cally stud­ies cul­tures and or­ga­ni­za­tions.

While re­search­ing her book, which was pub­lished last fall, Rosen­blat also spent thou­sands of hours read­ing on­line fo­rums where Uber driv­ers share in­for­ma­tion.

In 10 years, Uber went from an lit­tle­known ride-hail­ing app to a globe-girdling cor­po­ra­tion that is val­ued at more than US$70 bil­lion.

Even though it loses bil­lions of dol­lars a year, there is talk of an ini­tial pub­lic of­fer­ing of shares some­time in 2019.

Al­most ev­ery­where it ex­panded Uber sowed con­tro­versy, scoff­ing at laws and reg­u­la­tions that gov­ern the taxi in­dus­try and the re­la­tion­ships be­tween em­ploy­ees and em­ploy­ers.

Uber does that by say­ing it is a tech­nol­ogy com­pany, the neu­tral provider of a plat­form that con­nects peo­ple, and not a trans­porta­tion com­pany, said Rosen­blat.

“In the United States con­text the power of be­ing a Sil­i­con Val­ley com­pany is akin to na­tion­al­ism, it has a cul­tural heft that is quite enor­mous,” said Rosen­blat. “In the U.S. be­ing a tech­nol­ogy com­pany means you get to ex­ist in a cul­ture of ex­cep­tion.”

That means some tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies are al­lowed to op­er­ate out­side of the rules, laws and reg­u­la­tions that ap­ply to non-tech com­pa­nies in the same sec­tor.

Rosen­blat sin­gled out Uber, Airbnb and so­cial me­dia plat­forms that take no re­spon­si­bil­ity for what is posted.

Rosen­blat’s book and re­search are timely. Her talk at the Univer­sity of Water­loo came about 10 days after an Uber driver won a small but sig­nif­i­cant vic­tory in the On­tario Court of Ap­peal. The driver launched a class-ac­tion law­suit, say­ing driv­ers are Uber em­ploy­ees and not in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tors.

A lower court had ruled the driver was bound to an agree­ment with Uber that sends dis­putes to Europe for ar­bi­tra­tion.

As part of its ser­vices agree­ment, Uber re­quires driv­ers to pay up to $US14,500 in fil­ing fees just to be­gin the ar­bi­tra­tion process, which must be held in the Nether­lands. The On­tario Court of Ap­peal rul­ing says the law pro­hibits em­ploy­ers from con­tact­ing out em­ploy­ment stan­dards.

The man be­hind the On­tario suit is David Heller, a 35-year-old driver for UberEats, a ser­vice that calls on driv­ers to de­liver food from restau­rants to Uber cus­tomers.

The rul­ing means a lower court must hear his case, and rule on whether Heller’s class ac­tion suit can pro­ceed.

The case will be closely watched by Rosen­blat, the 50,000 Uber driv­ers in Canada, the 900,000 Uber driv­ers in the U.S. and oth­ers who study the chang­ing na­ture of work in the dig­i­tal age.

Uber driv­ers in the U.S. have tried and failed to launch a class-ac­tion law­suit against the com­pany.

While Uber says driv­ers are in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tors with no boss, Rosen­blat dis­agrees. She said the com­pany’s al­go­rithm is the boss, and it gov­erns and con­trols the driv­ers.

When driv­ers sign onto the app at the start of the shift, they must agree to the terms. Uber uni­lat­er­ally changes the rates, tracks lo­ca­tions, speeds and sud­den stops.

Driv­ers will lose ac­cess to the plat­form if they de­cline too many calls or re­ceive even a few slightly neg­a­tive rat­ings, she said.

That’s why some Uber driv­ers pro­vide bot­tled wa­ter and choco­lates to pas­sen­gers, she said, and oth­ers have phone charg­ing cords in the back seat un­til pas­sen­gers steal them.

A driver who was be­ing abused by a pas­sen­ger hurl­ing ra­cial slurs, stopped the car and told the pas­sen­ger to get out. She was rep­ri­manded for end­ing a call early, said Rosen­blat.

And the rat­ing sys­tem passes along the bi­ases and prej­u­dices of big­oted pas­sen­gers with no re­course for driv­ers. “There is no bar­gain­ing power, you can’t bar­gain with an al­go­rithm,” said Rosen­blat.

Man­age­ment by al­go­rithm re­moves trust and fair­ness be­tween em­ploy­ees and em­ploy­ers, she said.

When Uber was re­cruit­ing driv­ers in New York City it said they would earn about $98,000 a year. The fed­eral labour board in the U.S. sued Uber, say­ing that was not true.

And Rosen­balt said her re­search demon­strated that very few driv­ers ever made that much, and 68 per cent of Uber driv­ers quit after six months.

“Uber is set­ting a new tem­plate and chal­leng­ing a lot of the laws and norms that we take for granted,” said Rosen­blat.

“What it is do­ing is say­ing: ‘The reg­u­lar rules do not ap­ply.’”


Au­thor and re­searcher Alex Rosen­blat says Uber af­fects nor­mal work and might be set­ting a tem­plate for other in­dus­tries.

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