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