In the Bay Area, there are thousands of such people running through the aisles, fidgeting in line and racing against the clock. They spend most of their time in cars, where it can be harder to spot them. Oftentimes they’re double-parked in the bike lane, picking up a burrito from inside an adjacent restaurant or waiting for a passenger to come down from the apartment on top. If you look closely, you’ll see a placard in the window that says Uber or a glowing pink moustache indicating they drive around Lyft’s passengers. Last summer, I was one of them.
I’m writing you from Berkeley, California to warn you about this thing called “the sharing economy.” Since no one is really sharing anything, many of us prefer the term “the exploitation economy,” but due to its prevalence many in the Bay Area simply think of it as “the economy.”
You can be chauffeured around the city while somebody picks up and launders your dirty underwear. You can have groceries delivered to your door and your bathroom given that deep clean that you don’t have time to do yourself. The best part is you can do it all on your phone! Sharing economy companies promise their customers all the luxuries of the rich and famous—and they can do that by taking advantage of the system and, in some cases, bending or simply avoiding labour laws.
We do still have a boss. It just isn’t a person. It’s an algorithm.
Almost everybody I picked up was great, but it is a problem when the passengers aren’t cool, like the group of racist, self-righteous venture capitalist bros who smoked in my car. If I was really running my own business, I could have let them know I thought they were all assholes, but with Lyft, and a lot of other apps, the customers are rating you. And if your average rating falls below 4.7 out of 5 stars you are removed from the platform—fired.
Defenders of the sharing economy often tell me they’ve talked to a driver who loves it! Many drivers do, but consider that, as a passenger, you’re going to be rating your interview subject, and that anything under five stars will bring the driver one step closer to getting kicked off the platform. That can have some implications as far as how honest drivers are when their passengers ask about how much they like it. Depressing workers don’t get high ratings. Nobody wants to feel guilty about using an app they like.
Realistically, people aren’t driving around strangers because they love it. They do it because they need to earn a living and it’s been hard in America since 2008. Workers are grateful for what they can get and here it’s the companies who have all the control.
The companies don’t send out an apologetic email letting drivers know a pay cut is on the way. It happens inconspicuously through “upgrades” to the app, which can often change fare and payment rates. Only drivers with enough extra time to carefully analyze their earnings will notice that the new terms don’t work in their favour. After enough pay cuts, some will quit, but many in the workforce buy cars specifically to become a part of the sharing economy and end up stuck, continuing to work for less money or switching to one of the other apps.
All the risk falls onto the worker and the company is free of liability—despite the placard being an explicit suggestion that it’s okay to break the law if that’s what you’ve got to do to get the order done on time.
Why doesn’t Uber just tell its drivers exactly where rides are needed? Giving direct orders would transform their independent contractors into employees with rights and benefits. The result is a system that is much less efficient (for the drivers) than it should be simply because the ride-share app companies want to avoid the responsibilities of being full-blown employers.
Postmates once allowed their drivers to see the details of an order before accepting a job. This was great for couriers because we could estimate how much money we would make on an order. It also meant we could reject bad jobs, which created a situation where it could take a long time—or even be impossible—to find a courier who would accept a low-paying job. Postmates responded by “updating” the app to a “blind system” in which we could still accept or reject jobs, but without enough information to determine whether it would be worth our time or not (e.g., a huge grocery store order). To make sure we accept jobs quickly without analyzing them, the app plays an extremely loud and annoying beeping noise designed specifically to harass couriers into submitting to the algorithm.
In the United States, as I suspect in Canada, all the worker protections in our legal code are specifically designed to help employees. For example, employers are required to pay a minimum wage, to provide medical insurance, and to supply certain benefits such as sick days. By pretending that their employees are actually self-starting entrepreneurs, sharing economy companies can avoid these obligations and save an enormous amount of money in the process—savings that are both passed on to the customer and pocketed in profits. It sounds great until you ask about things like insurance.
I understand that it’s hard not to give in to the lower prices and the convenience of getting whatever you want on demand with an app. It’s kind of awesome, actually! But I would argue that the exploitation economy is just as unhealthy and dehumanizing for the customers as it is for the workers.
Postmates couriers are told that it is strictly against the rules to shake a customer’s hand. Like all rules, this didn’t come from nowhere. The truth is that using sharing economy services can breed contempt for the workers. One creepy Uber driver can nurture disdain for all the lowly drivers. You never even have to see the person who is cleaning your house or your clothes. Plenty of people requested that I drop off their food at the door. Customers grow to love apps that make the worker anonymous. That way, you don’t have to feel guilty about having servants.
There is a place in this world for the sharing economy, and it could be a beautiful thing, but where I live these companies run the show. There are no rules. The apps are breaking the spirit of the law by abusing the independent contractor loophole and actively encourage (e.g., through dubious car placards) actually breaking the law. But it will only ever be the workers, not the companies, who are punished.