This article has also appeared on MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab’s website.
Arrived at Toronto union station on a cold Wednesday night, I rushed into a black SUV while I was keeping an eye on the endless queue of taxis waiting for the next client to come. As a Ph.D. student, I am by default a low-budget traveler. Thus, hailing a taxi is out of reach.
After six hours in the train, freezing temperature, and a presentation to finalize, I had no option but to Uber. This is how I met Khan, my Uber driver on that night, who drove me for an hour trip outside the city.
The ongoingly smiling Khan, told me that he recently moved, with his wife, from the US after getting his teaching diploma. For him “Ubering” was his coping strategy to overcome the restrictive market labor and of course it is vital to pay the bills. To do so, he bought his USD 34K Nissan Pathfinder, so he got access to the luxurious market on the Uber-Select platform. However, that night, he was active on Uber-X, the ‘economy’ platform. It is always better to have clients rather than patrolling streets with an empty backseat.
This was his motto as I found an UberEATS food delivery bag in his trunk. The latter was his tactic of last resort, to generate revenues when he is short of trips. Throughout the trip, Khan was following routing suggested by the Uber app through his phone mounted on his front windshield. Meanwhile, I was watching my kids going into beds via the “WhatsApp” application.
Once we reached our destination, an apartment booked via Airbnb; I knew that the trip cost me around 34 USD of which Uber will deduct 25% as commission and an additional amount as taxes. I estimated that Khan got around 22 USD as gross revenue (additional costs such as gas, car maintenance, data plan, depreciation cost, and his labor force consumed throughout the trip are yet to be deducted).
In the next three days, I took Uber for more than six times. I met drivers from different educational and cultural backgrounds. However, they were all migrants seeking additional revenues to pay bills, a mortgage or to avoid getting trapped with student loans. This might be a short story of a trip via Uber app, but it could also push to critically think on how digital applications are colonizing our everyday life as underlined by Adam Greenfield (2017) in his book “Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life”
In the last three years, talking with Uber drivers consumed much of my time. I met more than 150 of Khan’s “colleagues” in more than five cities on two continents. Almost all of these trips were critical at constructing my understanding of the emerging ‘platform economy’ and the nature of work transformations introduced by this new model of ‘hyper-outsourced’ model of business organizations (Srnicek, 2017). Each time I reached my destination, I felt the obligation of giving five stars for those ongoingly smiling drivers. On one of the trips, a young Montrealer driver told me (citing him): “I am selling my smile for a five-star rating”.
In these conditions, unemployed, jobless and working poor are being pushed to choose to accept the working conditions as imposed by emerging business organizations (e.g. Uber, Deliveroo, Foodora, Crowdflower, Taskrabbit and Airbnb). The latter have been, for a decade, disrupting the world’s markets in communication, logistics, transportation, and hospitality. Portrayed as an employer of last resort, these companies are creatively destroying the factory-based employment inherited from the industrial era, in a pure Schumpeterian way, and setting the foundations for app-based employment.
The concept could be summed up by the words of Lukas Biewald the CEO of Figure Eight Inc. (formerly CrowdFlower), a leading platform for micro-tasking. In his own words, Mr. Biewald stated that ‘[I]t was very difficult to find someone, sit them down for ten minutes and get them to work for you, and then fire them after those ten minutes. But with technology, you can actually find them, pay them a tiny amount of money and then get rid of them after you don’t need them anymore’ (Marvit, 2014).
To this end, these organizations are using a multifunctional digital structure – the app – to monopolize world markets (transportation in the case of Uber) and redefine the role of workers as the procurers of living labor-power, key means of production (cars, phones, data plan), and running costs (maintenance).
This is not to undermine the amount of capital injected by drivers in their effort to renew their capital investment (renewing their cars) and maintain their longevity on the platform. Hence, at the core of this process lies the algorithmic apparatus orchestrating the overall global process of productions. Embedded within the digital application, this algorithmic center of command and control is physically centralized at the company’s servers while being rhizomatic in its geographical ramifications as it is deployed all over the world through a network of 30 million of drivers’ smartphones.
In sum, this algorithmic control of production is accentuating the atomization of the workforce (Graham et al., 2016), deepening workers’ detachment from administrative and professional affiliations (Lehdonvirta, 2016), and dehumanizing labour process by reducing workers’ agency into a simple ‘click’ on the screen (Irani L., 2013).
In the MENA region, while the platform economy is actively penetrating local markets, we are still short of quality data on digital workers’ socioeconomic and cultural characteristics. However, we know that the middle eastern market represents an important niche for organizations like Uber and Airbnb. This is mainly due to the mismatch between an increasing number of job-seekers (mainly young and educated) and a limited job creation potential. Hence, with a significant number of the working-age population trapped with the informal economy, the platform economy risks at fueling labor informality and pushing Arab workers towards more exploitative working conditions.
At SMEX, we are fully aware of the primacy of this situation and we are actively working with individuals as well as organizations to improve our understanding of the local context. Moreover, we believe that the prevailing legal framework must be re-examined and reformed to be able to defend our civic rights and protects our privacy in the era of “informationalism”.
This being said, it is of great importance to understand that the ‘app system’ is capitalizing on a market that has been crippled by decades of systematic flexibilization of work regulations, fragmentation of workers organizations, and the multiplication of work statues.
In such conditions, platforms like Uber are acting as the employer of last resort. They represent, with some reservations, a window of opportunity for an army of precarious atypical working poor and mostly migrants, in western economies, who are excluded from the wage-based society, its privileges and social protection system as well as collective organizations.
The “no boss”, “no office”, and “no fixed schedule” model of work is appealing for workers all over the world. Our duties are to understand these new paradigms and join efforts to advocate for a more decent work condition. The ‘app system’ is here to stay, it is engaging millions of workers all over the world. It possesses an unprecedented computational and monitoring capacitates. Hence, no one is capable of stopping it. It is our aim (and duties) is to join efforts, as researchers, activists, lobbyists, development portioners, and citizens to advocate for a rights-based policy change that allows people to generate revenues in safe working conditions that preserve their human dignity.
Rabih Jamil is a researcher in the sociology of work and platform economy.