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Uber and the Future of Work

by Fiona Alamyar on April 19, 2018

Platform work has been widely heralded as a liberating, progressive development that provides workers with the opportunity to become micro-entrepreneurs and enjoy the freedom and autonomy of ‘being their own boss’.

In a nutshell, my honours thesis, Future of work: Formal rights, collective action and experiences of work within the platform economy, aims to transcend this popular understanding and explore the nature of the relationship between workers and platform firms, the role of digital communication in building and maintaining this relationship, and the role of labour regulations in shaping the experiences of platform workers. I focus on the experiences of Uber drivers operating in the Sydney area and rely on primary data collected through semi-structured interviews with thirteen individuals. As far as I am aware, at the time of publication comparable fieldwork had not been carried out within the Sydney metropolitan area.

My work addresses itself to the following over-arching question: ‘To what extent does the current regulatory environment allow for decent work within the platform economy?’

In order to do this, my thesis is divided into four sections. Firstly, I explore the emergence of the platform economy and situate it within broader historical and economic change. I argue that far from being innovative and novel, the rise of platform work serves as an extension of an observable shift towards the flexibilisation of the workforce during the post-Fordist era in the Global North. After historically contextualising platform work, I then trace the conceptual development of the platform economy within academic literature. While the ‘sharing economy’ has been the most prominent term used in popular media, it has become an increasingly incoherent analytic concept. I choose instead to rely on the conceptualisation of the platform economy offered by Srnicek in Platform Capitalism which focuses on digital intermediation between groups including producers, consumers, suppliers, service providers and advertisers. Through an examination of existing research in this area, I find that experiences of platform workers have not been adequately explored especially in an Oceanic context thus underscoring the importance of my own research.

My second chapter looks at the regulatory environment in which platform work is performed in Australia and the numerous challenges posed for on-demand labour. While notions of escape from my law degree initially formed part of my motivation to undertake honours in Political Economy, the law eventually came to occupy a central thread in my thesis. Platform workers are engaged by firms as independent contractors that do not possess the same legal protections as employees, despite generally engaging in similar forms of work and suffering from comparable vulnerabilities. I argue that the platform economy disrupts established norms upon which labour law is premised and removes employment relations from the traditional government-exercised regulatory sphere to the unforgiving commercial marketplace. There is a lack of legal protections and limited capacity for platform workers to exercise collective bargaining power.

Having highlighted the extent and nature of regulatory gaps, their impact on experiences of work and the nature of the relationship between platform workers and firms is then explored in Chapter Three. This chapter presents findings from semi-structured interviews with Uber drivers in the Sydney metropolitan area. My findings highlight the non-transparent nature of Uber’s communications with its drivers and the way in which this fosters a sense of regulatory confusion among workers. This confusion is further exacerbated by the complexity and uncertainty of the regulatory environment in which platform work is performed. Findings from interviews also reveal the income insecurity and unpredictability associated with platform work. While the sample size of drivers is relatively small and only relates to Uber, the findings from these interviews provide useful insights into a common lack of regulatory understanding, and the effects of precarious employment experienced by workers across many platforms.

The implications of interview findings for theoretical understandings of platform work are then drawn out in Chapter Four. I argue that the precariousness of platform work hinges on the asymmetrical relationship between on-demand labour and platform firms. Power and information asymmetries manifest in regulatory confusion among workers and are maintained through platform design and detached styles of digital communication by firms. I argue that unions and worker associations have the potential to assist in filling informational gaps and advocating for worker’s rights, however labour-driven negotiations with platform firms are considerably hindered by the current regulatory environment. In the absence of legislative reform, platform work will maintain its precarious quality and decent working conditions will be out of grasp for a growing number of individuals.

Platform work represents a rupturing of traditional employment relations, shifting the risks and costs associated with work away from firms and onto workers. My thesis provides an empirical basis for the development of theoretical frameworks that further elucidate the relationship between platform workers and digital platforms. It contributes to the emerging academic literature in this field by demonstrating the importance of power and information asymmetries in shaping worker experiences. Further, it illustrates the need for regulatory reform that addresses this imbalance with the aim of providing workers with formal protections that limit their employment vulnerability. It is a nascent point in time to seriously question how the current legislative framework accommodates technological developments and changes in the labour market. If policy-makers fail to engage in a genuine assessment of the effectiveness of existing labour regulations then precarious employment in Australia will continue to expand.

Fiona Alamyar
Fiona Alamyar is an Arts/Law student at the University of Sydney. Whilst currently finishing her LLB, she remains a political economist at heart. She is especially intrigued by the dissection between law and political economy, labour-capital relations and the commodification of labour power in the neoliberal era.
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