Harry here. Today we’re featuring a new special contributor, Alex Rosenblat of the Data & Society Research Institute. Alex is a friend and one of the people I respect most when it comes to the issues drivers face on a daily basis. Although not a driver herself, she has spent countless hours researching the issues, talking with drivers online and in person and studying the industry.
Alex’s first post has to do with all the ways that wage theft can and is emerging with work via an app. I’m not convinced that Uber is maliciously stealing money from drivers but when you look at the design (or lack of design) of many of the systems and programs in place, it can sure feel like things are heavily slanted in favor of the big guys.
A lot of discussions around the gig economy or the sharing economy assume that the technology always works as promised, or as outlined by company policies, at Uber and elsewhere. But there are bugs in the implementation of tech which negatively impact drivers on the ground. In effect, Uber’s policies and practices don’t always square with driver experiences.
One of the benefits of app-mediated work is that work time and activities are monitored, which should, in theory, reduce inequities like prospective wage theft. But technology doesn’t produce accountability automatically. In Uber’s system, Uber has the power to enforce or carve out what work is paid (cancellation fees) and what isn’t (e.g. the return of lost items), or what is tracked and what isn’t, and drivers have very little recourse to negotiate inequities in the system.
Below are a series of issues that come up in driver experiences. Some of these, like unpaid cancellation fees, look potentially like automated wage theft at scale; others center on issues of fairness. While these issues don’t speak to bad intentions by the company, they are interesting indicators of how age-old employment issues can emerge in different forms through software.
One way to remedy challenges workers face is to address discrepancies between how the tech is supposed to work, and where workers experience real gaps in that promise, such as through policy changes, new design features that improve transparency, or better communications about technological limitations.