Future of Workers: Building safe workplaces of the future

Shruti Gupta

Ride-hailing platforms like Ola and Uber have gained a ubiquitous presence in the urban landscape today. Through the use of internet and GPS satellite, these platforms facilitate rapid communication between ride-seekers and the closest available driver. However, this technology interacting with business practices hides the presence of a large, cheap, on-demand workforce without which online platforms and mobile apps cannot function. As this economy grows in size, we are at a critical juncture and must work towards the dignity of workers and build inclusive and safer workplaces of the future.

Workers on ride sharing platforms come from vulnerable backgrounds, often driven by the need to escape less desirable alternatives such as unemployment, a lower paying job with poor working conditions, drought in farm lands, and family economic pressures. The promises of flexibility, entrepreneurship and autonomy, however, may obscure problematic elements that do not account for worker vulnerability and safety.

Our research work with drivers is showing that drivers are locked into a system of dependence and economic precarity driven by lack of clarity in aspects of their work, and control over many aspects of their life. Platforms manage ride allocation and rate per ride.

Unlike some types of traditional fleet operators, contemporary ride-hailing services do not share the costs of fleet maintenance with drivers. Drivers bear the cost of the cars, medallions or licenses, running and maintenance, as well as depreciation.

These costs are magnified as there is no compensation for time spent waiting between rides and customers, driving between home and the first and last trip and time spent undertaking vehicle maintenance. Workers perceive “service agreements” as difficult-to-comprehend being in English, which we have not been able to access, and companies have managed to evade statutory provisions which protect workers against such irregular and casual work and insecurity. In fact, recently there is research showing that privacy and consent policies are hard to read even for university educated students and trained lawyers.

Further, while the primary objective of the mechanism is to develop trust between two unknown parties, we are learning from drivers that it magnifies vulnerability and increases their need to do emotional labour.

Ratings are seen as being used to determine a driver’s continued engagement on the app and access to rides. Deactivation without notice or warning is perceived as ever-looming. Workers have experienced being unable to log into the app or stoppage of work requests. Drivers we have interviewed tell us that deactivation, which appears to be algorithmic, is followed by harrowing instances of pleading with helpline operators and office executives for days on end.

Ratings place the onus of assessment on untrained customers, reducing costs of managing workforces. Studies have shown that rating algorithms aggregate user’s conscious and unconscious biases leading to discrimination against women and religious and social minorities. The current process for seeking explanations or requesting rectifications is not clearly communicated, and is perhaps discretionary. This problem is augmented, as consumers are informed when drivers give them a low rating which adversely impacts subsequent rating from the consumer.

To manage their ratings, workers feel they have to undertake emotional labour — such as carrying on conversations when they do not want to, apologizing for factors outside of their control, or pleading for good ratings at the end of a ride . The system indirectly allows the platform to exercise a degree of control over the emotional activities of the workers.

The physical displacement of the “workspace” compounds worker alienation. The absence of a physical office where workers meet and discuss work and issues leads to the erasure of community and group solidarities limiting possibilities of collective bargaining. While companies have tried to extend support and create a sense of community through initiatives such as the Uber Greenlight Hub, accessing these options entail opportunity costs for workers who are essentially daily wage workers.

An occasional engaged conversation with an Uber or Ola driver and a regular lookout for signs while they drive is enough to understand that there is a need for significant introspection in the platform economy. While platforms such as Uber and Ola have provided meaningful alternative sources of employment and increased flexibility in comparison to traditional work, it is important to understand the costs and impacts, and evolve thoughtful ways to build future workplaces.

At this critical juncture, when conversations about workers’ dignity take hold, technology-reliant organisations have an opportunity to support worker communities through technology-enabled mechanisms. Ratings may be useful for building trust, particularly in light of debates around perceived safety for women but policy-makers need to ponder on the balance between such public good and the harms of surveillance on drivers.

While companies initially offered incentives to attract drivers onto the platform and cover costs before ride-hailing gained traction, these were stopped and the rate per kilometer was reduced. Companies must ensure that the economic well-being of drivers is safeguarded during expansionary activities, alongside welfare nets from the state. Simultaneously, financial, housing, social security, and healthcare needs in the context of platform work need to understood to design appropriate products and services to ensure that drivers are not plummeted into cycles of debt and poverty in case of inability to work. Companies are starting to be reflexive about these issues and learning more about their partner drivers, and as technology mediated work expands in scope, it is now that we must examine the futures of workers.

Shruti Gupta is a Future of Workers Research Fellow at Aapti Institute, Bangalore and a PhD student at the National University of Singapore.

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