#BoycottUber? Precarity and agency: Giving voice to migrant ride-share drivers in London.
The gig economy generates controversy for its neoliberal industrial relations and its effects on labour conditions, wages, the distributions of income and wealth and the surge in precarity amongst workers. Uber in London, in particular, has been repeatedly criticised for treating their drivers poorly. Moreover, ride-share driving platforms are presented as threatening the livelihoods of traditional black-cab drivers, which so far enjoy greater legal protection and higher wages than ride-share drivers (Oaff, 2002). Resultingly, in the UK the public has been calling to boycott Uber, with the #BoycottUber trending repeatedly on social media over the last few years. However, Uber and other rideshare platforms employ the most economically vulnerable, typically migrant, workers (Zwick, 2018). Resultingly, boycotting Uber may pose a threat to the livelihoods of many already precarious migrant workers.
In 2019, the total number of licensed private hire vehicle drivers (PHVs) in England reached the highest number ever, mostly due to ridesharing companies such as Uber, Kaptan, Bolt, Ola and ViaVan entering the taxi market in England. 76% of all licensed cars in England are now PHVs and 45,000 TfL licensed drivers alone work for Uber. At the same time, numbers of black cab drivers have fallen from 25,000 to just under 24,000 in London (Department for Transport (Dft), 2019). Most drivers are self-employed and usually work 7 days a week (Department for Transport (Dft), 2019). The average Uber driver earns around £11 per hour, and three-quarters of London’s Uber drivers have a lower total income than the median London worker (Frey et al., 2018).
While London has a BME population of 40%, 94% of London’s PHV drivers are from ethnic minority and migrant backgrounds; overwhelmingly male and primarily drawn from the bottom half of the London income distribution (BBC, 2019a). This is in stark contrast to London’s black cab drivers who are to 88% white British and who also take-home higher earnings (Economic Times, 2019). Uber driver statistics from the US (Uber, 2015), show that Uber drivers were on average between 30 and 49 years old, predominately male and non-white. ‘Surprisingly’, half of the drivers held a university degree.
In recent years, black-cab drivers have staged protests in London against Uber drivers and brought legal challenges against Uber; putting pressure on Uber and the London Major, by arguing that licensing Uber threatens their income and the safety of passengers (BBC, 2019b). In 2017, the London Major and TFL introduced new policies, aimed at improving taxi services and addressing some of the concerns of black cab drivers. However, when the policies where announced, Uber accused the Major of London of discrimination against its drivers of whom most are immigrants. One of the new policies is a requirement for drivers from non-English-speaking countries to pass a £200 written English exam. The exam requires higher levels of English than the British citizenship test and exceeds the level demanded of government employees in, such as a teaching assistant or someone answering the phone in a local authority office (Davies, 2017).
Studies on work and employment highlight whiteness as a central theme of unearned privilege across the middle- and working-class professions (Al Ariss et al., 2014; Samaluk & Pedersen, 2012). As explained above black-cab drivers enjoy such white ethnic domination not only in their profession but also have the unquestioning white solidarity for their campaign against Uber drivers, who are predominantly from BAME and migrant backgrounds. What appears to be a curiosity, in this case, are the mechanisms by which ethnicity remains an unexplored phenomenon in a critical exploration of the gig economy and its social and political consequences. Another curious aspect is that much of the debate does not include the voice of migrant workers within the gig-economy. While many of the workers in the gig economy are migrants, the debate around the gig-economy focusses on neo-liberal practices, exploitation and class struggles of workers in ‘general’ (one could argue ‘white workers’), while omitting the fact that many of these workers are migrants. Class is pushed into the centerground of this debate. However, recent years have shown that there is little solidarity for migrants on the side of white working-class people. Moreover, if migrants are discussed, they are seen as passive victims of neo-liberal employment practices (who need to be saved), rather than actors with agency in a society with active struggles and tensions across ethnic and cultural lines within the gig economy. This study returns the agency and voice missing in the extant discussions of the gig economy.
In recent years a spirited debate has emerged in relation to new forms of precarious work, which has come with a dramatic trend toward rising inequality and stagnant wage growth for large segments of the workforce, particularly due to the growing gig economy. One of the problems with this debate, however, is that analysts, interest groups, and social commentators overlook one important aspect which is that many of these new jobs that have been created in the gig economy are being taken up by migrants, who earn their living doing those jobs. Those migrant workers are more often than not discussed as exploited victims of the still-growing gig economy and its precarious working conditions.
The labour market integration of migrants is an important factor for their wider inclusion into the host country. Despite that migrants often are deskilled and locked out from jobs that reflect their educational credentials or ambitions, which often results in migrant turning to self-employment and in recent years to ‘new jobs’ created by the gig economy. According to Hall and Krueger (2015), 61 per cent of surveyed drivers said their financial security was better after joining Uber, and 71 per cent said their income and job satisfaction increased. This is contrary to the dominant debate around the gig-economy, neoliberal industrial relations and precarity, and as such, underlines the call to giving voice to ride-share drivers.
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