We'll all be exploited like Uber drivers unless we fight back against the 'gig economy'

Uber loses London license and people are freaking outWochit

Transport for London has declared that Uber is not a fit and proper cab company and must change if it wants to continue operating in London. Soon after, Uber's chief executive apologised for the "mistakes" the company had made and acknowledged that "we must...change".

One of the more interesting spectacles of recent days has been hearing Uber apologise for all the things its impassioned media supporters said it was never guilty of in the first place. Presumably it was the gloomy prospect of steeper fares home from the pub that prompted a torrent of hacks last week to drop all journalistic even-handedness and lament, in the words of one Spectator columnist, the "pitiful howl against a changing economy".

But the ongoing squabble over the regulatory side of the 'gig' economy is only half of the story. Without wishing to sound blasé about some of the failures highlighted by TfL in its suspension of Uber's operating licence – one of which was that Uber was not doing enough to protect passengers from sexual assault – regulation is mainly about customers. Ergo, you can introduce all the regulation you like and still be using an exploitative business model to effectively stiff your workers.

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A long-awaited case that kicks off at an Employment Appeals Tribunal today, 27 September, could have more significant repercussions in this respect than the Uber ruling by TfL. Yet it is unlikely to receive the same press coverage as TfL's decision precisely because it has the potential to change the lives of some of the poorest people in London, rather than simply inconvenience pontificating columnists.

In October 2016, an employment tribunal ruled that Uber drivers were not really "independent contractors" at all, and were thus entitled to things like holiday pay and the minimum wage. The judge presiding over the case described the idea that Uber drivers represent 30,000 independent businesspeople as "faintly ridiculous".

Uber's appeal against this decision begins today, and the result of the tribunal could have a profound impact on the wider economy. Earlier this week another London tribunal ruled that Addison Lee, one of Uber's rivals, would similarly have to re-classify its staff as "workers" rather than "independent contractors".

Understandably, Uber receives the lion's share of coverage in this area because it is, as I already touched upon, the mode of transport for the sorts of people who write the coverage. But the disconnect between the material reality of 'gig' work and the relationship with the companies providing it extends much further. Citizens Advice has estimated that as many as 460,000 people could be falsely classified as self-employed.

On the one hand, this means the government is missing out on hundreds of millions of pounds each year in lost tax and national insurance contributions. But gig economy employers had their hand in worker and taxpayer pockets twice-over. By adhering to the fiction that the often tightly-controlled band of staff that these companies use are mere "contractors", both the individual and the taxpayer pick up the tab for run-of-the-mill worker protections.

Dan, a bicycle courier I interviewed a few months ago, told me how he had been forced to take time off from his job after injuring ligaments in his arm. In order to carry on living while he was hors de combat, he had to sign on and claim Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) together with housing benefit until he was fit to ride again. Some of his colleagues worked through illness and injury or put almost everything they earned aside.

The result is a sort of communism for the rich in which profits are privatised and the tab for any inconvenient outgoings is picked up by everyone else.

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"Some people don't like to take responsibility for their own shit," once bellowed the former CEO of Uber Travis Kalanick from the back seat of a cab at one of the company's drivers. Some organisations also neatly embody the psychological projections of their CEOs.

Former Uber boss Travis KalanickReuters

While Kalanick is no longer the face of Uber, he encapsulates the ethos of the changing economy to an almost cartoonish degree. His own intellectual paragon is Ayn Rand, a cod-philosopher whose wooden novels have instructed generations of sociopathic adolescents in the virtues of solipsism. Only a few individuals "move the world and give life its meaning," wrote Rand in a 1968 preface to the Fountainhead. "The rest are no concern of mine".

Many of those leaping to the defence of gig employers will rationalise their own self-interested attitude toward the people who (literally) keep the wheels turning as mere 'common sense'. Others, meanwhile, have unconsciously imbibed the hierarchical tropes of the Randians, whereby the genius of a rising class of tech elites is being aggressively suppressed by 'authoritarians' and 'restive bureaucrats'. If consumers say they require sweated labour to run around the city then so be it – this Morlock-like class will just have to be found.

But what the flood of recent tribunal cases highlights is that the uneasy settlement between capital and labour (a settlement, granted, in which bosses have long held the whip hand) is dead. The so-called 'disrupters' of Silicone Valley are not prepared to accept even the modest protections laid down by the twentieth-century welfare state.

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Instead they seek to rip up the rules which safeguard the exploited - in their eyes an insignificant mass - while posing as the sat-upon victims of an overbearing state. It is a new capitalist populism, barricaded behind an army of well-compensated and polyanna scribblers. "It is the poor who will suffer [if we regulate Uber]," cry those for whom the sufferings of the poor have never normally elicited much disquiet.

Self-centredness lacquered with piety is one of the hallmarks of our age. But so too is the desire to sit out ideological battles. This itself naturally favours the already-powerful - to be 'non-ideological' is simply to resign oneself to things as they are, with all the resultant injustices.

The hair in the soup, so to speak, is that 'gig' employment practices are spreading and they will spread further if we don't put the cork back in the bottle while there is still time. You may think of yourself as a self-sufficient Randian 'creator' who lives only for himself, but to Silicone Valley's disrupters you're probably just another pathetic cog in the amorphous capitalist machine.

The person driving the Uber? That's your reflection; you simply don't know it yet.


James Bloodworth is former editor of Left Foot Forward, one of the UK's top political blogs, and the author of The Myth of Meritocracy.


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