By Sean Connolly, editorial section editor
In 2014, Uber claimed it serviced upwards of 1 million riders per day. In Boston, countless college students use Uber on a regular basis. It is a fast and convenient service, so as students leave the car, they don’t stop to consider what kind of negative effects may come from that convenience.
We live in a consumer era. Consumers are not asked to critically assess their purchases, and sellers will do everything they can to keep any immoral practices hidden. For their part, consumers are more than happy to ignore a bit of injustice if the service or product they receive is of high quality. What does it matter if the minerals used in iPhones are mined by slaves in the Congo, so long as the phone works? What does it matter that a large quantity of clothes made abroad are produced in sweatshops, so long as they look good? And what does it matter that your Uber driver receives low pay, no benefits and no job security, so long as you get a quick ride?
The treatment of Uber drivers may not be on par with sweatshops, but it’s happening on American soil, under the supposed protection of American labor laws, and it needs to be critically examined. Through an often-exploited loophole, Uber drivers are considered independent contractors instead of full-time employees. No matter how many hours a week someone works for Uber, they will never be eligible for benefits or job security. Uber drivers are also forced to pay for all their own expenses, from gas to car insurance. These costs would be expected to be fulfilled by Uber itself if drivers were direct employees.
There are also concerns over the tipping policy Uber holds. Tipping taxi drivers is a common practice, but tipping Uber drivers is actively discouraged by the company. A statement from the company read that there should be no tips because “the Uber experience means not having to reach for a wallet at the end of a ride.” If offered a tip, drivers are told to remind the passenger that tips are not necessary. The exception is the UberTAXI branch of the app, which adds an automatic 20 percent gratuity fee. There have been claims, currently being examined in lawsuits, that Uber holds on to half of this gratuity fee, both misleading customers and underpaying drivers.
Along with the issue of tips, Uber drivers are fighting for their right to be treated as employees. This would have multiple effects, including holding Uber responsible for paying the drivers’ expenses. Lawsuits raising these and other issues have been filed in several cities across America, including one in Boston led by accomplished labor lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan, who has won several labor lawsuits against major corporations. In California, drivers were granted the right to pursue a class-action lawsuit, thwarting attempts by Uber to gain a summary judgment.
Uber fights back by claiming most of their workers would like to remain independent contractors to avoid things like set hours. The truth of this statement is debatable, as Uber has declined in the past to reveal the total number of drivers working for their service. It’s entirely possible for the service to implement changes that would allow some drivers to work full-time while others remain independent. Claiming drivers don’t wish for their statuses to change is a way for Uber to defend its own interests while propping some workers up as figureheads and throwing the rest under the bus.
Besides misreating workers, Uber has come under fire for encroaching on the taxi industry. In some cities, Uber has essentially created an oversupply of transport. As more people use Uber to get a ride, it becomes more difficult for taxi drivers to get a fare.
No one can be expected to examine all of their purchases to confirm they have been created by fair labor. Companies, however, rely on consumers and we can place pressure on these corporations to incorporate just labor practices. When workers call out unfair treatment, we should listen. And when we’re presented with two stories, one from the working people themselves and one from a corporation, it should be obvious enough where the truth is more likely to lie.
Photo courtesy Mark Warner, Creative Commons