Sadiq Khan has made “taking Uber to task” a hallmark of his Mayorship; from publicly calling out the company’s aggressive lobbying tactics and “army of PR experts,” to attempting to outright ban Uber from operating in the city. This battle has positioned Khan as a leader willing to take on a big, bad corporation, appealing to his soft-left base. There are good reasons for Khan to challenge a company like Uber: poor work conditions are embedded in its business model, and it routinely uses its reputation as simply a "tech service" – rather than a transportation company – to evade regulations.
Except, Uber is not the one shouldering the cost of this battle. There is a worrying behind-the-scenes dynamic to the public theatrics of Khan’s “war on Uber”. The introduction of Uber into London has created a huge increase in the number of private hire vehicles on the streets, leading to some scrutiny over increases in congestion and pollution. Following intense lobbying efforts by Uber, Khan has agreed to effectively shift the cost of dealing with this away from a multi-million-dollar company to its working-class migrant workers.
Take, for example, the Mayor’s decision to impose a congestion charge on minicab drivers. This will force London’s majority BME minicab workforce to fork out up to £4,000 annually, while the majority White black-taxi workforce remain exempt from the charge.
The Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), the largest union representing British Uber drivers has launched a landmark racial discrimination case against the Mayor, framing the charge as an act of institutional racism. They argue that the charge effectively creates a racial pay gap by demanding higher financial input from black and brown workers for doing the same job: transporting Londoners from A to B. The case not only exposes how state regulators like TfL can end up complicit in some of the most exploitative practices of the digital gig economy – it also brings to light how this emerging form of work profits off the relative lack of social and economic power of its minority workers.
In terms of optics, the Mayor's wide-reaching congestion charge kills two birds with one stone: it seems both anti-corporatist, and environmentalist. But in terms of workers’ rights, it entrenches the “worst of both worlds” business logic of what Nick Srnicek calls “platform capitalism” – workers are treated as ‘self-employed’ when it comes to shouldering operational costs and being denied traditional worker protections, but then they're subject to employer-like discipline and management. Furthermore, it does little to solve the actual problem of emissions: according to TfL’s own data, the move will only reduce traffic by 1 percent. Even so, these kinds of environmental and social costs should be aimed at large companies and institutions, not individual workers.
What we see here is a devil’s pact between government regulators and a monopolistic platform company. London needs Uber – it has created entire night-time economy, and is now a key part of remaining competitive as a global city. However, a tacit agreement has been made between public regulators and the private sector to make workers pay the social, environmental and economic costs of the unforgiving rat race that is competitive urbanism.
This is where the race angle comes in. It is no coincidence that platforms have had the biggest impact in sectors traditionally dominated by migrant labour, like courier work, minicabbing, domestic work, sex work. This work keeps the city going, and yet is often part of the informal economy. It is often defined by instability and low wages; by high intensity and low protection.
The essential work of major cities has always been done by the cheapest and most easily exploitable workforce; and in London, this workforce has been largely migrants and people of colour. These workers typically have less social, economic and political power than their white, citizen counterparts. They also garner little sympathy from the general public, particularly following the resurgence of tired authenticity politics surrounding the “white working class” and immigrants-taking-our-jobs rhetoric.
It is therefore unsurprising that platforms, with their anti-worker models of exploitation, have been successful in sectors where workers are either totally invisible, or even demonised – and this is intrinsically linked to how these workers are racialised. It's much easier to take advantage of a group that society doesn't care about. Really, “platformisation” intensifies the exploitation already experienced in these sectors: according to 2015 reports, drivers ran the risk of suspension when their ratings dipped below 4.6 stars, fares are constantly driven down and in spite of the dangers of minicabbing, with drivers reporting high levels of physical and verbal assault on the job, repeated calls for integrating a driver safety button into the app have been rebuffed.
The questions therefore become: would Uber’s business model be possible if not for the racist framework that makes some workers less valuable, visible and powerful than others? And would it possible without the enabling approach of state regulators? Consider the treatment of black cabbies versus minicabs: while the latter are consistently demonised, Mayors of London past and present are eager to position themselves as part of a “cabbies cabinet”.
Selective applying the congestion charge to minicabs but not black cabs is therefore part of a long-standing pattern (despite black cabs producing notoriously high emissions). Workers across all sectors of London’s cab economy face worsening conditions, but culturally valuing black cabs as a traditional British industry powered by largely white men, compared to the more often immigrant-run minicab industry creates an internal hierarchy that weakens labour power overall and undermines conditions for everyone.
Seen from this perspective, you could argue that this corner of the digital gig economy is institutionally racist: its business model relies on and produces the racist effect of a highly exploited, largely BME workforce, whose worsening conditions are connected to how they are racialised. State regulators play an increasingly complicit role in this dynamic. Looking at racism as institutional, rather than just individual pathology, explains how London’s first Muslim mayor of Pakistani origin can be on the receiving end of a discrimination case by a workforce disproportionately made up of Muslim workers of Pakistani origin.
While this case highlights the racial element of labour exploitation, the Uber drivers’ struggle is important for all workers, because immigrants have always been used as the “testing ground” for undermining the rights of all workers. In this context, the case represents an important early battle for labour rights in a rapidly changing work landscape. And that's because it touches on the central nervous system of the platform economy: the total erasure of the worker and the key role played by state actors in allowing this to happen. Digitisation is creating a new world of work – and it is crucial that workers, not the corporate establishment, win the terms on which that world is built.