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Identifying as a gig-worker: Intersectionality and ontological security among Uber drivers in Brisbane, Australia

Identifying as a gig-worker: Intersectionality and ontological security among Uber drivers in Brisbane, Australia

 
Professor Greg Marston Head of School The School of Social Science The University of Queensland
Dr Peter “PJ” Holtum Postdoctoral Research Fellow The School of Social Science The University of Queensland
 
A fundamental aspect of Uber’s business model relies on the misnomer of the ‘sharing economy’. The confusion of taxi work for ‘ridesharing’ has been paramount to Uber’s ability to negotiate its way between the legal and operational loopholes of transport industries around the world. While most of us understand how Uber’s claim that they are a ‘technology company’ affects their legal status as employers, there is less clarity as to how this ambiguous working relationship affects Uber drivers. In this paper we explore and explain how driver identity is manufactured around Uber’s narrative of flexible work. More specifically, we explore how this working relationship disrupts ontological security for drivers as they individualise the risks and rewards of being a gig-worker.
In this paper we present data from 29 interviews with Uber driver-partners in Brisbane, Australia. We present findings from our research that provide insight into the professional working identities of drivers. Our findings demonstrate how drivers internalise this narrative of flexibility under the guise of developing their own human capital, although we argue that it is not clear that they are either benefitting from the flexibility of their work, nor that they are contributing to their own [human] capital. Specifically, our findings show that drivers have little choice about where, when, and how they run their own driving business. These findings suggest that drivers have little autonomy over their tasks, and that specific social structures such as migratory history and household income can drastically alter drivers’ experiences of insecurity, as well as their likelihood to drive at undesirable, risky, and unsociable times.
We use an intersectional approach to situate driver identities, and subjectivity, against the hegemonic domain of [gig]work as an Uber driver (Williams, 2018; Collins, 1998). Here we argue that aspects of ethnicity, class, and gender are all capitalised upon by the logic of the ‘gig-economy’, but that specific drivers will be more at a disadvantage than others because of these intersections. Our research complements, and builds upon Alex Rosenblat’s (2018) ethnography of Uber drivers in the United States and Canada that explores the “glamourised myth of millennial labour” (p. 34). We build on Rosenblat’s project to explore how “Uber uses the language of technology to disrupt the role of identity” (p. 203) as we present findings from our research that demonstrate how drivers internalise this culture of gig-work. We also draw from Richard Sennett’s (2007) conceptualisation of culture in ‘New Capitalism’ to help understand and orient the findings from our research. Our findings reflect Sennett’s characterisation of this culture as one steeped in ‘short term self-investment’ and one that is centred about consumption (rather than the production) of skills and assets (p. 3). Herein, we reflect Peter Fleming’s (2017) criticism of human capital theory as we apply it to drivers in our research since Uber drivers in our research appear to devote more time and assets to work than they do to themselves or their careers.
Ultimately, our paper explores how Uber blurs the lines between work commitments and life commitments for the drivers. We demonstrate how drivers with more forms of social/cultural/economic capital can adapt to this time/space ambiguity, while drivers from more vulnerable groups of society struggle. More broadly, we examine the narrative around ‘flexibility’ as we investigate the social relations that sustain certain forms of flexibility, while obscuring the darker side of ontological insecurity associated with the individualisation of risk. We explore these theoretical ideas by drawing on the accounts from drivers in their attempts to reconcile work and life commitments, individualised and regulatory responsibility, and sacrifice and reward in both a materialist and emotional sense. We conclude by suggesting that the way forward in resolving some of these tensions in realising a preferable ‘future of work’ scenario at the individual and societal level will require sound social policy supports and a broad public policy agenda that recognises that flexibility and security are two sides of the same coin.