|
Choir room

Working Like a Customer: Consenting to Precarious Work in Ride-hailing Platforms

Working Like a Customer: Consenting to Precarious Work in Ride-hailing Platforms

 
Youngrong Lee, University of Toronto
 
Recent findings showed that the gig economy is continuously growing regarding both its consumer and worker base. The existing literature on gig work has largely examined workers as the recipients of an algorithm-driven control designed by labor platforms and as the passive subjects formed by them. However, there is dearth of studies that focus on how gig workers are molded as active agents in this process. Drawing on in-depth interviews with drivers working in ride-hailing platforms Uber and Lyft in central New York, I examine gig workers’ discourses around the gig economy, specifically on how they make sense of, and participate in, as actors. The ride-hailing platforms are rapidly growing and are the most debatable of the current gig work jobs. The fact that ride-hailing companies have particularly attracted the attention of researchers and media coverage on the gig economy indicates its successful conceptual shift in its business model and culturally powerful impact, which I unpack in the current article.
My findings reveal that gig workers comprise an essential part of the thriving gig economy where consumer consciousness trumps worker identity. Gig workers actively consent and construct the precarious labor practices that foreground the gig economy. I found that gig workers are engaged in the degradation of gig work by consenting to labor practices constructed by the platforms, despite their ambivalent experiences in the ride-hailing platforms. The activities of labor platforms, which stress freedom and flexibility, are closely interacting with the workers’ own desires, and the workers actively embrace the ideas that the labor platforms instill. Workers’ consent is drawn from the cultural projects of the platforms, which are represented by rhetorical frameworks and app-mediated practices. Along with the innovation of labor platforms shifting the cultural understandings of work(ers) by using a rhetorical device, the gamification driven by this app-based work was another critical factor that contributed to the working-customer process. With the speed of digitalization, quick money, and short task-based work, the apps play a key role. Uber and Lyft apps present the number of rides that the drivers have finished, hours for the rides, and money accumulated so far. And then, the instant pay systems enable their labor—their rides and time—to translate immediately into money. Enhanced by a sense of “free money,” the interviewees said they found themselves “mindlessly” driving and how making money was easy; meanwhile, it made them exhausted, like they were participating in some type of money-making gambling.
Uber officially refers to their worker drivers as “independent drivers,” “platform users,” or “partners” who earn “extra money” with a “cash machine.” Lyft praises the flexibility of part-time drivers who can focus on their real work and dreams on their website. This cultural play deeply permeates down to the workers, who work for these ride-hailing platforms and are the backbone of their growing profits. This phenomenon began from the instilled neoliberal technology ideology, which depoliticizes work and reshapes it with consumption. However, it is completed by the consent of workers. Gig workers largely accept the ideas of flexibility, independence, and freedom that are created by these labor platforms. Workers who are working with a consumer consciousness instead of worker identity comprise an essential part of the thriving online gig economy. By doing so, gig workers become core actors of the gig economy. Yet the powerful role of labor platforms in the gig economy cannot be underestimated because they are effectively manipulating and rapidly shifting the social consensus about work and the workers therein, as well as the nature of the work.
In her research on Amazon Mechanical Turk, Irani (2015) revealed the key to the deceptive process where labor platforms take advantage of their workers to sustain their images of “innovative workplace” and “high-tech companies” is hiding labor. However, in ride-hailing platforms, the workers are extremely visible, not only in the core service of the platforms (driving) but also in their advertisements and business visibility. The telltale presence of labor in ride-hailing platforms, however, is effectively concealed by the collaboration of workers who accept the given conditions as flexible and who take on the role of autonomous “independent contractors.” I argue that the antilabor characteristics found in the current gig economy emerge from technology–ideology depoliticizing work and from the consent from the gig workers themselves.