From mid-June, the Uber platform will expand its services to the entire province of Quebec. Globally, Uber is present in nearly 10,000 cities and 71 countries and employs over 3.5 million people.
Based on work-on-demand and algorithmic task allocation, this model revolutionizes the way we think, organize, and perform work, both individually and collectively.
The expansion of Uber in Quebec provides an opportunity to explore the reality of the work being done by the thousands of drivers and delivery workers in the province. How is their working day? How do they make social connections?
To try and answer these questions, I followed driver groups on Facebook and interviewed 50 Uber employees in Quebec.
As a communications doctoral student at the University of Quebec Montreal and a research student at the National Institute for Scientific Research at the University of Quebec, I research the profile and motivation of Uber drivers, their perceptions of collective action, and more generally the psychosocial issues associated with algorithm-mediated work. .
Many meetings, but lonely work
Although Uber workers encounter many people every day (customers, restaurant owners, commuters), their activities are essentially solitary. Their work happens without meeting another person from Uber. Their registration on the platform is carried out online, and their daily tasks are distributed among them according to an algorithm through the Uber application.
If the problem prompts the driver to contact the technical service of the company, the people with whom he interacts are in call centers outside the country. Moreover, the responses they receive are most often scripted, which reinforces the robotic nature of their work attitude.
As for the few times workers might meet — at restaurants waiting for orders or at drop-off areas at airports — the interaction between drivers is limited to a brief exchange of information about the number of orders they received that day, says Katya, an employee at Uber Eats. delivery driver in Montreal:
When I pass another courier, I say, “Hey Uber! Lots of things to do tonight,” or “Not much to do tonight,” and that’s it. I’ll probably never see them again after that, but if I do, I’ll just say hello. I don’t even know their name.
Uber driver groups on Facebook provide a place to share information and report sticky situations. However, these spaces play a very limited role in team building as they prevent drivers from having long conversations about work.
The group architecture encourages short-term interactions, and messages quickly disappear in the chain. A constructive exchange of views will require long conversations in an atmosphere of listening and trust. However, the competition that drivers feel, combined with the brief and anonymous social media interaction mode, contributes to creating a hostile atmosphere. Diana, delivery driver for Uber Eats in Laval, says:
I think negative comments are made to discourage others because this is not a group where we encourage each other. It’s a group where we try to scare others away because it’s competitive. If I want to make a living, I have to run more races than you.
Collective action is a threat
Surprisingly, this lack of collective identity is not perceived as a problem by most of the workers I interviewed. Despite the difficult working conditions they have no control over, workers are reluctant to rally and mobilize to establish a power relationship with Uber.
While Uber drivers in other jurisdictions have tried to unionize, the idea of collective action is seen as a threat by most Quebec workers. The competitive environment pushes drivers to develop a repertoire of tactics and skill to stand out, as Bertrand, an Uber driver in Quebec, said:
We all go to the Facebook group for the same thing to find others like us and see if they can give us tips and tricks to better understand how it works to get information. But we quickly realize that no, we are all in the same boat, we are all there for our own wallet.
Among the tactics used to optimize their revenues, some drivers, for example, call customers to find out their destination before picking them up. If the drivers find the trip unprofitable due to the distance to the customer, they will cancel the trip. Others use two phones to maintain map access and show the location of surcharge zones.
No sense of belonging
For many workers, a work team seeking to harmonize practices and replace individual tactics with a collective strategy looks like a loss of competitive advantage.
Now that the fight between Uber drivers and taxi drivers is over—thanks to the passage of Bill 17 in 2020 to deregulate Quebec’s taxi industry—they no longer have a common enemy.
Every driver must learn how the business works and deal with its problems on their own, developing their own tactics, recognizing that not all drivers benefit from the same resources. Moreover, drivers are deprived of the opportunity to develop a collective response to their working conditions.
The lack of meaningful exchange, the opportunity to listen and the presence of other drivers prevents the development of any meaningful relationship and solidarity between drivers. Their activity is reduced to their relationship with technology.
In fact, being unable to act collectively in the face of harsh working conditions, the dysfunctions and health problems of workers are always seen as isolated realities, not as a consequence of how their work is organized. As Kader, an Uber driver from Montreal, says:
I have never opened my heart to a Facebook group. All I have to do is make one comment and I feel like others are attacking me. Often drivers who speak honestly are verbally attacked. Drivers are suffering. We could discuss this. But the climate we need for this does not exist in the group.
The profiles of Uber drivers in Quebec vary widely. For example, the fact that higher incomes cannot be negotiated does not have the same implications for a Tesla engineer who drives for three hours a week as a distraction as it does for an immigrant who works 60 hours a week to support their family. .
Low incomes and lack of transparency
For some people, working as an Uber driver brings additional income, but this model also takes advantage of the insecurity of part of the population. Those who engage in this activity as their sole source of income often do so for lack of a better option.
While most of the drivers I interviewed do not aspire to become employees and do not want to join a union, many lament the low income and lack of transparency on the platform about how the algorithm and reward system works.
Faced with this situation, they see the government as the only stakeholder that can establish a power relationship with Uber and force the platform to offer better working conditions to its drivers.