Regulating Flexibility

Uber’s platform as a technological work arrangement

Sigurd M. Nordli Oppegaard, Fafo Institute for Labour and Social Research, Oslo

» Full paper: ilera-2019-paper-143-Oppegaard.pdf

The so-called sharing economy is often framed as an adept system for taking advantage of “underutilized” assets and, enabled by digital technology, establishes a community of strangers trusting, interacting and exchanging goods and services with each other. In this article, I explore the “algorithmic management” of Uber’s platform as a technology for organizing the drivers’ labor process based on a case study of Uber Black in Oslo. Within this particular materialization of Uber’s business model, the drivers are employed by limousine companies who own the cars used and endow the drivers with a significant freedom to choose their own schedules. The digital platform used to coordinate the Uber Black market in Oslo, however, is identical to that employed in other countries where Uber provides Uber X or Uber Pop, in which the drivers are self-employed and use their own private cars to transport passengers. According to Uber’s own economists, the flexibility of the Uber drivers formal work arrangement – where the drivers can choose when and how much they want to work – is highly valued by the drivers. But this flexibility is also described as a problem by the same economist: How can the “free” drivers be incentivized to provide their labor when and where Uber needs them to? The answer is the platform, structuring the choices available for the drivers through algorithmic trip assignment, adjustment of the trip fare – and thus the drivers’ earnings – to local fluctuations in supply and demand and the rating system. While the platform can be seen as a “market machine”, institutionalizing market mechanisms to control the drivers’ labor, its techniques for coordinating the market cannot be reduced to price mechanisms alone. I rather argue that the platform should be seen as a privately owned market regulation, parallel to or competing with the governments regulation of the passenger transportation sector depending on the context. In this sense, the platform economy may indicate a transfer of regulatory power from governments to privately owned companies.