THE MYTH OF FLEXIBLE WORK & MODERN COLONIALISM
Don't believe the capitalist hype
Bilel, a 24-year-old young French working as an Uber Eats courier in Lyon, France, admits on camera while nervously smiling: “I devote all of my days to Uber, I don’t have a life as I live only for Uber.” This is a quote taken from a fascinating 4-part documentary series, titled “The Invisibles: The Click Workers [Les Invisibles : les travailleurs du clic] produced by France.tv, a french public broadcaster creating digital content. As the documentary informs us, an average working time for young couriers, mostly young men belonging to minorities, is approximately 60-70 hours per week. Platforms like Uber Eats, Deliveroo, Wolt, etc. are based on the premise of self-entrepreneurship; the motto is usually something like “be your own boss” and is usually accompanied by “flexible schedule,” “discover your city,” “quick pay,” etc.
What these platforms conveniently conceal is that by becoming a “partner” one essentially becomes an invaluable resource to these companies. Not because they deliver food packages but because they become mobile data production points; this process, for such platforms, epitomises the annexation of human life directly to the economy and makes it ready for economical exploitation. While the word slavery might be an overstatement, as there are not criminal colonialist atrocities involved, enslavement, as we’ll see, can take new mentally and physically exhausting forms.
Let’s examine a typical process of ordering food and getting it delivered to you by one of the above platforms. You open an online food application, you select your restaurant of choice and place the order, the restaurant then receives the order via the partnering platform’s software, when the order’s ready the restaurant employee notifies any available couriers to come and pick it up via that software, and you get it soon after. Uber Eats also allow for a rating system of their couriers, so that both the restaurants and the consumers can rate them. They’re only paid for each order handled and their payment is abysmal. While waiting for an order, the couriers generally sit and wait near popular restaurants, like McDonalds; of course, they are not paid for being there, they only get paid for each order delivered.
Oh and their equipment? Also not paid: everything, from that humongous square bug they carry on their backs to their bike or scooter, is paid for by themselves. A lot has been written for these platforms’ dangers concerning road accidents, lack of fixed and decent hourly payment rate, psychosomatic disorders from lack of sleeping and excessive cycling hours, etc. Today I want to emphasise on something that is often overlooked: the colonisation and appropriation of human life by capitalism and obscure algorithmic procedures, and why regulating such platforms for labour issues is limited.
Let’s revisit that process and zoom in on the stage where a courier picks up your order. You can choose to track your delivery in real-time, since every courier has a GPS device installed on their vehicle. Every GPS device is connected to Uber’s network, which accumulates data from an abundant number of data points, essentially charting every route possible from many cities around the world from point A (a restaurant) to point B (your place). Now, this data can be used for many reasons. One of the most important, is to train Uber’s Machine Learning algorithms. Uber might utilise the data collected by them to improve their self-driving car or, certainly, propose faster routes to their couriers or drivers, so as to make their work even more lucrative.
While the word slavery might be an overstatement, as there are not
criminal colonialist atrocities involved, enslavement, as we’ll see, can take new mentally and physically exhausting forms.
Dystopia meets Uber Eats
Another myth ought to be busted here: Artificial Intelligence that utilise Machine Learning (where the machine “learns” from data given to it and “adapts” to several situations in order to solve problems) are not exactly smart or autonomous. They are very well provided data by humans, who do all sorts of precarious and mentally depleting jobs, like watching Facebook posts of atrocities and taking them down or hearing your commands to Apple’s Siri and preparing them for algorithmic optimisation or even hearing your Messenger conversations to train their algorithms to better detect and produce human language, principally, for advertising purposes. All of that, which we think happen “magically” (if we ever think about them at all)? Well, sorry to break it to you, but it is very much false: human workers exist behind every activity, who more often than not, unfortunately, do not work in humane conditions.
Baudelaire once said that “One of the artifices of Satan is, to induce men to believe that he does not exist.” Similarly, one of the most harmful things that these companies have accomplished is to have actually concealed human labour. This process has been so normalised, that nobody even questions the consequences of being able to track a food courier in real-time; we take the diminution of a human life to a surveilled data point on a digital map for granted.
Recently good news came from France: the Supreme Court (“Court cassation”) ruled that a former Uber driver should have been considered an employee instead of a self-employed partner. A month earlier, a judge of the Paris industrial tribunal condemned Deliveroo for concealed work, a judge of the Paris’ industrial tribunal condemned Deliveroo for concealed work, essentially recognising that the food delivery platform should have had an employment contract with the employee who filed the sue. Also, especially throughout Europe, we see unions getting formed demanding by such platforms to start recognising their “partners” as officially employed workers and not “self-entrepreneurs.”
However, we need more. This is absolutely crucial and vital for the employees. But the problem will remain even after stricter labour rules are put in place. These companies’ infrastructure is the problem, along with their obscure algorithms, which never allow for public scrutiny. We need the political will and cultural literacy to start considering ways of reclaiming the public sphere, which now seems lost to vast privately owned networks that, among others, downgrade human life to data points, treating humans as resources for algorithmic optimisation and profit maximisation.
The platformisation effect, where more and more instances of our lives are being intermediated and enabled by private digital platforms, has been expanding for a while now. These platforms are not by any means neutral nor mere facilitators. If we and those in power don’t stop treating them as such, the issue will persist. Platform capitalism may be capitalism’s most hip outfit but it certainly does not come with novel qualities. The tendency toward “flexibility” is nothing more than a direct push to precariousness and powerlessness, outside of the social safety net of even basic workplace protections.
Baudelaire once said that “One of the artifices of Satan is, to induce men to believe that he does not exist.” Similarly, one of the most harmful things that these companies have accomplished is to have actually concealed human labour.
There is nothing autonomous about these jobs; food couriers are strictly tied to algorithms, time and extremely low wages. Surely, they might not be directly scolded by their manager for taking a longer coffee break but they are likely to lose a delivery and, thus, a couple of euros. The way this system has been structured, essentially pushes them to self-discipline by meddling with psychological factors, like guilts. It is the epitome of market liberalism’s notion of individualism and we should, at least, treat it for what it really is and not what corporate jargon present it to be.