Uber: to ban or not to ban?

Uber – where do we go from here?

How can we muddle through TFL’s decision to suspend Uber’s licence? On the one hand, Uber has been disruptive to tens of thousands of taxi drivers in London at astonishing pace. Simultaneously, it may have failed to follow security procedures – the least we should expect of any transportation service. Perhaps also challenging is the company itself; amidst allegations of poor workplace culture and sexual harassment, former Chief Executive Travis Kalanick was forced to resign.

There are two issues here – Uber the company, and Uber the model. We cannot possibly let either fail.

Uber the company has had its problems, even if it rejects TFL’s conclusions. While Executive Fred Jones has made clear, “we follow the rules,” there have been security issues Uber must urgently deal with. But we should encourage them to address these problems – not write the company off altogether. It was pleasing to see (new) Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi demonstrating a fresh humility by apologizing for past mistakes. Lets also not forget that Uber employs more than 40,000 drivers in London, 90 per cent of them from ethnic minority backgrounds. Iqbal Wahhab, former chairman of the Department of Work and Pensions Ethnic Minority Advisory Group, said: “There is a huge disparity in socioeconomic conditions of BME citizens and their white British counterparts. And for many of them, Uber was a way to earn a living, however modest, and come off benefits.” The distillation of an issue into a crass ‘us versus them’ mentality is never helpful when so many livelihoods are at stake.

As for Uber the model, it has been a transformative, positive innovation. First, for public safety. With a named driver, a rating system and the ability to watch for its (usually very rapid) arrival, many of us feel far more secure at our most vulnerable times. Clearly we should expect the highest standards of security from the provider itself; but there is no denying that the model is superior to waiting on the street to step into an anonymous car. Second, its cheaper. Much cheaper. Researchers have found black cabs in London to be 35% more expensive. Lowering the cost of private transport enables more of us to opt for a safer route home at night. Or, for the more isolated among us – for whom many forms of public transport are difficult – to go out at all. Third, why should any government intervene to bolster what appears to be an outdated taxicab model? Consumers seem to have made their choice. Technology will continue to disrupt, often at a quicker pace than we might always feel comfortable with – but the solution is to better support those who lose out, not reject such change altogether.

Uber, TFL, and all other stakeholders owe it to Londoners to rapidly resolve this issue. 40,000 Uber drivers should not live in uncertainty, and the rest of us should have confidence in how we’ll get home at night.

The contributor is a Labour Party member and a member of the Future Labour Steering Committee.

Bibliography

Uber: Below Minimum Average Rating

The decision of Transport for London to suspend Uber’s licence once again raises the issue of whether there are some businesses – and business models – that are fundamentally anti-social and unethical.

Uber is seen as part of the ‘sharing economy’, a concept whose origins were based on fundamentally progressive principles in terms of the peer-to-peer based sharing of access to goods and services. Mutualised access to information and resources is clearly an idea that would be attractive to anyone on the left, and if technology can act as a catalyst for it then so much the better.

Uber smashes through this rose-tinted view of the sharing economy. In October 2016 the Employment Tribunal handed down a landmark ruling in which it found that Uber drivers were workers. In describing them as contractors, Uber drivers would not be entitled to various statutory protections. Uber attempted to argue that they were entitled to treat the drivers as self-employed contractors.

Such was the audacity of Uber’s behaviour that the Tribunal judges not only rejected this argument but were also incredulous in the face Uber’s efforts to conceal its true relationship with drivers. A direct quote from the Tribunal decision demonstrates this level of disbelief and reveals the lengths to which Uber went to get round the law:

“…We have been struck by the remarkable lengths to which Uber has gone in order to compel agreement with its…description of itself and with its analysis of the legal relationships between the two companies [UBV and ULL], the drivers and the passengers. Any organisation…(c) requiring drivers and passengers to agree, as a matter of contract, that it does not provide transportation services (through UBV or ULL), and (d) resorting in its documentation to fictions, twisted language and even brand new terminology, merits, we think, a degree of scepticism. Reflecting on the Respondents’ general case…we cannot help being reminded of Queen Gertrude’s most celebrated line: ‘the lady doth protest too much, methinks.’” (2202550/1/2015 at para 87)

Controversy appears to follow Uber wherever in the world it operates and recruits drivers. In the United States, the Department of Justice has begun a criminal investigation into Uber over alleged bribery and violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act which makes it illegal for individuals and organisations to pay foreign government officials to obtain or retain business. It was partly because of concerns around the use of controversial ‘greyballing’ software – where Uber shows a different version of the app to certain users – that Transport for London refused to renew Uber’s licence to operate in the capital. In Israel, the country’s transportation ministry said it found Uber recruited private drivers without the necessary licenses. In France, Uber received an 800,000 Euro fine for operating in defiance of an official ban. To follow the Employment Tribunal in quoting Shakespeare, as Marcellus said, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. (Incidentally, the Danish High Court also ruled in November last year that Uber is an illegal taxi service and not a true ride-sharing programme).

It is correct that a progressive and forward-thinking Labour Party should not reduce consumer choice by supporting restrictive practices in the private car hire industry in the same way we might oppose other forms of macro-economic protectionism. Also, why would we want to oppose Uber when, at the time of writing, over 855,000 people have signed a petition to reinstate Uber’s licence in London? How could we ride roughshod over the livelihoods of individual drivers who are just trying to make a living? As argued above, there are strong reasons for Labour to support the ethic behind the sharing economy.

Support for innovative new technology, as well as the sharing economy, and strident support for workers’ rights and consumer protections are not mutually exclusive. Labour must take the lead in arguing that new technology should not act as a catalyst for exploitative relationships. This issue feeds into a wider debate around the responsibilities of employers towards the wellbeing of their workforce. In an essay for the Fabian Society, Frank Field MP and Andrew Forsey argued that a future Labour government should take advantage of recent cases where companies like Uber have wrongly classified workers as being ‘self-employed’. They argue for a stronger layer of protection as well as the extension of the National Living Wage to workers in this category. We could go further, closing other loopholes in employment law that allow exploitation of people who are effectively workers.

Any regulation or legislation in the realm of the digital economy relies on the willingness of employers in this industry to accept a consensus on workers’ rights and employment contracts. Uber is a company which seems institutionally incapable of accepting any checks on its behaviour, as evidenced in its well-documented habit for using all manner of tactics to evade regulation. The anarchic ‘hacker culture’ has always been pervasive in digital technology, with developers looking to circumvent rules, break down barriers and challenge received wisdom. It is a fact of history that pioneers of new technology have done this – long may it continue – but as in previous revolutions such a spirit should not be without a sense of social responsibility. The state must be prepared to step in and enforce regulation where industry will not follow the rules.

To use Uber’s own language, the operator has fallen far below the ‘Minimum Average Rating’ and we should support the attempts of London’s Labour mayor to ‘deactivate’ its access to our capital city unless it can seriously raise its game.

Kevin Hind is Editor of the Future Labour blog and a member of the Future Labour Steering Committee.

Bibliography

Digital Economy and Technology Events at Labour Party Conference 2017

Sunday 24th September

8:00pm
The Grand Hotel, GB2
The Barnardo’s Reception – Childhoods In A Digital World

Monday 25th September

12:30pm
Holiday Inn 137, Kings Road, Lancing 1
Is Artificial Intelligence Sexist?
Future Labour Board Member Chi Onwurah MP has been invited to this event.

12:30pm
Hilton Brighton Metropole, Hall 7, Clyde
Time To Disrupt?  An Industrial Strategy For The Digital Economy

2:15pm
British Airways i360, New Statesman Hub, Birch
A New Future!  How Artificial Intelligence And The Fourth Industrial Revolution Can Transform Britain’s Regions

5:00pm
Brighton Centre, Fujitsu Business Lounge
What Does Digital Mean For Our Industrial Strategy?
Future Labour Board Member Chi Onwurah MP has been invited to this event.

Tuesday 26th September

12:30pm
Hilton Brighton Metropole, Hall 7, Clyde
Scaling-Up Britain: Why Doesn’t The UK Have Its Own Apple Or Google?
Future Labour Board Member Chi Onwurah MP has been invited to this event.

12:30pm
Hilton Brighton Metropole, Surrey Suites 1
The Future Of The UK Data Economy After Brexit
Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Data Analytics Daniel Zeichner MP will be speaking at this event

12:45pm
Hilton Brighton Metropole – Ambassador
Digital Safety – Helping Your Constituents Get Fraud Smart

1:00pm
British Airways i360, New Statesman Hub, Birch
Securing The Future: Cyber Security For A New Age
Future Labour Board Member Chi Onwurah MP has been invited to this event.

1:15pm
Mercure Brighton Seafront Hotel, Ballroom
New Jobs, New Technologies, Same Old Solutions?  Labour, The Trade Unions And The Changing Labour Market

5:30pm
Hilton Brighton Metropole, Osborne
Tech Literacy: Setting The Next Generation Up For Success In A Digital World

5:45pm
Hilton Brighton Metropole, Durham Hall – Argyle
How Digital Technology Can Revolutionise Social Care

The Labour Market in a digital future: Providing the skills to protect employment

Technological progress is sweeping through the global economy, permeating through the ranks of the British workforce indiscriminately. We are often told that the robots are coming.

Whilst driverless trucks take over the roads in the place of delivery drivers, paralegals are being unseated by programed computer systems. Both white and blue-collar workers alike are under threat of being replaced by their automated counterparts.

It is natural for workers to feel threatened by technological progress. The Luddite movement of the early 19th Century, when Nottinghamshire workers destroyed the cotton mills that threatened their livelihoods, reveals the evolving nature of the relationship between work and technological progress. Of course workers’ concerns cannot be ignored, yet the future of the labour market under the fourth industrial revolution need not be so ominous, if managed by the right political party.

In the 1930s the economist John Maynard Keynes was actually optimistic about the future of work, foreseeing an emancipation of labour with the onset of a 15-hour working week. The World Economic Forum also projects a degree of optimism for the future. Whilst it does anticipate a significant decline in job sectors characterised by routine, such as telemarketing, it also predicts a surge of jobs in technical sectors such as architecture and engineering which are expected to provide 2 million more jobs worldwide by 2020.

What is more, many jobs are not expected to disappear entirely; rather the typical tasks required for certain jobs will be redefined. For example, besides giving legal consultations, it is expected to become typical for lawyers also to design systems that are able to give legal advice as part of their job description. This redefinition of work is often conceptualised as an increase in the flexibility and independence of working life, as provided for by digital technology. New employers such as Deliveroo are allowing workers to pick up work at the reach of their smartphone, connecting delivery drivers to their customers via a downloadable app. This aspect of work redefinition does, however, risk job insecurity, and thus requires sufficient regulation to avoid exploitation, an issue the incumbent Tory government has failed to respond to. With these momentous changes in the world of work, the focus for protecting employment thus needs to be on how new jobs can be attracted to the UK, and how workers can retain their jobs amidst a change in employers’ expectations.

It is clear that the Conservative response to this issue has been inadequate. In implementing a race to the bottom in working rights and regulations, the Conservatives have tried to make taking on labour as cheap as possible to attract investment in the UK economy, legislating, for example, to restrict the right to industrial action and refusing to regulate against the misuse of zero-hours contracts. Yet this approach has essentially failed to address the root of the problem; that modern workers require new skills to do new types of work. The disastrous results of this policy approach, is evident in the recent reports from the Office for National Statistics, which puts UK productivity bellow pre-crisis levels in 2007.

The World Economic Forum estimates that a third of skills that will be required by employers in 2020 are not considered crucial in jobs today. Soft social skills such as persuasion will be valued equally as highly as evermore-necessary technical skills, such as computer programming. Whilst the 2017 Conservative Manifesto pledged to provide new skills, announcing it would “establish new institutes of technology”, there is little substance behind the rhetoric. The previous Conservative government ruthlessly cut funding to Further Education Colleges, the pinnacle of British technical education, cutting their budgets by 14% in 2010-15 parliament. The current Conservative government is continuing its ignorance towards the needs of the UK education system, only recently agreeing grudgingly to lift the 1% cap on public sector pay, at a time when schools are struggling to recruit teachers, with a fall of 7% in teacher trainees being recorded in March of this year.

By contrast Labour’s well-known policy of investment-led growth provides an economically consistent approach to the problem of skills provision. Labour’s plan to invest £8.4 billion in UK education, creating a National Education Service, promises to provide the economy with the skills it requires to grow, giving British workers the chances they so desperately need. Not only will Labour provide the technical skills required by the economy, making Further Education courses free at the point of use, it will also address the disconnection between British education and the skills demanded by employers, commissioning annual reports from the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, to improve curriculum content. Furthermore, as highlighted in the recent Taylor review of Modern Employment Practices, government funding for lifelong learning is declining at time when employees are in desperate need of retraining. This is another area provided for in the Labour manifesto, which commits to introducing free lifelong learning to allow employees to upskill at any stage in their career.

It is overall clear that change in the world of work is imminent. The decline of sectors dominated by routine working patters, and the change in employers’ expectations, presents challenges. Yet, with new forms of work becoming available, and the rise of the technical sector, there are also opportunities. If Britain is to succeed in this new age of technology, it needs to invest in its people and provide them with the skills they need. This is something only the Labour Party is prepared to do.

David Robinson

Epsom and Ewell CLP

Bibliography

Changing work

commuting_work

A new publication from the Fabian Society, edited by Yvette Cooper MP – Progressive ideas for the modern world of work.

The world of work is being rapidly transformed by technological innovation and globalisation. Across Europe, exciting new opportunities, new jobs and new forms of work are emerging. At the same time, the loss of stable patterns of employment is contributing to a growing sense of insecurity and anxiety among today’s workforce.

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#Accelerate

accelerate

In 2013 Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams released their Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics which they described as a project aiming to align left-wing politics with the legacy of the Enlightenment. They followed this in 2015 with their book Inventing the Future in which they critique the “folk politics” of localism, direct action and relentless horizontalism that has come to dominate left radical politics and argue instead for an accelerationist politics at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology.

Continue reading “#Accelerate”