UBER and the COVID crisis: business model, state regulation and social impact

Journée du Gerpisa n°: 
Friday 5 February 2021, 15:00 - 18:00 CET

Online / En ligne

Hannah Johnston, Queen's University & Fairwork
Jamie Woodcock, Senior Lecturer at the Open University


During the past few years UBER and the ride hailing services have gained increasing terrain, significantly re-shaping mobility patterns and urban transport landscapes, all around the world. They have been extensively questioned as a business model – seen through the exploitative mechanisms of the platform economy yet not fully financially profitable; they have been marked by several attempts to define legal boundaries, sometimes involving state regulatory interventions (see disputes around the drivers’ employment status and attempts to regulate the distribution of licences, like in the US); they have been investigated as an employment model, pointing at both opportunities and risks generated and at the harsh working conditions in the sector. This seminar discusses how the COVID crisis has affected UBER as a company and the car hailing sector, focusing on the sustainability and future perspective of UBER as a business model, on examples of possible regulation and at the social impact of the crisis, with particular emphasis on the drivers.

The session will build on presentations by Dr Hannah Johnston (PhD Queen’s University Ontario, CA and former ILO) and Dr Jamie Woodcock (Senior Lecturer at the Open University, UK).

Hannah Johnston is a postdoctoral fellow at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. She has recently worked with the International Labour Organization and the European Trade Union Institute on projects related to collective organizing and the platform economy. Previously, she was a union organizer and researcher in Canada and the United States where she worked in the academic, agricultural, and gaming sectors. Her doctoral research (Queen’s University, Canada) focused on the New York City taxicab industry where she examined the collective organizing strategies used by drivers to improve working conditions, pay, and to strengthen regulation.
The talk will examine the organizing efforts of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) and their campaign to regulate the app-based and traditional taxicab industries. Drawing on drivers’ experiences, it reveals how longstanding industry exploitation contributed to the rapid proliferation of app-based services in New York. NYTWA’s efforts are presented as a successful response to the need for broad-based solidarity and inclusive organizing in an age of technological transformation, industry disruption, and workplace fragmentation. Unfortunately, some of these successes have been tempered by Covid. The talk will conclude with measures that regulators could adopt to support drivers during an acute time of need.
Dr Jamie Woodcock is a senior lecturer at the Open University and a researcher based in London. He is the author of The Gig Economy (Polity, 2019), Marx at the Arcade (Haymarket, 2019), and Working the Phones (Pluto, 2017). His research is inspired by workers inquiry and focuses on labour, work, the gig economy, platforms, resistance, organising, and videogames. He is on the editorial board of Notes from Below and Historical Materialism.
His talk will provide a critical overview of organising in transport platform work. It will begin by discussing the dynamics involved with this kind of work, including the role of digital technology and bogus self-employment statuses. Drawing on fieldwork with workers in the UK, Europe, India, South Africa, and the US, it presents a reading of this work from the worker’s perspective. Through examples of worker resistance and organising three emerging trends will be outlined: first, the increasing connections between workers who are no longer isolated; second, the lack of communication and negotiation from platforms, leading to escalating worker action around shared grievances; and third, the internationalisation of platforms, which has laid the basis for a new transnational solidarity. It will end by discussing the broader implications of this new worker organising beyond the gig economy.

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