Over the holiday period the Guardian’s leader column examines the challenges of the future by fathoming out the present. Today we look at how platform capitalism makes us less human
A decade ago a ride-hailing service called UberCab launched in Silicon Valley. Since then the rebranded Uber has burned through $10bn. It has never made a profit. The business model relies on shareholders to subsidise cheap rides so that the company can squeeze out rivals and establish a monopoly. Uber’s success is that 90 million people now use it in 700 cities around the world. After it floated on the stock market, its two founders became billionaires. While the owners of Uber have become immensely wealthy, the people who drive its cars have paid a heavy price. Unions say that Uber drivers in the UK earn an average of £5 an hour, well below the legal minimum wage of £8.21 for employees aged over 25. They can work up to 30 hours a week before breaking even. Hundreds went on strike in May to protest against poor pay and conditions.
Across Britain, gig work – part of a casualised, precarious and on-call jobs market – is growing at a giddy rate. The sector has more than doubled in size since 2016 and now accounts for 4.7 million workers. In part this is due to new technology: people are using apps on their mobile phones to sell their labour. The core business model relies on near-instant recourse to a large pool of on-demand workers looking for their next gig. Uncertain work is becoming the norm, with the result that unemployment statistics look better than the way Britons feel. It is an environment of overwork, marked by intense bursts of exhaustion. One gig-economy firm even tried to market burnout as a lifestyle by claiming its workers were “doers” for whom “sleep deprivation is [their] drug of choice”. Nothing can disguise the fact that the gig economy’s rise has been accompanied by a fall in the fortunes of working households – which now comprise 58% of those below the official poverty line; the figure was 37% in 1995. In a seminal paper, Alex Wood and other researchers at Oxford University found that half of the gig work in the UK is in our streets, supplying food or couriering parcels or offering taxi rides.
Source: Guardian GiG Economy