As of mid-June, the Uber platform will extend its services to the entire province of Québec. On a global scale, Uber is in nearly 10,000 cities and 71 countries and has more than 3.5 million workers.
This model, based on on-demand work and the algorithmic distribution of tasks, fundamentally transforms ways of thinking about, organizing and carrying out work, both on an individual and collective basis.
The expansion of Uber’s service across Québec provides an opportunity to examine the reality of the work being carried out by thousands of drivers and delivery personnel in the province. What is their work day like? How do they make social connections?
To try to answer these questions, I observed Facebook groups of drivers and interviewed about 50 Uber workers in Québec.
As a doctoral student in communications at Université du Québec à Montréal and a research student at the Université du Québec’s Institut national de la recherche scientifique, my research examines the profile and motivations of Uber drivers, their ideas about collective action and, more generally, the psychosocial issues involved in work that is mediated by algorithms.
Many encounters, but solitary work
Although Uber workers encounter many people on a daily basis (customers, restaurant owners, passengers), their activity is essentially solitary. Their work takes place without ever meeting another human from Uber. Their registration on the platform is done online and their daily tasks are distributed to them by an algorithm through the Uber app.
If a problem prompts a driver to contact the company’s technical service, the people they interact with are located in out-of-country call centres. What’s more, the answers they get are most often formatted by scripts, reinforcing the robotic nature of their relationship to work.
As for the few moments when workers might meet — in restaurants waiting for orders or in drop-off areas at airports — drivers’ interactions are limited to brief exchanges about the number of orders they got that day, as expressed by Katia, an Uber Eats delivery driver in Montréal:
When I pass another delivery driver, I say “Hey Uber! Lots of business tonight,” or “Not much business tonight,” and that’s about it. After that, I probably won’t ever see them again, but if I do, I just say hello. I don’t even know their name.
A competitive atmosphere
Uber drivers’ Facebook groups do provide a place to share information and vent about frustrating situations. However, these spaces play a very limited role in building a collective since they don’t make it possible for drivers to have extended conversations about work.
The architecture of the groups favours short-term interactions, with posts quickly fading into the thread. Constructive exchanges would require conversations over a long period of time in an atmosphere of listening and trust. However, the competition felt by drivers, combined with the brief and anonymous interaction mode of social networks, contributes to a hostile climate. As Diane, an Uber Eats delivery driver in Laval, says:
I think that the negative comments are made to discourage others because it’s not a group where we encourage each other. It’s a group where we try to discourage others, because it’s competition. If I want to earn a living, I have to run more races than you.
Collective action is a threat
Surprisingly, this absence of a collective identity is not perceived as a problem by most of the workers I interviewed. Despite difficult working conditions over which they have no control, workers do not tend toward gathering and mobilizing in an effort to establish a power relationship with Uber.
While Uber drivers in other jurisdictions have tried to unionize, the idea of collective action is perceived as a threat by most of the Québec workers. The competitive climate pushes drivers to develop a repertoire of tactics and tinkering to stand out, as Bertrand, an Uber driver in Québec City, said:
We all go to the Facebook group for the same thing, to find others like us and see if they can give us tips and tricks to better understand how it works, to get information. But we quickly understand that, no, we are all in the same boat, we are all there for our own pocketbook.
Among the tactics used to optimize their income, some drivers will, for example, call customers to find out their destination before picking them up. If drivers feel the trip is unprofitable, given the distance to the customer, they will cancel the trip. Others use two phones to maintain access to the map and show the location of the surcharge zones.
No sense of belonging
To many workers, a work collective that strives to harmonize practices and replace individual tactics with collective strategies, looks like a loss of competitive advantage.
Now that Uber drivers’ struggles against cab drivers is over — thanks to the adoption of Bill 17 in 2020 which deregulated Québec’s taxi industry — they no longer share a common enemy.
Each driver has to learn how the business works and cope with its challenges on their own, cobbling together their own tactics, conscious that not all drivers benefit from the same resources. Moreover, drivers are deprived of the opportunity to develop a collective reaction about their working conditions.
The absence of meaningful exchanges, opportunities to listen and the presence of other drivers hinders the development of any meaningful relationships and solidarity between drivers. Their activity is reduced to their relationship with technology.
In fact, without the power to act collectively in the face of rigid working conditions, the dysfunctions and health problems of workers are always treated as isolated realities rather than as a consequence of the way their work is organized. As Kader, an Uber driver in Montréal, puts it:
I’ve never opened my heart on the Facebook group. All I have to do is make one comment and I feel attacked by the others. Often, drivers who speak honestly are verbally attacked. Drivers are suffering. We could discuss it. But the climate we need to do this does not exist in the group.
The profiles of Uber drivers in Québec vary greatly. For example, the fact that it’s impossible to negotiate higher incomes does not have the same consequences for a Tesla engineer, who drives three hours a week to take their mind off things, as it does for an immigrant who works 60 hours a week to support their family.
Low revenues and lack of transparency
For some individuals being an Uber driver brings in extra income, but the model also takes advantage of the precariousness of a part of the population. Those who carry out the activity as their only source of income, often do so because they lack a better option.
Although the majority of the drivers I interviewed do not aspire to become employees and are reluctant to join a union, many deplore the low income and the platform’s lack of transparency over how the algorithm and the remuneration system work.
Faced with this situation, they see the government as the only stakeholder that could establish a power relationship with Uber and force the platform to offer better working conditions to its drivers.