As Uber lists on the stock exchange today with an estimated value of $100billion, perhaps it’s time we looked beyond our own immediate convenience and explore the bigger picture behind the corporate taxi apps, and other facilitators of the gig economy.
Hands up, I’ve had the Uber App installed on my phone. Why? Simple, it was convenient! It was easy to use and meant I didn’t have to worry about finding cabs in the street, waiting in the rain for the cab that was ‘five minutes away’ or searching for a cash machine to pay the driver.
But does another global tech company add any real value to our society other than giving me some personal convenience? Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the technology itself that is the problem, the problem is the predatory and destructive model of global capitalism that is exploiting the technology to generate obscene profit at the expense of its workforce and local economies. It’s also successive UK government’s that care little for the people who elect them and seem to only focus on facilitating a deregulated business environment that favours global corporate profit over genuine innovation and local economic resilience. With light touch regulation and the uneven balances of power in the UKs governance and political system, is it any wonder these companies can behave in unethical ways both towards their workforces and consumers (imagine what they get away with in poorer, less democratic countries).
The fact that Ubers London drivers are striking today (not for the first time) encapsulates the story of today’s global tech capital – a corporation that faces heavy criticism for its perceived unethical business practices. It is accused by its own workers of treating them poorly and taking excessive management ‘fees’, and by regulators of lax safety standards. As an example, in September 2017 Uber’s license to operate in London was revoked, with Transport for London finding that Uber was not a ‘fit and proper’ company to run taxi services and cited concerns around public safety and security implications.
So, can app technology be used in more ethical ways that will benefit local economies and workers? Of course it can, there are many more apps on the market now that include local alternatives such as Taxi App in London which is driver led and owned. I looked for local alternatives in Birmingham and found them, in Smethwick a local cab firm of long standing, Heritage Cars, had invested in similar app tech, I could watch the driver arriving on a map, be told the fare in advance and most importantly not have the variable fares of uber (which jack up to extortionate levels at periods of ‘high demand’). For me that was the biggest irony with Uber, often it wasn’t cheaper than any other taxi journey and sometimes cost more.
We are only just beginning to understand the full impact on our society of digital disruption and the gig economy, with precarious jobs leading to insecurity, alienation and political instability. But we don’t have to allow the digital revolution to be led by global capital and its exploitative business models, we can instead harness the positive aspects of technology to improve our local economies. However, we must be proactive and seek local alternatives, or if they don’t exist – organise and create them!