The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Barry Brown, Moira McGregor, Mareike Glöss, Airi Lampinen: Designing for Labour: Uber and the On-Demand Mobile Workforce

Barry Brown, University of stockholm

Moira McGregor, Mareike Glöss and Airi Lampinen

As the platform economy has gained momentum, so have the new labour and technical relations it enables gained critical scrutiny. Protests across Europe, in Paris, Madrid, Rome, Milan, London and Berlin (Fleisher 2014) have focused on the Uber ‘ridesharing’ service that allows users to hail private cars for travel, as well as allowing drivers to earn money from picking up rides. While some argue that Uber, and similar apps such as Lyft and Sidecar, are part of an emergent ‘sharing economy’, where forms of consumption around shared goods and activities rival private, state and public consumption (Aigrain 2012)(Belk 2014) more critical perspectives have outlined the creation of new low-benefit, insecure work (Irani 2015).

In this paper, we scrutinise Uber in regards to its potential to change work practices and labour conditions. In particular, we seek to put Uber into the context of the existing taxi business – a line of business that already featured low wages and contracted out relationships between companies and drivers. We draw on results from 32 interviews with both drivers and users of Uber, interviews with traditional taxi drivers, alongside ethnographic observations from over fifty rides in ridesharing and traditional taxis. Interviews were conducted in San Francisco and London, two cities with very different legislative and commercial history for taxi driving, as well as ridesharing app use.

To understand some of the labour conditions of taxi driving it is worth outlining some features of existing cab and taxi work, and the role of Uber in changing these relationships. Cab driving is a dangerous job which, while low-paid, does offer opportunities for those excluded from other labour markets (Cooper, Mundy, and Nelson 2010). One feature of the job is that there is almost no limit on the hours one can work - indeed, some cars are shared between drivers so that the vehicle can be on the road continuously, but studies suggest that drivers average around 50 hours of work per week (Hodges 2009). Regulation has a large impact on drivers’ experiences. In de-regulated taxis markets (e.g. Stockholm, Dublin, San Diego) there are more drivers, pushing down the amount of passengers available per driver. In regulated US cities, drivers often must pay for rental and access to a ‘medallion’ that allows them to drive. The SF taxi organisation statistics suggest an income of around $11 an hour for drivers and US Labour Statistics calculate an average salary of $14.52 per hour (Hara 2011). This large variation is in part because of the difference in ownership of the car and medallion, but there is also chronic underreporting of salaries for tax avoidance purposes. One Australian study claimed 75% of drivers underreported income (ibid). There are also considerable differences in drivers’ ability to get fares, and in the hours they work, making the ‘average’ driver income elusive. Whatever the exact figure, it is clear that taxi driving is low paid - but above minimum wage - with opportunities to work long hours. From our interviews with existing drivers we document a business where drivers were broadly unhappy with their workplace, their relationships with customers, but also their access to the licences required to take fares. As one driver put it: “ The drivers are scared of the customers but also the customers are scared of the driver.

From our interviews with Uber drivers we document how Uber changes and produces a new form of taxi driving. This refers to the intensification of work, de-skilling and re-skilling, the flexibility and new control of work; all resulting from this introduction of technology. We focus our attention on the everyday work experience. Taking a taxi ride has radically changed in quality and reliability, while at the same time for drivers, the work has become more flexible but also more demanding. Uber has also changed the skills required of drivers as the work of hunting for fares is being replaced by the demands of ‘emotional labour’. The new economic opportunities presented by lowering barriers to entry are also tempered by new financial risks for Uber drivers. There was considerable variety in how much drivers were paid – figures supplied by Uber avoid estimating the costs that drivers must meet, and the drivers are not in a position to bargain over the rates they get.

In our discussion, we focus on the conflicts between Uber as a for profit entity, and the conflicts between drivers’ interests and those of the company. On-demand labour is not without the dangers of casualization, but the flexibility it provides can provide real benefits to those who desire short or lightweight work commitments. We might even consider the role of researchers to influence, and even subvert labour-related intricacies and inequalities embedded in existing technological systems. Experimenting with these systems may allow us to understand better the nature of on-demand labour, as well as support more equitable exchanges between workers and marketplace organisers.


Aigrain, Philippe. 2012 Sharing: Culture and the Economy in the Internet Age. Amsterdam University Press.

Belk, Russell. 2014 You Are What You Can Access: Sharing and Collaborative Consumption Online. Journal of Business Research 67(8): 1595–1600.

Cooper, James, Ray Mundy, and John Nelson. 2010 Taxi!: Urban Economies and the Social and Transport Impacts of the Taxicab. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Fleisher, Lisa. 2014 Thousands of European Cab Drivers Protest Uber, Taxi Apps: Protesters in London, Madrid, Milan Say the Apps Skirt Regulations. Wall Street Journal, June 11.

Hara, Dan. 2011 Taxicab Regulations and Taxi Driver Income: Report Prepared for the Taxicab Inquiry of Victoria, Australia. Ottawa.

Hodges, Graham Russell Gao. 2009 Taxi!: A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver. JHU Press.

Irani, Lilly. 2015 Difference and Dependence among Digital Workers: The Case of Amazon Mechanical Turk. South Atlantic Quarterly 114(1): 225–234.

Barry Brown, Moira McGregor, Mareike Glöss, Airi Lampinen