Another week goes by, another piece of Uber’s image goes up in smoke. The company has racked up a splendid start to 2017 in terms of public relations. January saw the reëmergence of the #deleteuber hashtag after the company took part in what looked very much like strikebreaking in New York City; and this during a strike that was organised to protest President Trump’s “Muslim ban”.
This, added to the fact that the company’s CEO Travis Kalanick was until recently a member of the unpopular new American administration’s economic advisory board, fuelled a flurry of angry tweets and posts, and presumably some actual user account deletions as well.
This time it is engineer Susan J. Fowler who has written about her brief experience of working at Uber, in a post entitled “Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber”. She depicts a company riddled with sexist managers who are free to harass and intimidate thanks to an ineffectual hierarchy, while all female members of staff either migrate to other departments or quit. Bringing the misdemeanours of her superiors to the attention of her HR department, Susan is repeatedly told that there is nothing to be done, because the people she is calling out have “good performance scores”. When she insists, she is told that she might be the problem. As this wasn’t pleasant enough, she frequently encounters the phenomenon of projects falling apart because of employees seeking individual gain above all other things, and the abuse of ubiquitous “performance reviews” in order to attack and undermine staff. After trying to make the best of a bad situation, persevering nonetheless in her work, Susan left the company in December.
Uber doesn’t have a problem with sexism, capitalism has a problem with working conditions.
I doubt that many people were very shocked by what Susan had to say. Writing in France, I am sure that this is even more true of the people I come across every day, the word ‘uberisation’ being one of the newest additions to the French language, coming to signify all that is vicious and mean about the modern world of work. Here, as the debates around the coming presidential election heat up, the spectre of Uber and its model haunt the discussions about the kind of jobs we can expect to see created as the 21st century trundles on.
Uber is nothing special
And the continued degradation of working conditions is nothing new either. Uber is just a stark example of a trend that begun when a certain brand of economics won the battle of ideas in the 1970s. Among the new rules to emerge from the dust were the idea that private entreprise is always better than public, markets should be as ‘free’ from state intervention as possible, and companies should be run in the interest of their shareholders.
As these rules have been applied progressively over the world, first in the Anglo-Saxon countries and then in their nearest cultural neighbours in Western Europe, capitalism has changed. The film-maker Gilles Perret captures the essence of what this has meant for everyday life in his 2006 film ‘Ma Mondialisation’ (My globalisation) which shows the microcosm of the mechanical parts industry in the Haute-Savoie region of France.
In a valley that serves as a mirror of the wider capitalised world, we are told the story of companies that were formerly profitable and competitive, that created high-quality goods and relatively well-paid jobs and security, but which gradually succumb to a new status quo as foreign competition either buys them up or shuts them down. Jobs are outsourced, investment is cut, and brutal management techniques are introduced to incentivise workers. The quality of the produced goods suffer, and more importantly, so do the lives of the employees.
What is remarkable about Susan’s story?
One of the saddest — and also funniest — parts of Susan’s story is when she talks about a superior deliberately witholding important information from his direct superior, in the hope of currying favour with someone even higher up the chain. This sort of behaviour features in the film as well, as each employee is told to look out for themselves above all.
The various companies in the film are gradually taken over by foreign investment funds. Uber, too, is owned by a investment capital, which in its case is exerting enormous pressure as they are lose money on the as-of-yet unprofitable company. In both cases, the number one mission of the company becomes providing the highest possible rate of return on investment, and as quickly as possible. The interests of other stakeholders – employees, intermediaries and customers, are secondary, if not entirely insignificant.
What is special about Susan’s case is that she is a highly educated individual in a sector that provides high-paid, high-quality jobs. She’s a graduate of a top university, and a published author in her professional field. The workers in the film are low-skilled; most of them didn’t need to complete much more than secondary education to get a job.
The only difference is that time has passed. The film tells a story that largely took place in the 1990s. Now, 20 years later, the opportunities for squeezing profitability out of lower skilled industries are fewer than before. In short, things are only going to get worse.
A better model
The setup that existed before, sometimes called patriarchal capitalism, where the boss was the ‘father’ of the company is not something we should hope to see the return of, but it did have one important benefit: it meant the head of the company was intimately invested in its long term survival.
Today, the insatiable demands for short term rewards render this sort of attitude impossible. Some have posited the idea that companies should be run more democratically, stating that after all it is bizarre that only one of the actors that come together to create a company get to have a say in it. If the other stakeholders, who as it happens also usually have more of an investment in the long-term survival of the company, had more of a say in the running of it, then this would go a long way in combatting the problem. Coöperatives are a possible solution. I work in one, and it is certainly a different and more positive environment to anywhere else I have ever been. I firmly believe that it makes decent democratic sense, however, coöperatives are not enough on their own, and indeed as they are not a new idea they already would be a lot more popular if this was the case.
The problem that is underlined in the film is that it didn’t matter if it was only a minority of companies that adopted the new methods at first. The effects spread inevitably even to those companies that refused to compromise on the wellbeing of the long-term health of the company and the wellbeing of its employees. This is because there needs to be a protective framework that stops everyone being drawn down to the lowest common denominator. This framework can only be achieved via legislation, which is where things become difficult. It’s hard to see how this could be achievable in the short term in the USA, Uber’s home country.
What can we hope for?
In France, with a presidential election in 9 weeks, there are some interesting propositions on the table. Benoît Hamon of the Socialist Party is proposing that companies be forced to adopt further internal democracy, with a council composed of a 3-way split between shareholders, workers, and customers being given the reins on important decisions. Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the France Insoumise has a similar idea, but also wants to target the maximum rate of return that investors can demand from a company, bringing it down to levels that existed before the 1980s. Mélenchon and Hamon are on the left, and it is only on this side of the spectrum that ideas like this are being thrown around. The centre, right, and far-right have nothing in store but more of the same, but unfortunately look to be ahead in the race at the moment.
If nothing is done, more and more of people in work will find themselves destabilised, and situations like Susan. The privileged will become the precarious, the precarious will sink into unheard-of levels of misery, and an ever shrinking minority will manage to live a life of comfort and security. In the meantime, we can expect many more stories like Susan’s to enter the public discourse.