Uber work could do with disruption and innovation

CAPE TOWN – This week Uber and Bolt drivers for these ride-sharing companies have been protesting about their working conditions, saying they are exploitative. 

This was touched upon in the Competition Commission report this week, which states that the evidence presented to the commission revealed that the relationship between e-hailing companies and their operators was not governed by labour laws.

The commission received submissions alleging that e-hailing companies took unilateral decisions with no input from operators – an action that has the potential of undermining the rights of the e-hailing operators and threatening their survival.

During the public hearings, some e-hailing operators alleged that when e-hailing services entered the South African market, they (especially Uber) used various incentives to attract as many e-hailing operators as possible.

These incentives were later withdrawn unilaterally, negatively affecting their earnings. In addition, e-hailing companies introduced booking fees of an average of 4percent, which also impacted their earnings.

Based on the data received from e-hailing companies, the commission found that the gross earnings per e-hailing operator were declining over time until 2017/18.

The commission highlights that Uber operators’ gross earnings before the commission for a trip less than 2km was R85 in 2013 and this was reduced to R20 between 2016 and 2017. Uber has since increased the minimum fare to R25 from August 2018. Therefore, on average, an e-hailing operator needs to drive four trips to reach the same amount of earnings he earned in 2013. This fact alone highlights that all is not well between e-hailing companies and operators.

E-hailing companies such as Uber and Bolt have, however, challenged this claim by operators in terms of their submission to the commission. According to e-hailing companies, the digital platforms in the transport sector have created employment for unemployed individuals seeking full-time work and provided an opportunity for already employed individuals seeking to supplement their incomes.

The question of whether independent contractors and e-hailing operators are typical employees who should be governed by employer/employee related laws has been controversial in jurisdictions worldwide, with South Africa being no exception.

The current situation between e-hailing companies and operators is not sustainable. It is contrary to promise of technology and innovation that, while it destroys jobs, it also brings new jobs. This situation illustrates the fact that the quality of jobs that are brought by technology companies, at least in the context of e-hailing companies, are not quality and meaningful jobs.

The case between e-hailing companies and operators is an important one for other industries. More and more sectors of the economy will be disrupted by technology.

In future more people will work in the same way as Uber and Bolt drivers. If this is true, there’s a need to ensure that the quality of work life will not be the same as current working conditions of Uber drivers. Tech leaders in South Africa can ensure that fairer working conditions are adopted by submitting their ideas to the commission before the March 31 via email to ppt@compcom.co.za

This future of work issue will also be discussed by South African innovators and technologists at the upcoming Fast Company – Most Innovative Companies conference on March 5 at the Cape Town International Convention Centre.

Wesley Diphoko is the editor-in-chief of the Fast Company magazine. He can be reached via email: wesley@fastcompany.co.za or via Twitter:@WesleyDiphoko

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