Flexibility and insecurity an insight into the

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Flexibility and Insecurity: An Insight into the experiences of Uber drivers in Brisbane

By Dr. Peter "PJ" Holtum, & Professor Greg Marston The University of Queensland, School of Social Science

April, 2019

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Contents Introduction........................................................................................................... 3 Summary of Findings.............................................................................................. 4 Methods ................................................................................................................ 5 Flexibility and Insecurity ........................................................................................ 6 Work and Family .................................................................................................... 9 Financial Independence ....................................................................................... 10 Safety .................................................................................................................. 12 Conclusion: Families, Financial dependence, and [in]flexibility. ........................... 13 References ........................................................................................................... 16

Acknowledgements Research was funded through an internal grant from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Queensland. We wish to extend a special thanks to the driver-partners and key stakeholders who gave their time generously.

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Introduction

Between October 2018, and March 2019 researchers from the University of Queensland interviewed Uber "driver-partners", ex-drivers, and met with Uber management, and several key stakeholders involved with ridesourcing1 in Brisbane, Australia. While there is a growing amount of information surrounding Uber and ridesourcing as a form of gig-work2 we are concerned about the lack of Australian specific information that is rigorous and independent. More specifically, while much information focuses on specifics of income disparity, driver inequality, and safety concerns our research seeks to explore the effects of ridesourcing on drivers' social, work, and family life. To this extent the following report outlines the key findings of twenty-four interviews with current Uber driver-partners about their work history prior to driving for Uber, as well as their work identity, routines, and their philosophy on work more broadly.

Key findings in our report suggest that drivers have less control over when, where, and how they operate than is promoted by Uber3. While flexibility was reportedly the most frequent reason that drivers signed on to Uber, our report demonstrates that work experience and driver's family responsibilities are likely to contribute to the experience of flexibility. For instance, many drivers reported signing up with Uber because they were underemployed, or underappreciated in their previous occupation. Similarly, while almost all drivers detested driving in the Brisbane CBD and driving on weekend nights, drivers from single income households were considerably more likely to work these hours than drivers from households with a combined income. Drivers from countries other than Australia or New Zealand were also more likely to drive these undesirable hours. These findings suggest that the patterns that organise Uber driver-partners are more likely to reflect a driver's economic capital (the availability of economic assets), or their social and cultural capital (their ability to draw on friends, or knowledge to prosper in society). Consequently, our findings suggest that flexibility amongst Uber driver-partners is more likely to be an outcome of the driver's position in society, than it is of Uber's business model.

These findings complement recent research from Rosenblat (2018) about the financial and social struggles of Uber drivers in the United States. It also complements research from Campbell and Price (2016) who question the causal link between precarious work and precarious workers. Our research addresses these tensions by demonstrating that while Uber's `flexible' model benefits some drivers, it does not benefit all -- or even most -- drivers.

1 We use the term ridesourcing to refer to the digital sourcing of independent contractors to transport passengers for a fare as is consistent with definitions from the Australian Tax Office ()

2 We define gig workers as workers who support themselves "as flexible, free independent suppliers, moving seamlessly from one job (or `gig') to another, utilising digital technology to connect with purchasers of their services" (Stanford, 2017: 383).

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Summary of Findings

While our sample size only includes twenty-four drivers we have done our best to ensure a proportionate representation of drivers by gender, ethnicity, and age. Our sample size is informed by driver demographics from the United States, the United Kingdom, and surveys from Australia. Nevertheless, we acknowledge that our findings are illustrative rather than representative of broader driver experiences. The following findings were most illustrative of driver experiences in our research.

The degree of flexibility drivers enjoy depends on their economic, social, and/or cultural capital. Drivers with fewer forms of capital were more likely to drive at undesirable and risky (but more lucrative) times.

Drivers tended to join Uber because they were underemployed, or underappreciated in previous jobs.

The social/cultural interactions with passengers was reported as the most rewarding and satisfying part of driving with Uber.

Drivers felt high levels of job insecurity as a result of: o The inability to defend themselves against customer allegations and feedback from the star-rating system o Income generated was below Australian minimum hourly wage rates o A perceived lack of support and infrastructure governing operations in the CBD

Most drivers interviewed were primary caregivers. Uber's flexibility was essential to minimising childcare costs and supporting families.

Only half the drivers interviewed had a clear awareness of their business, operating, and legal responsibilities and expenses.

Despite drivers often having multiple sources of income, Uber was almost always the most profitable source of income generation.

Drivers were not overly concerned about their safety, although each driver implemented their own risk management strategy.

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Methods

One of the main reasons behind a lack of rigorous information about Uber -- its algorithms, and experiences of drivers -- has been the difficulty of establishing a reliable sampling method. While online driver forums present a great avenue into the world of Uber drivers, it represents a specific demographic of drivers who are both active online, but also, actively engaged in the Uber community-- which as the reader will see -- may represent up to half of the demographic of Uber drivers. We were unable to access drivers directly through Uber and instead recruited drivers via an online forum on the Facebook platform. An online post informing members of the research was posted on January 2nd 2019 in the "Uber Drivers Brisbane" group; a group whose description reads:

This group exists primarily for Uber drivers who drive in Brisbane, for the purposes of support, sharing of information & our experiences in driving Uber in Brisbane...4

The Facebook group has ten thousand members, and features regular posts from members about ridesourcing related questions (mostly for drivers on the Uber platform), issues and comments. Unlike many other dedicated forums the level of engagement is largely pragmatic (questions about parking, money, tax, etc.) and politically ambivalent with some exceptions. The forum also features a stronger contingent of drivers from different genders and ethnic backgrounds and therefore was an ideal medium for driver recruitment.

Twenty of the twenty-four driver interviews assembled in this report were organised from this sampling model within a week of the Facebook post, and conducted over the following two and a half weeks at various locations around Brisbane in early 2019. These interviews were semistructured and conversational. The interviews explored drivers' employment history, career outlook as an Uber driver, and their daily routine and work-life balance. All interviews were conducted on a one-on-one basis except for one where a driver bought his partner along to serve as a translator. The other four driver interviews included in this report were collected in October and November 2018. These interviews shared a similar method to the other twenty with the exception that they were conducted "in-car" by researchers who booked a ride from the University to an outer suburb in Brisbane. The twenty-four driver interviews were complemented by five interviews with ex-drivers who were known to the research team, and several meetings with Uber management, and key stakeholders in the Queensland ridesourcing community which informed our analysis of the data.

4 (accessed 19th April, 2019)

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The demographic of the sample size is modelled on pre-existing data from the United Sates5 and the United Kingdom6 where more focused demographics of Uber drivers have been compiled. We achieved a 17% representation of women drivers, which is in line with some older data from the United States (2014) and suggestions from Uber management in 20187. We also ensured an even balance between Australian and New Zealand born drivers and other immigrant drivers. While we suspect, as key stakeholders do, that Brisbane has a higher proportion of immigrant drivers8, we consider an even split reasonable given our recruitment of participants through an online forum in English. We also included three drivers who were retired or semi-retired, which is proportionate to existing data. Of the drivers interviewed most (67%) drove full time (i.e. 35+ hours a week), most (67%) had a level of education in-excess of high school (including vocational/TAFE, and/or university), most (60%) had dependents, and most (60%) relied on a joint household income to `pay the bills' [although not all parents had the luxury of a joint income to support their children]. While most drivers worked across a variety of other roles including: other rideshare apps (75%), taxis (20%), and full-time/part-time/casual employment (35%), almost all -- with the exception of two -- drivers reported Uber was their primary source of income. Interestingly almost one-fifth of our sample rented a car to drive for Uber. This figure points to the importance of intermediaries involved in the gig economy; it suggests avenues for future research to explore the effect of digital platform growth on job creation, and the financial interdependence of workers and businesses in this gig economy.

Flexibility and Insecurity

Drivers in this project revealed both high levels of economic and job status insecurity as well as reasonable levels of work satisfaction. While insecurity may seem like an obvious finding for gig workers like Uber drivers, its coexistence with these satisfaction levels highlights an interesting paradox.

Part 1: Insecurity Fourteen drivers responded in a favourable or somewhat favourable way to the opportunities that driving with Uber offered them. Of the ten who did not, only four were overwhelmingly negative about Uber, and the others were unsure about whether they enjoyed driving with Uber or not. Paramount amongst the issues raised with Uber were:

(1) Almost all drivers interviewed had low levels of trust in Uber, and many were unsure that Uber would be able to provide a fair and reasonable opportunities for them in the future. Many were concerned about a perceived lack of transparency in the star-rating system,

5 (Hall & Krueger, 2018) 6 (Berger, Frey, Levin, & Danda, 2018) 7 Although we note that these figures are significantly higher than the most recent findings from the United Kingdom in which Berger, Frey, Levin,

and Danda (2018) found only 1% of drivers were women. 8 One stakeholder suspected that 60% to 80% of drivers in Brisbane were immigrants.

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