Blurring the Boundaries:
The future of work between self-employment and wage labour
Interview with Sophie Bernard
Sophie Bernard is Professor of Sociology at the Université Paris Dauphine and in 2020/2021 a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. Her research focuses on the sociology of work and employment with a particular interest in the topics of the porosity between self-employment and wage labour, as well as platform capitalism and platform work. Her latest researchexamines the working conditions of Uber drivers in France, the United Kingdom, and Canada as representatives of a new business model based on digital platforms that act as intermediaries between customers and service providers. In this interview, we discuss with Sophie Bernard the role of platforms for the future of work.
Interview conducted by Katrin Sold
Interviewer: Your recent research on platform capitalism focuses on the situation of Uber drivers. Why did you choose this topic and how is your study designed?
SB: In the public debate, but also in the academic field, we have many discussions about the deployment of digital platforms and their impact on the world of work, but they remain very abstract. The deployment of digital platforms is contributing to a blurring of the boundary between self-employment and salaried work. In my study, I propose to approach this question from a sociological point of view to empirically describe the reality of the working and employment conditions of platform workers. I chose to focus on Uber drivers because they are emblematic of platform capitalism.
My investigation began by observing numerous Uber driver mobilizations in France, completed by interviews with drivers mobilized in the movement. I then conducted long interviews with drivers during rides in Paris, London, and Montreal.
Interviewer: What are the working conditions of these drivers?
SB: In the beginning, working with Uber was a lucrative job. As remuneration was high, many drivers became success stories and convinced their relatives to join the platform. Indeed, Uber offered bonuses to encourage drivers to use the platform. The platform promised to the drivers also the possibility to organise working time freely and to conciliate the job with other activities and especially with family life.
Over the last years, however, we could observe a sharp deterioration of the drivers’ situation with a general decrease in the level of remuneration. Bonuses have been removed, rates decreased, and the commission taken by Uber increased. The drop in remuneration intensified the competition among the drivers and forced them to work more and more in order to maintain their level of income. There are specific periods during the day when Uber increases the rate (surges) in order to attract drivers, otherwise they do not have enough drivers in a specific area. These periods are early in the morning, during the night, and weekends. Many drivers have to work during these periods to earn enough money. The promise of compatibility of the job with family life and other jobs is thus becoming more and more obsolete.
Interviewer: Considering these difficult working conditions, what motivates workers to engage in this kind of platform job?
SB: There are three profiles of workers among Uber drivers. First, those for whom it is a supplementary activity and who have another main job that they supplement by being a driver in the evening and at the weekends. They, in general, are satisfied, because it is a side activity. At the same time, this type of driver is risky for the others, because they accept the working conditions imposed by the platform. Second, you have drivers for whom it is a temporary activity. It is their main activity, but they consider it temporary. In Montreal, for example, many immigrated people work as drivers while they are learning French, but they do not plan to work as drivers in the future. That’s why they usually do not question the working conditions. The third group of drivers, for whom working as a driver is their main activity in the long run, is divided. There are drivers who use the platform as a supplement to private rides. That is mostly the case in France. They have managed to establish a private clientele paying higher rates, and Uber is only a supplement. They are not really dependent on the platform and can accept the working conditions more easily. The situation is most difficult for the second part of this group, who work exclusively through the platform. Today, they form the majority of Uber drivers. In these cases, the platform determines their working conditions. These drivers mainly come from an immigrant working class background and have experienced unemployment and precarious jobs with even more difficult working conditions. Being their own boss via platform work gives them a sense of freedom. In comparison with their past professional trajectory, they consider working for Uber a “good bad job” (Rosenblat, 2018). Uber thus has a docile workforce on which it can impose constraints through a new form of control, “algorithmic management”.
Interviewer: Can we consider platform workers to be independent workers?
SB: Drivers join because they hope to be independent workers, organising their work and their working time independently. Over time, however, they understand that their activity is strongly supervised and controlled by the platform. They sign a charta that imposes the conditions of their work, and Uber imposes sanctions on the drivers if they do not fulfil it. The control of the charta, in fact, is delegated to the customers, because at the end of the ride, customers rate the drivers and give them between one and five stars. And if the average is too low, the account of the driver will be suspended or definitely deactivated. The same happens if the rate of acceptance of trips is less than 80 per cent or the rate of cancellation of trips more than 4 per cent. Drivers therefore assume the risks of the market, but do not enjoy the autonomy associated with self-employed status, nor the rights and protections associated with employee status. Many observers consider platform capitalism the end of wage employment and a push for independent work. But my survey shows that Uber drivers can be considered neither independent workers nor wage employees, but rather, hybrid workers who belong to the growing grey zone between salaried and independent employment.
Interviewer: What reactions to this dynamic could you observe?
I observed a significant collective mobilisation of Uber drivers in France. The protest started when Uber decided to decrease the rate by 20 per cent. The main demands are about remuneration and about concrete regulations for the sector dealing with the grey zone between salaried work and self-employment.
Negotiations on this question take place mainly in the legal arena and in the field of legislative regulations. In France, there was the idea to create, like in the UK, an intermediary category of workers between salaried work and self-employment that would have less protection than employees, but more than the self-employed. But this proposal met with strong opposition. Legal experts saw the risk that in the end this intermediary category could integrate the majority of workers. This would lead to a general reduction of workers’ rights and protections. For this reason this option has been rejected in France.
For the future, it could be a solution to make wage employment more attractive. Uber drivers often consider wage employment to be hierarchic and full of constraints. On the one hand, they want the protections and the rights of salaried employment, but on the other, they ask for more flexibility and autonomy. This could be an opportunity to demonstrate that salaried employment is not incompatible with autonomy. This form of “salaried employment with autonomy” already exists, for example in certain fields of white collar employment. But by blurring the lines between self- and salaried employment, platform capitalism requires us to think anew how to combine autonomy and security at work.
Rosenblat, Alex: Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work, University of California, 2018.