Water Bottles and The Gig Economy

A black limousine pulls over by a fire hydrant and parks. The passenger side door opens and a hand is seen tipping a disposable plastic water bottle so that its translucent yellow contents pour out onto the street.

The door closes and the limousine pulls away from the curb, leaving behind two unattended water bottles, each half-filled with similarly colored liquid.

“That’s fucking disgusting,” Adriana says, watching the limousine disappear down the street as we walk to the subway station this morning. “Find a bathroom, dude. What an animal.”

And we leave it at that. For a minute or so, until further down the block, we see another urine-filled water bottle.

Once you’ve seen your first bottle of urine on the street, lying sideways in the gutter, and you understand that this is a phenomenon of urban living, then you see the bottles everywhere. They’re unavoidable. Sometimes they’re Evian bottles, often they’re Coke bottles, 7-UP, Dr. Pepper. You might see one with a Poland Springs label. Piss-filled plastic disposable water bottles all over the city can’t be unseen. No matter how nice the neighborhood, or not, they’re there.

I say to Adriana, “Do we ever think about the conditions that would lead the driver to behave that way?”

And intrinsically we both know the answer. We both know that there are very few public bathrooms in our city, let alone available parking spaces, which a limousine driver can make use of. We know that it is simply not a priority for cities like New York to build more public bathrooms or offer more parking spots and it’s probably not even something that the city can afford. Drivers have to tough it out or improvise.

Furthermore, we also know that while the consumer costs of hiring a driver through services like Uber and Lyft have remained the same over the last few years, more or less, the income — the take-home amount of pay that drivers keep for themselves — has gone down over that same period of time. We can work it out for ourselves that those drivers need to put in longer hours in order to make the same amount of pay.

Bathroom breaks are therefore a luxury they can ill afford.

We know that. We also hear it first hand through anecdotes shared by the drivers that we hire to get us from A to B but we ignore its implications while we continue to believe in the promise of the gig economy.

We’ve been sold on the benevolence of the gig economy, on the freedom that “freelancers” enjoy, even though the feedback we get from those people who work in it, is that their hours are longer and their pay is diminishing. We are enablers of the gig economy.

This isn’t a new development.

In the meantime, in the Danish media, one can read that in the city of Copenhagen, where I am from, Uber just left the market. They were forced out, in essence, as the conditions there ran counter to the way they like to run their kind of business.

The legal arguments preceding Uber’s departure from Copenhagen were the same as they have been framed in other cities where Uber enjoys a growing market share. It comes down to, are they a tech company or a taxi service?

The city of Copenhagen and its taxi drivers union argued that Uber is a taxi service and therefore subject to the same regulations as other taxi companies. Not surprisingly, Uber argued differently: they are a software company whose service merely connects customers with service providers. Calling them a taxi driving service would therefore be inaccurate.

The Danish courts saw through this and ruled in favor of the taxi drivers union. Uber left town.

On one hand, I was at first annoyed because what this means to any consumer in Copenhagen is that the city will go back to the old model, where one has to call the taxi company on the telephone, be put on hold for 20 minutes, just so that a driver can be summoned, and then, the ride itself will cost substantially more than what most people think it is worth.

To many consumers, it means they will get inferior service at a higher cost.

But, in Denmark, it’s hard to argue against the conclusion that it is better for the driver and ultimately, I’m beginning to wonder, isn’t it better for the consumer as well? Maybe.

In countries like Denmark, where taxi driver unions are strong, we know that the entry requirements for becoming a licensed driver are much stricter than they are over here in the United States.

Like in many European countries, drivers in Denmark have to surpass more rigorous qualifications compared to those in the US in order to be allowed to drive with passengers.

And we know that the working conditions for unionized taxi drivers in Europe are safer, more accommodating, and more lifestyle friendly than they are here in the United States. For example, there are caps on the maximum number of hours a driver can work every week. Drivers are entitled to health insurance, unemployment benefits, retirement funds, and paid vacations. They are trained in first aid. They go back at regular intervals for more tests to renew their drivers’ licenses. All of these things contribute to better conditions for drivers and as a result, drivers have better safety records on the road. Isn’t it reasonable then to conclude that safer drivers are better for consumers?

In America, in the cities that I am most familiar with, drivers are generally not part of the union. They work longer hours with no restrictions nor safety regulations on how many hours they are allowed to work each week, and they make less pay.

I routinely meet drivers who have been working a single shift for 15 to 18 hours straight, without rest. That is often the norm! Yet we tend to argue that despite this, it is still better for consumers because we, as consumers, pay less money and we get friendlier, more efficient service.

Drivers in America have to hustle for their fares and so we believe that the increased competition typical of American markets delivers innovations that disrupt industries to our benefit, and while this may be true, the increased benefits to consumers has not translated to increased benefits for those freelancers who work in the gig economy, drivers included.

So why do we continue to support this paradigm, even as we know that drivers are working under increasingly unsafe conditions, which will also impact us? Why do we continue to support companies like Uber, Lyft and Juno, whose market shares are increasing compared to their more traditional counterparts? Is it because the lower costs are the only thing that matters to us? Is it because of our sense of entitlement, that we think we are entitled to lower costs?

I suspect it is for the same reasons that we continue to support businesses like IKEA, where we willingly overlook the downsides of such a business because we prefer to focus only on how the business benefits us. For example, it is well known in Europe that the truck drivers subcontracted by IKEA to transport their products often work under deplorable conditions. The cost benefits to consumers blind us from appreciating the unsafe working conditions to the people who deliver our goods and services.

Most of IKEA’s truck drivers don’t work directly for IKEA . Even though they make pick-ups and deliveries all over Europe, they are subcontracted by small companies based in Bulgaria, Albania and other corners of eastern Europe, where there are no unions and far fewer safety regulations and work restrictions.

It is very common that truck drivers from Bulgaria and Albania who deliver IKEA products thousands of miles away from their home base, sleep in their own trucks by the side of the road at night, because they can’t afford to stay in hostels or hotels. They live like this for months. Sometimes their spouses and children travel with them, using the truck’s tiny cab in the back as their living space.

To IKEA, the price of a Bulgarian truck driver subcontracted to them via a management company is about 15% of what it costs to hire a Danish truck driver. IKEA argues that these savings are essential to their business, which allows them to continue to offer their goods at competitive prices to their consumers.

IKEA argues that if they raise their prices, even if it’s the right thing to do so that they could offer their drivers better working conditions, then they will lose customers.

Looking away from Europe, I imagine that these conditions for truck drivers are very similar throughout the Americas, wherever IKEA products are sold. I suspect that most deliveries in the US are made by drivers subcontracted out of Mexico or Central America, or, at the very least, IKEA hires management companies who work only with non-union truck drivers, just like they do in Europe.

We know that those freelance truck drivers in Europe, who are not held to the same rigorous safety standards as unionized drivers, are more likely to get into accidents on the road than their union counterparts. These drivers are therefore a greater safety hazard to the public than unionized truck drivers. More accidents means that more people die each year as a result.

We know this to be true yet why do we continue to be enablers of this paradigm? Isn’t that counter to our best interests?

Shouldn’t we ask more from ourselves? Should we really be so willing to overlook the far from optimal conditions that people in the gig economy have to endure, just so that they can deliver the low cost goods and services that we feel entitled to receive?

Should we be willing to pay a bit more so that the people who deliver the goods to us, whether they drive for IKEA or Uber, can actually afford — at the very least — a slightly higher standard of living?

So that limousine driver I mentioned earlier, who pees into water bottles because he or she cannot afford to miss out on a call if indisposed, if we were willing to pay a little bit more for the service, then maybe that driver could afford the dignity of access to a bathroom whenever he or she needs one.

As Adriana took the first steps down into the subway station, I said to her, “The next time we see one of those water bottles, maybe we should ask ourselves if we, as consumers, have a greater responsibility. Maybe we should be better consumers. We’re just enablers now. And, you know, if this gig economy is failing, as it seems to be, then aren’t we partially responsible for that and don’t those people relying on it have a right to resent us for enabling these conditions to persist, as we, the buyers, continue to demand low-costs while ignoring the real cost to them?”

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