Time to rethink labor laws?

A fascinating article entitled “The Uber economy requires a new category of worker, beyond ‘employee’ and ‘contractor’”, explores a number of ideas I have touched on in previous articles: companies like Uber, Lyft, Instacart, Taskrabbit, and many others are raising many questions about labor relations, which seem restrained by concepts not so much from the 20th century so much as those formulated in the 19th.

Quite simply, there is no point in trying to prevent the growth of these companies that are breaking with the past and imposing new ways of doing things that are upsetting a lot of vested interests. It is absurd to imagine that drivers working for Uber or Lyft, or anybody who decides to use their spare time to earn money are in any sense employees, with the obligations and responsibilities traditionally associated with that term. The growth of platforms that match supply with demand is due to their flexibility: they are the oil that has freed up rusty machinery.

Uber’s response to three court cases brought by drivers demanding they be treated as employees seems fairly sensible. Uber drivers come in all shapes and sizes. The majority of them want the flexibility working for the company gives them: they have a company that provides them with clients and that requires them to fulfill a few basic criteria, but they are their own bosses and can decide when they want to work and who they pick up.

The Uber model certainly raises questions: what happens if a driver refuses to pick up a blind person with a guide dog, or to have to fold up a wheelchair? They have no obligation to do so, because they aren’t employees. In the same way, given that the application allows drivers to evaluate passengers, as well as the other way round, a driver might refuse to pick up a fare on a Saturday night because that person has previously puked up in a car when drunk. Should these kinds of freedoms be allowed? These are the kind of questions that arise out of the lack of definition about the relationship between Uber and its drivers, and that do not occur in traditional employer-employee relations.

What’s to stop a driver from working a 20-hour shift because she needs money desperately? In theory, nothing. Is that a good thing? Maybe not, although it probably already happens. Taxi drivers often continue working after their shift is through, so we need to be fair on what basis we are judging operations like Uber. The same applies to the hidden economy: there must be any number of self-employed people in traditional industries who don’t declare all their earnings.

The solution would appear to be to simply create new, more open employment categories that allow people who want flexible working conditions, while avoiding undesirable situations or abuse. It may be necessary to oblige companies that employ people on this basis to provide certain guarantees to facilitate this. But without doubt, we need to reopen the debate: technology has given rise to a situation whereby economic progress is being restrained by limitations that have not stood the test of time. Quite simply, we are not living in the same world as when many of our labor laws were enacted. Time for a rethink.

(En español, aquí)

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