“On digital platforms, customers are encouraged to rank workers, and they often don’t know how important that rating is,” says Wood. He believes tech companies should make customers aware that these systems are used to meter out disciplinary actions if workers are seen to be underperforming. “By giving somebody less than 5 out of 5, you’re saying you want them to be punished, that they deserve to have their ability to access work reduced, or be deactivated from the platform, basically fired,” says Wood.
This algorithmic control is not restricted to computer-based work—food delivery drivers, who are just as much at the will of this hidden numbers game, ask users to rate them five stars on their doorstep.
Rideshare drivers have to keep a close eye on the entire experience they offer to passengers. Amari, who lives in Kansas City, Missouri, and ended his three years of gig work at Doordash to drive for Uber and Lyft, began by considering the music he plays in his car. “I had to edit out most of the rap music because anything with a lot of cuss words and adult themes would inevitably make someone mad at me, and I got rated low for that,” he says.
He also makes sure to engage with passengers if they strike up a conversation. “Or if they’re quiet, I’ll leave it at hello,” he explains. “But in my three months with Uber, I’ve gathered up a few bad reviews and reports for politeness—the craziest thing is I couldn’t even tell you which customers it would have been.” Amari has no idea how this feedback will affect his ratings, but he knows that Uber deactivates drivers without warning if their ratings are too low or if the driver gets a lot of complaints.
Uber spokesperson Richard Foord said the company takes the decision to remove drivers from the platform very seriously. “We have robust processes in place to help ensure that we are taking a proportionate approach, which includes human-led investigations and case reviews,” says Foord. “Drivers are able to contact us if they have any concerns.”
However, Amari feels the system in place to find out details behind a rating is opaque and intentionally difficult to navigate. “There is no system set in place for us to know, so you could lose your job at any moment with no warning. I’ve concluded that Uber is pretty hostile towards its workers,” he says. As a way of cushioning what could be a sudden boot from the platform, Amari has found extra employment elsewhere, because he doesn’t feel driving for Uber full-time offers enough security.
While it’s useful for users to understand the impact of their low ratings, a change in this alone can’t solve the deepening issue of reputational insecurity and generalised insecurity in the gig economy. Research by the International Labour Organisation found that workers using location-based platforms, such as Uber, generate the bulk of their earnings from that source, while one third of online-platform workers relied primarily on this employment for their income, although this is far higher in developing countries. Until more robust regulation can tackle the systems so skewed against the people on which they depend, most workers have no choice but to continue striving to please their clients and the algorithms, as best they can.
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