The G Blog #Insights

Anti-Uberisation & the Gig Worker Rebel Alliance

Ben Wray, Jun 2023

“Uber didn’t create a new type of worker, as much as find new ways to avoid the costs and responsibilities that employers have towards their workforce.”

These are the words of Mark MacGann, former Uber chief lobbyist in Europe turned ‘Uber Files’ whistleblower. Last July, MacGann leaked 124,000 internal files from 2013 to 2017, exposing the Californian tech giant’s brazen, illegal entry into the European market. Uber brushed aside regulations and law enforcement to impose its business model on the continent.

Mark MacGann, Uber Files whistleblower, by Web Summit

What does this business model consist of? In his book ‘Platform Capitalism’, Nick Srnicek describes Uber as an example of a “lean” platform: beyond the core software, it outsources all other costs associated with the taxi business. Despite Uber being the world’s largest taxi firm, it owns no taxis. 

Instead, those costs are pushed onto Uber’s drivers. Uber only pays for the time spent driving the passenger, not the waiting time and the time it takes to travel to the pick-up point, which is typically about 40-50% of the working time. Car purchase, fuel and insurance are all paid by the driver. If you get sick or want to take a holiday, you get no wage. And it’s the same for the company’s ‘Uber Eats’ food delivery couriers.

The irony of being a gig worker is that while you are legally considered to have no boss, in reality your work is under much more exacting control than the vast majority of formally employed workers. Why? Because your boss is an algorithm. 

The algorithm knows down to the millisecond how long it takes for you to make a delivery, whether you take the fastest possible route, how many times you break the speed limit, whether you stopped for petrol, read a message on your phone at a traffic light, etc. Algorithmic management involves intense worker surveillance through the collection of thousands of data points, which are the sole property of the company and largely inaccessible to the worker.

Uber app, by Focal Foto 

There are significant consequences to being algorithmically managed without employment rights. One is that you can be ‘robo-fired’: permanently deactivated from the app by an automated system, without any warning nor any legal recourse to challenge the decision. For a gig worker who has invested immense time in acquiring five star customer ratings and money in an expensive car, a robo-firing can place them and their family in immense financial jeopardy overnight.

Given the job insecurity and financial precarity of working in the gig economy, why would anyone want to do this work? Gig work is usually done by two groups, which sometimes cross-over: 1) those who either struggle to find more secure forms of work, and 2) those who, due to family or other work commitments, can only work very specific hours, such as at night, or at erratic times.

For the first group, many migrants find the gig economy attractive due to the low barriers of entry: no qualifications, language skills or job interviews are required, you just have to set-up an account. In fact, many (possibly as much as half) of the food delivery couriers in big cities like Paris and Madrid are undocumented workers who do not legally have the right to work and thus can access few jobs. These undocumented couriers often have to use another person’s account to access the platform, and have as much as 60% of the wage they earn on the account subtracted by the account’s owner. This ‘sub-letting’ means they suffer a double-exploitation: first from the platform, and second from the account holder.

Deliveroo couriers, by Tim Dennell

For the second group, many of these workers are working from home, often combining online platform work with caring responsibilities, and as such they tend to be women. Online platform work includes things like translation and transcription services on platforms like Upwork and, but also ‘clickwork’ on sites like Amazon Mechanical Turk, where workers have to carry out very quick, repetitive tasks like identifying what is in an image, usually to train an AI system. These online platform workers are perhaps even more alienated than those working on-location, as they have very few means of contacting their fellow workers.

Thus, we can see how the gig economy intersects class exploitation with racialised and gendered forms of oppression. But despite the fact many of these workers are among the most vulnerable in the European workforce, there are now examples all across Europe of gig workers organising to improve their working conditions and demand workers’ rights. Sometimes these organising efforts involve traditional unions, but quite often they are led by grassroots worker collectives self-organising and devising daring new tactics to challenge the platforms.

IWGB union 2021 Deliveroo strike, London (Picture by duncan cumming)

There have also been multiple successful legal challenges to the platforms at courts across Europe, and more recently there has been significant legislative initiatives in national parliaments, like Spain and Croatia. The most important political development has been at EU level, with the draft Platform Work Directive, which may provide gig workers’ with much needed employment and algorithmic rights.

What we do at the Gig Economy Project is try to provide useful information to platform workers and activists who are fighting to transform the gig economy. Since March 2020, GEP has developed a strong network across Europe, who keep us informed about what is happening on-the-ground. We leverage this network to organise interviews with gig workers on strike, to write analysis on how Uber’s algorithm is changing, reports on developments with the Platform Work Directive, summaries of important new academic research, and much much more. We publish articles and podcasts on the Brave New Europe website, which hosts GEP, we produce a weekly newsletter that goes out to nearly 1000 gig workers, academic specialists, trade-unionists, politicians and others, and we regularly update our Twitter account.

Platform workers protest at the European Parliament, by The Left

By informing those who are active in the gig economy about what is happening in different countries and on different platforms, we hope to strengthen the international links between gig workers, as well as connecting gig workers to other trade-unionists, activists and politicians who are fighting for workers’ rights. Finally, we also want to make a wider audience aware of the dangers of ‘Uberisation’, which is a threat to all workers as digitalisation and AI tools spread throughout the economy. 

A grant from the Guerrilla Foundation has allowed us to continue the work of the Gig Economy Project for at least another 8 months. And you can help us too. GEP is always looking to expand its network, so if you think you have information that could be of use to GEP, or if there’s anything you think we can help with, don’t hesitate to get in touch at