Stripping workers of formal protections

On the battle between labour and capital over The Worker Flexibility and Choice Act in the USA

The arrival of Uber, Lyft, Doordash and many companies that promoted independence and a flexible work schedule to the laborers fought tirelessly in the past to strip their drivers of rights.

They poured hundreds of million of dollars in pushing against legislative efforts aimed at giving platform workers more protection and granting them a stable wage. The battle over deregulating labor law is not over, since a bi-partisan bill sponsored by two Republicans and one Democrat has been introduced aimed at exempting some workers from minimum wage requirements and many protections as such.

This time, they are acting through Coalition for Workforce Innovation, a lobbying group in Washington that is made up not only of app companies, but of bigger players such as Google, Kroger or Target. The Coalition justifies the bill by referencing studies that show that people who work independently are more satisfied. What those studies fail to show is the grim image of Uber drivers who toil more than 8 hours a day, hoping to one day make enough money to stay afloat. While the theoretical aim of the legislation is to allow certain workers to be classified as independent contractors, every employer in the country could embrace this and alter the work contracts they have previously signed.

This legislative proposal is titled The Worker Flexibility and Choice Act, aimed at “promoting worker freedom without infringing on certain workplace rights, including protections against discrimination, retaliation, and harassment”.

The law guarantees the worker freedom and flexibility to reject or accept offers, granting them control over when and where they want to work.

Though, Uber and Lyft drivers have been able to reject rides up until this point, allowing them to basically accept or decline any offer. On paper, Lyft allows them to decline a ride at any time, but because apps similar to this rely on an algorithmic feature of assessing workers’ performance, the driver is disincentivized to choose the trips they want to make.

What the legislative proposal offers is an intricate system that presents itself as free, but actually pushes the workforce into long working hours. Even if an Uber driver has the liberty of driving at any moment of the day, workers scout for specific times and areas where the revenue can be doubled. Additionally, given the benefits they receive from fulfilling a certain amount of rides in a week or more, they tend to stay longer hours at their jobs, in order to cash in all existent benefits. For the drivers that only work through the Uber app for a 1-2 hours a day, the picture is very different, but those platforms have become long-term sources of employment for some people.

The Worker Flexibility and Choice Act will further hurt those that drive regularly for Uber and Lyft, classifying them in a third category that will exempt them from basic protections. They will work for a wage that will be decided by the employer and the employee and the argument goes that if the driver does not like the offer, they can just reject the contract.

The problem with this argument is that it assumes a labor market where workers can very easily move from one place from another. In other words, where there are plenty of places where one can sell their labor power.

In a place where Uber is the only alternative, being handed a contract that pays below minimum wage, is the best and only offer some people get.

The current employment crisis led many employers to increase the wage rates, while others have turned to more unconventional ways, such as offering volunteering positions at fast food chains in exchange for fried chicken. The Worker Flexibility and Choice Act will allow those relationships to proliferate, giving employers the possibility to offer to their workers not only a paycheck below the minimum level, but a bucket of greasy fried chicken, while urging them to work harder and faster. The fried chicken will never replace the protections workers benefit from and will never prevent a boss from abusing its labor force.

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