Commentary Economic Justice

The ‘Feminist’ Spinoffs of the Sharing Economy Are Not So Much

Julianne Tveten

By building on preexisting rideshare-company structures, these kinds of companies immediately place their workers—who are among the women they purport to protect—in precarious positions.

A resounding critique of the laissez-faire ridesharing industry is its lack of safety standards. On a regular basis, Uber and Lyft are the focus of headlines announcing violent attacks, sexual assault, and rape committed against drivers and passengers alike. To make matters worse, the companies in question are often more likely to ignore such violations than to correct their policies in the fallout—an issue whose visibility has recently grown with the resignation of Travis Kalanick, the former CEO of Uber.

In response to this, a number of alternative ridesharing companies have surfaced in recent months. Safr, See Jane Go, and other similar startups claim to offer services “designed just for women.” Predicated on the notion that women are the most vulnerable participants in the rideshare economy, they hire exclusively or predominantly female drivers, prioritize (and sometimes exclusively permit) female passengers, purport to pay “above industry standard,” and boast extensive background checks. To the delight of technophiles who lament the notoriously male, cartoonishly septic culture of Uber and its ilk, these startups flaunt a mission to provide “safe transportation and job opportunities for women everywhere.

Superficially, this is a seductive premise: Creating a women-led startup invested in women’s safety and earning potential may seem like a modern, “empowering” counter to the evils of entitled patriarchal leadership. Yet these kinds of companies tend to be far more effective at brandishing an abstract, corporate notion of feminism than in addressing women’s material needs. By building on preexisting rideshare-company structures, they immediately place their workers—who are among the women they purport to protect—in precarious positions.

Like Uber and Lyft, “feminist” rideshare companies generally categorize their drivers as independent contractors, a well established tactic that permits companies to skirt employee benefits, outsource taxes to drivers, and stymie worker unionization. In addition, because drivers are contractors, they’re not legally entitled to a minimum wage, overtime pay, or, in most states, protection from sexual harassment. (Contractors working in California, where See Jane Go is based, are granted more extensive rights if they file claims of sexual harassment, per the Fair Employment and Housing Act; however, they’re still susceptible to the aforementioned financial perils.)

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Naturally, these sorts of companies often manipulate these policies into PR boons. In the startup narrative, women have the “flexibility” to create their own work schedules, a trait mothers should find particularly valuable; the far bleaker reality is that workers had been stripped long ago of such longstanding fundamentals as a steady workweek. By the same token, women who become rideshare drivers are portrayed as ambitious go-getters with a sexy “side hustle,” or noble mothers willing to work 14-hour days to support their families. What this seeks to obfuscate, of course, is the inhumanity of requiring anyone to have a “side hustle” in the first place.

In addition to normalizing burdensome fiscal classification for drivers, rideshare companies have been instrumental in destabilizing wages. Uber and Lyft have garnered notice for their surge-pricing models, in which prices fluctuate when driver supply is low or rider demand is high; Uber has also historically reduced prices in January, when the holiday season’s demand has waned. Safr and See Jane Go operate on a similar driver payment model: Drivers are paid on fare-based commissions, with demand-based pricing intact for See Jane Go rides. (Safr does not employ demand-based pricing.) This system handily subjects drivers to unreliable pay rates.

Such precarity manifests in other sectors of the sharing economy as well. Cooperative Cleaning, a collective that focuses on hiring Black and Latina women, sells cleaning services to hosts of Airbnb listings in New York City. In May, Fortune reported that, due to city regulations restricting Airbnb rentals, Cooperative Cleaning slashed cleaners’ weekly hours considerably. In at least one case, a woman’s weekly hours plummeted from more than 30 to eight. This compounded the harm Black and Latina women often face as two of the lowest-paid demographic groups in the country, including in New York City. While the worker-owned company has apparently good intentions, it, too, falters by relying on the sharing economy to generate employment.

Again, the technocratic narrative portrays these cleaners as empowered businesspeople venturing out as entrepreneurs, with local regulations as dampening factors. Even when addressing the financial instability of Airbnb-dependent enterprises, Fortune raved that the cleaners had been “launched into entrepreneurship.” Maggie Barnett, who co-founded a startup that offers services like key exchange and laundering to Airbnb hosts, told Fortune that “this underground economy has helped so many people—I don’t think the city realizes who it hurts when they pass these laws.” Similarly, Uber and Airbnb spinoffs boast about the libertarian nature of their businesses, blaming local restrictions targeting sharing-economy companies for their workers’ financial woes.

The issue here is not city regulation as an impediment to “entrepreneurship.” While necessary, regulation itself often serves as only a balm; historically, it has operated only on the city or state level, and it rarely addresses the issue of driver classification in workers’ favor. Rather, the problem lies in an economic climate dominated by temporary jobs devoid of worker protections, which has only grown worse in recent years. Ninety-four percent of the 10 million jobs created since 2005 are contract-based or temporary, research suggestsWorse, sharing-economy contract workers’ efforts to unionize are often thwarted by their employers. Uber, for example, allowed its New York City drivers to organize as a puppet union. What those workers lack, however, are some of a union’s greatest forms of power: the rights to collectively bargain and instigate strikes, as well as government-sanctioned employee status that would allow them to organize officially. All of this, of course, is a mere prelude to the inevitable replacement of professional human drivers with software—a prospect whose profit potential and lack of labor liability make corporate types salivate.

It shouldn’t, and doesn’t have to, be this way. Bringing all women closer to a fair chance at living comfortably requires government structures that, rather than encouraging the proliferation of anti-worker businesses, ensure a decent income while preventing the disproportionate accumulation of wealth within the corporate elite. It necessitates a change in our political and economic system—a shift toward one that recognizes the needs of its low-income workers and dismantles and prohibits companies that seek to exploit their labor.

There are reasons to be optimistic. As discussions of insufficient pay and demoralizing work conditions mount in the United States, small numbers of policymakers have grown to understand the barbarism of requiring people to subsist on volatile, low-wage jobs. In Hawaii, for instance, state legislators are sponsoring a basic-income bill in response to high costs of living, heavy reliance on service-industry jobs, and the increasing replacement of low-wage workers with automation. If this stimulates the argument that no one should be forced into service jobs, or any low-wage work, in order to live, and that no company that seeks to profit off this should succeed, sharing-economy workers—particularly the lowest-paid women among them—will come that much closer to liberation.

Safety is a significant issue for any worker—especially for women who share cars with strangers. But protecting working women, passengers and drivers alike, means far more than preventing individual violent attacks. It means large-scale economic stability. Women can’t pay rent on spurious, theoretical messages of girl power. They can’t feed their families when all the evenings and weekends spent “hustling” prevent them from being at home. They can’t feel like “warriors” at the end of a draining 14-hour work day. The secret to giving women the decent, comfortable lives to which they’re entitled doesn’t lie in performatively conscious startups dependent on the labor of contracted workers, but rather in putting an end to the hostile, injurious economic structures that allowed those startups to emerge in the first place.

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