Deregulating/Regulating Work and Employment in the Platform Economy. the Case of Uber Drivers in France

Friday, June 24, 2016: 10:45 AM-12:15 PM
107 South Hall (South Hall)
Sophie Bernard, IRISSO - Paris Dauphine University, Paris, France
Sarah Abdelnour, IRISSO - Paris Dauphine University, Paris, France
The debate over new types of work and employment has broadened substantially. In the opinion of many observers and journalists, western companies are on a path towards ‘Uberization’. This neologism derives from Uber, a worldwide American business which connects riders (customers in need of transport) to drivers (vehicle owners willing to take passengers). Uber’s profile reflects the advent of a new business model. In this model, companies act as intermediaries between customers and service providers, and between job seekers and job suppliers, via a digital platform. Despite recent media interest, this revolution has not benefitted from much study: nascent in the USA, embryonic in France. Non-academic literature tends to be polarized between praise for the level of innovation and an emphasis on the virtues of the sharing economy on the one side, and criticism of the illusion of solidarity and the ensuing forms of precariousness on the other. Both sides have reached the same conclusion that paid employment is moving inexorably towards extinction. But if the first group have been actively celebrating the end of something they consider as an anomaly in the history of economic development, and clinging to a vision of a world dominated by self-employed workers, the second group have bemoaned the threat to a social compromise that has been hard fought and hard won. At times academic literature has followed suit, taking issue with those who see the current model as a gateway to worker freedom, and with those who deplore the return to the 19thcentury precariousness of paid employment. Moreover, their views are often tinged with a prophetic tone that overrides a more rigorous examination of the phenomenon.

In this paper we propose to analyze the results of an ongoing empirical investigation into Uber France, to understand, by focusing on such a symbolic case, how and why the platform model has become both a source of deregulation in the world of work and employment, and simultaneously, a source of new forms of regulation.

This investigation is a continuation of our previous studies on the blurring of employment status boundaries between self-employment and paid employment. Companies like Uber may have contributed to the growth of new types of work, but public policy has also played a part in encouraging the phenomenon. In particular, the status of ‘auto-entrepreneur’ (self-employed worker), as introduced in 2009, has been the fulcrum for these platforms. Our work has hence looked at this reverse public policy regarding the construction of paid employment. It has also shown the limited amount of institutional control over these new work practices, as neither the work inspectorate nor employment tribunals seem to have become havens of robust regulatory power. The case of Uber is especially interesting because it has provoked a public debate on the future of work.

Although shared services platforms have been around for the last fifteen years, Uber has crystallized the debate because it provides services in a sector which is professionally regulated, organised and visible in the public domain: taxi driving. Action taken by taxi drivers to protest against Uber’s unfair competition, and in the case of UberPop, illegal competition, has shone a media spotlight on the company. By enabling workers to step away from paid employment and the umbrella of employment legislation, and in addition, by challenging the norms and expectations of self-employment, such as artisanal work, Uber has fed into a sort of deregulation of work and employment. UberPop was an attempt to offer private individuals the opportunity to transport passengers, whereas the VTC (Véhicule de Transport avec Chauffeur) offers self-employed workers better access to the profession of private hire driver. This paper will explore the forms of deregulation that have accompanied the growth in this type of employment, and the response by unions which has led to new regulations affecting the employment and work practices of Uber drivers. Who are the relevant actors and what is the balance of power? Do these regulations affect existing collective agreements or new collective agreements? We therefore examine how traditional trade unions, such as the CFDT (French Democratic Federation of Labour), have embraced self-employed workers and Uber drivers, and if new organizations have emerged to protect the interests of these private hire drivers.

In this paper we also propose to analyze the political and legal organization of Uber France by concentrating on the judicial proceedings in which the company has been involved: at the constitutional council where the decision was taken to ban UberPop, at the criminal court where two of Uber’s top executives were charged with deceptive commercial practices and complicity in illegally exercising the profession of taxi driver, and at the employment tribunal where a VTC driver called for his contract of service to be converted to a contract of employment so that he would be considered as an employee. In addition, we will draw upon interviews with the relevant legal and political actors along with Uber representatives. We will therefore be in a position to reflect on the roles of the various actors and on the journeys these regulatory processes have taken, as well as being in a position to retrace the major stages.

Ultimately, by investigating this phenomenon, we will gain an understanding of how these regulatory spaces are connected to the tensions that exist between traditional and ad hoc forms of regulation, and between individual and collective forms of agreement. Participation at this mini-conference will therefore be an opportunity to scrutinize the information obtained from various national sources and to enhance our respective views on the matter.