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Ring Cameras Are Being Used To Control and Surveil Overworked Delivery Workers

Networked doorbell surveillance cameras like Amazon’s Ring are everywhere, and have changed the nature of delivery work by letting customers take on the role of bosses to monitor, control, and discipline workers, according to a recent report (PDF) by the Data & Society tech research institute. “The growing popularity of Ring and other networked doorbell cameras has normalized home and neighborhood surveillance in the name of safety and security,” Data & Society’s Labor Futures program director Aiha Nguyen and research analyst Eve Zelickson write. “But for delivery drivers, this has meant their work is increasingly surveilled by the doorbell cameras and supervised by customers. The result is a collision between the American ideas of private property and the business imperatives of doing a job.”

Thanks to interviews with surveillance camera users and delivery drivers, the researchers are able to dive into a few major developments interacting here to bring this to a head. Obviously, the first one is the widespread adoption of doorbell surveillance cameras like Ring. Just as important as the adoption of these cameras, however, is the rise of delivery work and its transformation into gig labor. […] As the report lays out, Ring cameras allow customers to surveil delivery workers and discipline their labor by, for example, sharing shaming footage online. This dovetails with the “gigification” of Amazon’s delivery workers in two ways: labor dynamics and customer behavior.

“Gig workers, including Flex drivers, are sold on the promise of flexibility, independence and freedom. Amazon tells Flex drivers that they have complete control over their schedule, and can work on their terms and in their space,” Nguyen and Zelickson write. “Through interviews with Flex drivers, it became apparent that these marketed perks have hidden costs: drivers often have to compete for shifts, spend hours trying to get reimbursed for lost wages, pay for wear and tear on their vehicle, and have no control over where they work.” That competition between workers manifests in other ways too, namely acquiescing to and complying with customer demands when delivering purchases to their homes. Even without cameras, customers have made onerous demands of Flex drivers even as the drivers are pressed to meet unrealistic and dangerous routes alongside unsafe and demanding productivity quotas. The introduction of surveillance cameras at the delivery destination, however, adds another level of surveillance to the gigification. […] The report’s conclusion is clear: Amazon has deputized its customers and made them partners in a scheme that encourages antagonistic social relations, undermines labor rights, and provides cover for a march towards increasingly ambitious monopolistic exploits.

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Uber and Lyft Can’t Find Drivers Because Gig Work Sucks

You may have noticed recently that an Uber ride is more expensive than it used to be. As ride-hail companies Uber and Lyft hike prices to record heights during the COVID-19 pandemic, much commentary has settled on explaining this as a consequence of a “labor shortage” largely motivated by a lack of proper financial incentives. Drivers, the story goes, saw the new cash bonuses offered by companies to lure workers back as insufficient. Some, perhaps, decided they were not worth the risk of getting infected with COVID-19 or one of its budding variants, while other analyses suggested drivers were content with living on stimulus funds rather than money from driving. At the same time, the firms began curtailing subsidies that kept prices low enough to attract riders and work towards monopoly. Together, this has left us with a sudden and massive spike in ride-hail prices; Gridwise, a ride-hail driver assistance app, estimated that Uber has increased its prices by 79 percent since the second quarter of 2019.

While Uber and Lyft are reportedly thinking about offering new perks such as education, career, and expense programs, analysts admit these don’t strike at core problems with the gig economy that were driving workers away before COVID-19 hit and are making it difficult to attract them now. In conversations with Motherboard, former and current ride-hail drivers pointed to a major factor for not returning: how horrible it is to work for Uber and Lyft. For some workers, this realization came long before the pandemic reared its head, and for others, the crisis hammered it home. Motherboard has changed some drivers’ names or granted them anonymity out of their fear of retaliation.
“If I kept driving, something was going to break,” said Maurice, a former driver in New York who spent four years working for Uber and Lyft before the pandemic. “I already go nights without eating or sleeping. My back hurt, my joints hurt, my neck hurt, I felt like a donkey. Like a slave driving all the time.”

“I’ve been driving for six years. Uber has taken at least 10,000 pounds in commission from me each year! They take 20 percent of my earnings, then offer me 200 pounds,” Ramana Prai, a London-based Uber driver, told Motherboard. “I don’t understand how they can take 60,000 pounds from me, then offer nothing when I’m in need. How can I provide for my partner and two kids with this? My employer has let me down.”

“I woke up every day asking how long I could keep it up, I just didn’t feel like a person,” Yona, who worked for Lyft in California for the past six years until the pandemic, told Motherboard. “I got two kids, my mother, my sister, I couldn’t see them. And I was doing all this for them but I could barely support them, barely supported myself.”

“I was making even less than my sister and I was probably less safe too,” Yona’s sister, Destiny, told Motherboard. “She got out back in the spring, I hopped on and was coming back negative some days. I tried UberEats and DoorDash to see if that was any better, but stopped after a friend was almost robbed on a delivery. Okay, so the options are get covid or get robbed, then guess what: I’m doing none of them.”

Motherboard argues that the degrading working conditions, as well as the poor pay, “are structurally necessary for ride-hail companies. They were necessary to attract and retain customers with artificially low prices, to burn through drivers at high rates that frustrate labor organizing, and bolster the narrative of gig work as temporary, transient, and convenient. It’s no wonder, then, that drivers aren’t coming back.”

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