How would you know whether you are being exploited at work? Would it depend on whether other people you work with are also feeling exploited? What does it mean, if people doing the same work are quite happy and in fact grateful for the opportunity to earn a bob or two? Are they suffering from 'false consciousness' meaning that they're very unhappy but just don't know they're unhappy? Or should we conclude that 'exploitation' is a matter of subjective personal opinion? Or should we defer to experts who can tell us the true meaning of worker exploitation?
You may have read in the news that Uber is guilty of exploiting workers, forcing them to drive when they’d rather be at home resting nicely with their families. Now, in a free country you'd think that those who don't fancy Uber's terms and conditions could simply choose not to drive for Uber. It seems silly to sign up voluntarily and then say you were 'forced' to work. But: the charge is that Uber succeeded in achieving this exploitation by using ‘psychological tricks’ to mask its inhumane treatment of the drivers: like 19th century sweated labour conditions, only worse because of being hidden behind the smoke and mirrors of complex contracts.
So dozens of drivers feel exploited. They could quit, of course, but they don't want to quit. They want Uber to be forced by law to supply better working terms and conditions. The argument is that these laws apply to 'employees', and although their complex contracts may state that they are not employees, really they are employees or at least they fall within some other employee-like statutory category of worker who should be protected in a manner similar to employees.
The difficulty with extending legal force to this situation is that Uber has tens of thousands of drivers, and Uber insists that the vast majority of drivers are quite happy with contracts defining them as self-employed.
Should we conclude that whoever says they’re happy to be self-employed with Uber must be lying? Could it be, that according to an objective measure of exploitation, the truth must be that self-employed work in these conditions is guaranteed to make anyone feel exploited (some just don't know it yet), because nobody could rationally choose to work in such conditions unless they were forced to, by means of psychological tricks?
The UK government-commissioned Taylor Review of Modern Working practices identified exploitation of workers as a key concern. One aspect of exploitation, relevant in the Uber situation, was 'unfair one-sided flexibility'. That is, a situation where the economic model enhances flexibility but in reality the flexibility is one-sided in favour of the firm. The firm enjoys flexible working relationships but some of the workers feel that they are forced to work, which makes it unfair.
The problem here, as defined by the Taylor Review, is that it's difficult to know what to do when not all the workers are reporting feeling forced, so that there is no consensus about the unfairness.
Perceptions of unfairness vary from one individual to the next, and vary over time for the same person:
It is self-evident that we are all different and want different things from work. The challenge for someone charged with making the law is obvious. Law has to apply to everyone. There simply can't be a law stating that Uber is not allowed to roll out their business model for drivers who self-identify as feeling exploited, while it remains free to pursue the business model for those who feel perfectly content to drive for them.
Should a business model be crushed, to ensure that firms either provide jobs that would satisfy everyone as being quality jobs, or else be shut down?
Remember also that quality work has many mutually incompatible expectations. So, quality work should allow worker autonomy (I should be free to decide my own working hours and come and go when I please) - but it should also supply job security (if I don't come to work because I need a holiday, I should get paid anyway and the employer shouldn't be allowed to replace me). It should have flexible working hours, but it should also have high pay and a good pension. With all these requirements, it's not as easy as you'd think to ensure that nobody feels exploited.
It is worth bearing in mind the relative global context of work and exploitation. Being forced to take up precarious work in a strong economy is terrible. But it's probably not worse than being long-term unemployed in a failed economy with no hope of ever finding work. It’s also probably not worse than living in a place like Madagascar where there is no Uber and no exploitative capital. In Madagascar most of the people are fishers and farmers, so even though there are some disadvantages like lots of people dying from an actual real-life modern-day plague perhaps you might think that's fine because at least Uber isn't there to exploit them by forcing them to drive cars for pittance wages.
This is what we call first world problems - the perception that the progress of capitalism is really not worth it, because of all the exploitation people are feeling in their corporate jobs.
Scholar, Writer, Friend