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More on the gig economy: There’s a difference between existing and living

CuencaHighLife reader Karl Sweetman submitted an op-ed piece, Of typewriters, buggy whips and slide rules, recently that received wide readership and many comments. The article itself was very well composed, orderly and, unfortunately, a clear presentation of a point of view I find very unsettling it its moral and ethical implications, fraught with real danger.

I will focus my concerns in this column within the confines of the gig economy as it regards to Uber in New York City. This is where our discussion began and Uber is most often held high as the Godfather of the gig economy movement. It is my hope that through this lens, a better understanding of the human side of the Uber story is told, and an awareness that humanity is suffering terrible blows and will continue to do so as a result of an ungoverned gig economy.

There are just over 13,000 yellow medallion taxis in New York City, split among about 40,000 drivers – some own their own medallions and cars, but most do not; many drivers work for a fleet, and pay to rent cars on a daily or weekly basis. This is a static number — once your bills are paid, you begin to build profit.

New York City does not limit the number of drivers for Uber.

This lack of regulation has led to rapid growth: Uber launched in NYC in  2011 with 105 cars on the road; by 2015, that had ballooned to 20,000, and today, there are more than 63,000 Uber cars on the streets of, “the greatest city in the world”.

A recent analysis by Bruce Schaller, a former NYC traffic and planning commissioner, showed that the hours that taxis spent unoccupied in central Manhattan increased by 81 percent between 2013 and 2017.

Without passengers, drivers don’t earn money.

A man named Afsi, has been a yellow cab driver since 2001. “You could work only 12 hours and make $200,” he recalled. “Now, you’re lucky if you make $50 or $60.”

Beresford Simmons, who has been driving a yellow cab for more than 50 years, expressed a similar frustration: He is  71 years old, had recent heart surgery and is on dialysis — yet he is in no financial position to finally rest from a lifetime of labor driving NYC passengers to wherever they desired..

The job is not easy: the standard shift is 12 hours, and with the cost of leasing a car and filling the gas tank, a bad day means taking a loss. For every moment spent without a paying passenger, the driver loses money.

Please note: nationwide in the U.S., taxi drivers are over 20 times more likely to be murdered on the job than in any other occupation.

It had long been believed that taxi driving provided the chance to make a decent middle-class living, however difficult or dangerous or meager – especially for working-class immigrants, who often have limited employment opportunities.

Until recently, driving a cab in New York City was a major gateway to the middle-class.

Jinder Singh, 55, is typical. “I have problems with my English,” said  Singh, “I can only drive. When I first began driving a taxi, they were paying good. But not anymore,” he said .

He credited Uber’s various price cuts to entice customers, as reasons for his loss.

In 2018 seven medallions sold for under $200,000 each, not anywhere close to the often touted $1.5 million. The families who invested their, and their extended families money, into an established investment with a record of steady growth for over 50 years are now left with 20% of their lifelong investment.

Many drivers are deeply in debt — and a long way from the stable lifestyle they once expected. The dreams of their children attending the schools to propel them forward are lost among the dwindling receipts and “contacts”

Unfortunately, It took the contributor nine paragraphs before there was a single mention of any benefit for the workers; vague though it may have been. Free time to look for another job, buy food, or find a third job — a common fate of many drivers — was not mentioned as an advantage of working a gig.

There is something else far more fundamental and determining at play here. Although it is touted that better service, quality, and price are the rewards competition in the gig economy provides — it does not take into account the lives of those providing for you.

Mahatma Gandi said, “The only way to live is to let others live.”

He did not say “exist.”