This documentary is about homeless members of middle class America whose wages are too low to cover rent. Filmmakers visit San Diego, Los Angeles, Richmond Virginia, Appalachia and Waco Texas.
In San Diego they film a parking lot in which thirty people working as Uber drivers, security guards, secretaries, cleaners, carers and computer technicians sleep in their cars overnight. A charity provides them with portapotties, a water point, and an open air kitchen facility. One of the carers who sleeps there works nine hour days seven days a week.
In Los Angeles, which filmmakers refer to as the homeless capitol of the US (with 59,000 homeless), the documentary profiles a full time volunteer who builds wooden tiny houses (which have been legally banned by the city council) for people currently living tents.
In Richmond, filmmakers follow local sheriffs carrying out an eviction at gunpoint. They also visit one of the budget motels that have sprung up in the Richmond outskirts due to the city’s high number of evictions.*
In Appalachia, they visit one of the poorest counties in the nation, where volunteers run a daily food truck to distribute food to the area’s children. They also profile a military-style field hospital that provides once-a-year medical and dental treatment for the uninsured. The field hospital, held on a local sports field, is funded by a national charity and staffed by volunteer health providers.
In Waco, the filmmakers visit a church program that recruits candidates from all over the US to pay 60 dollars to experience sleeping rough first hand.
*In Virginia, a landlord can legally evict a tenant once their rent is five days past due.
This documentary (released in 2015) gives a surprisingly prescient warning about allowing the apps and Internet services we use to collect and sell our data. It would be another year before the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke – and we learned Facebook had sold them our data for use in the 2016 elections.
The filmmakers also warn us about Fitbit and similar health tracker apps that sell our data to insurance companies and drug companies. They predict a time when insurance companies will refuse to insure us if we refuse to to use tracking devices to monitor of our lifestyle habits and driving.
There are also segments about law enforcement’s growing misuse of facial recognition technology and Uber’s use of data algorithms to ruthlessly exploit drivers (and make billions in profits). In 2013, drivers filed suit against the company for classifying them as contractors rather than employees. Uber did this deliberately to deprive them of minimum wage guarantees, union representation and unemployment and workers compensation benefits (for on-the-job injuries).
Because Uber has always maintained that its drivers are independent contractors, and it is just a tech platform connecting riders and drivers, the ruling could have huge implications for Uber’s 40,000 British drivers.
Uber is the most high-profile of these on-demand companies. However 2015 research from Citizens Advice found that as many as 460,000 Brits may be “bogusly self-employed.” This is nearly 10% of the UK’s 4.8 million self-employed workers today.
According to the business press, auto manufacturers are investing big time in car sharing companies. The reason? Declining new car ownership among young people. Americans under forty (most of whom work for minimum wage) simply can’t afford the luxury of a new car at $32,000 a pop. According to Zero Hedge, half of 25-year-olds still live with their parents, and one third of US households struggle to pay food, rent and transportation every month (ie they have to choose between the three).
Despite all the hype put out by the Obama administration, the economy isn’t recovering. The global economy is shrinking, and more importantly the total number of jobs is shrinking (as Wall Street continues to transfer our jobs to third world countries or replace us with computers or robots). A significant decline in wage and salary levels has accompanied the loss of jobs – with most workers extremely grateful to have any work at all.
Thanks to this dire economic scenario, an entire generation is opting not to buy cars but to rely on public transportation, active transport (ie cycling, walking etc) or car sharing. Auto manufacturers, seeing the writing on the wall, are all joining forces with car sharing companies. Last month, the New York Times reported on the partnership Toyota is forming with Uber, with Volkswagen is investing $300 million in the European car sharing company Gett and General Motors $500 million in an Uber competitor called Lyft. Meanwhile BMW, Mercedes Benz, Daimler and Audi are starting their own car sharing companies.
According to TechCrunch, BMW, which already operates a European car sharing program in ten cities, has just started a program in Seattle called ReachNow. It enables enable Seattle residents to access 400 cars that they can pick up and drop off wherever they like. Daimler has a similar service called Car2Go that’s available in New York, Austin, Minneapolis, Vancouver and Portland, Oregon. Earlier this year, Audi has launched a car-sharing service in San Francisco and Miami called Audi at Home.
The fact that financial analysts (and auto makers) are anticipating the end of private car ownership is one of the more ominous reminders that the middle class is vanishing. As wages and employment levels continue to decline, private cars are going the way of airplanes – only the 1% can afford them. The other 99% of us are expected to share.
Raw Deal: How the “Uber Economy” and Runaway Capitalism are Screwing American Workers
by Steven Hill
St Martin’s Press (2015)
Raw Deal is about all the creative ways Wall Street and Silicon Valley have invented to exploit American workers since the 2008 meltdown escalated the wholesale destruction of US jobs. As of 2015 the US economy had shed a total of 12 million jobs, a figure that is increasing rather than decreasing.
The book mainly focuses on so-called sharing platforms, such as Airbnb, Uber, Task Rabbit and their imitators. However author Steven Hill also includes chapters on the phenomenal growth of permatemp “contract” labor, the burgeoning System D or gray labor market (where employers pay cash under the table) and the steady replacement of workers by robots, computers and apps.
The Myth of Worker Independence
For me, the most valuable chapters expose the total fraud being perpetrated on the US public about Airbnb, Uber and Task Rabbit, namely the immense benefit they offer the economy, the environment and worker independence by eliminating the middleman. The myth about freeing up US workers by making them micro-entrepreneurs is exactly that: a carefully constructed lie.
Centering these enterprises around web-based apps only thinly disguises what they really are: a labor force made up entirely of contract employees. It’s an immediate win-win for the employer, who reduces his labor costs by 1/3 by eliminating his obligation to pay Social Security, Medicare, unemployment tax or health or pension benefits. And an immediate lose-lose for the “microentrepreur,” who as a member of the precariat,** never knows where his next dollar is coming from.
Hyperexploitation: the Fastest Way to Become a Billionaire
The CEOs who run Airbnb and Uber are both thirty-something billionaires (Task Rabbit founder and CEO Leah Busque is only a millionaire), who got their by hyperexploiting their employees.
Brian Chesky is the 34 year old billionaire who founded Airbnb, a company using a web-based app to enable ordinary moms and pops to rent out their spare rooms to tourists. Guests pay a 6-12% service fee and hosts 3%. Airbnb, which operates in 34,000 cities and 192 countries, is bigger than the Hyatt Hotel chin. It’s valued at $25 billion.
The company has been banned in numerous cities and countries owing to its violation of short term rental laws (most cities place a maximum of 30 days on rentals) and their refusal to pay hotel tax.
There’s the additional problem of Airbnb being taken over by real estate agents and slum lords seeking to cash in on a lucrative unregulated market. Of the 5,000 accommodations listed on the website, 2/3 are entire homes or buildings with no owner present, and 1/3 are controlled by people with two or more listings. In San Francisco, New York and other cities with rent control, unscrupulous slum lords are evicting whole blocks of elderly and disabled tenants to turn their buildings into Airbnb accommodation.
Uber Modeled After Ayn Rand’s Philosophy
Uber is a web based taxi services that recruits drivers to use their private vehicles to carry fares. Uber founder and billionaire Tavis Kalanick, who fancies himself an Ayn Rand revolutionary, prides himself on breaking laws he finds inconvenient
Uber, which is worth $51 billion, has gone from scandal to sandal owing to its refusal to perform criminal background checks on their drivers (after a number stole from passengers or physically/sexually assaulted them) or pay livery taxes or carry commercial liability insurance; their brutal exploitation of drivers; and their failure to protect passenger privacy.
Kalanick faces criminal charges in South Korea and Uber has been banned in France, Spain, Germany, Denmark, Netherlands and Denmark. It has also been banned (or severely curtailed) in Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina, Nevada, Miami, Philadelphia and New York City.
Task Rabbit was founded in 2009 by Leah Busque to connect “domestic freelancers” with customers needing tasks and errands done. It expanded to include all forms of temporary work (Walmart uses Task Rabbit, where it pays a 26% commission, as opposed to the 40% charged by conventional temp agencies).
The most controversial aspect of the Task Rabbit platform was the “bidding auction,” where “rabbits” competed with one another to provide the lowest bid for the service desired. After a storm of controversy Task Rabbit ditched the bidding auction in 2014.
*According to Forbes, the total value of the global System D economy is $10 trillion
**In sociology and economics, the precariat is a social class of people whose life is dominated by a total absence of financial predictability or security.