Last week’s news that Uber’s operating licence would not be renewed by Transport for London caused uproar, but it left me thinking.
Companies like Uber have made a huge difference to the way we live our lives. In the case of Uber, it’s become easier for many people to find convenient, affordable transport. Drivers can be more flexible, working when it suits them.
But the flip side of this is partly what concerned TfL.
While Uber has disrupted the transport market and driven down the cost of travel, that also means it’s harder for its drivers to make a good living. This is an issue that affects many people in our society; with the rise of zero hour contracts or companies making sure their staff are on self-employed contracts to avoid giving them benefits like sick pay and pensions.
As a result, the average worker gets a bit poorer and the knock on effect means we need to save money. So we buy that cheap flight, we go for the person offering the cheapest deal, whether or not they offer the best service, and we complain if it goes wrong.
We expect to get bargains and cheap deals. When the option is taken away, we kick up a fuss.
But we don’t stop to think that, maybe, by spending less on some things, by valuing them less, we’re limiting ourselves and our economy.
And we’re having a negative effect on the people these companies employ.
I read an article recently comparing the salary and career path of a janitor working at Kodak in the 1980s and one working at Apple today. For a start, the janitor at Apple doesn’t actually work for Apple, she’s outsourced. Whereas her Kodak counterpart was able to access education and career progression, today those options are severely limited.
But why is that?
Today we shop in different ways. We use the internet rather than high street stores. We buy expensive technology, but we devalue other things that were once important.
Start-ups are keen to disrupt the way we live and work, which is fantastic. But it has also meant more automation, so the workforce has changed. Where we have more choice in how we spend our money, we can choose to bypass something if we deem it too pricey.
Of course we all love a bargain. We live in an expensive society and need to make our money stretch. But as I’ve grown older and my income has become more secure, I’ve been much more conscious of moral issues when it comes to spending.
Maybe cheapest isn’t always best.
As a book lover, I buy my books from a variety of places. I admit that I will pick up a novel for £3.85 in Tesco or on Amazon, even though I know that means it is being sold at a loss. But I will balance it out by buying books from third party shops on Amazon, from indie booksellers or by supporting crowdfunding campaigns, even if that sometimes means paying £20 plus for a book.
As a writer, I’m very conscious of the way the internet has increased the opportunities for creatives to get their work seen, while also narrowing paid opportunities. People want to consume good art, but they don’t want to pay for it.
So what does that say about us as a society?
If we aren’t prepared to support other people by paying a bit more for their services, do we have the right to complain about stagnating wages and the increasing gap between the rich and the rest of us?