Is a ‘social value’ version of Uber possible?

The successful court case brought against Uber by two of its drivers, Yaseen Aslam and James Farrar, appears to have scuppered the US taxi-app company’s claim that drivers are self-employed. Employment tribunal judge Anthony Snelson was scathing in his judgement and the finding has been welcomed not just by trade unions now seeking to organise ‘beyond the workplace’ but also by Citizens Advice, which reckons that there are in excess of 460,000 workers in the UK whose status as self-employed is bogus .

What has this got to do with social enterprise, I hear you asking. At the moment, very little — and that’s the point.

On the morning after the judgement a spokesperson from Sharing Economy UK appeared on the Today programme. The organisation was described as “a social enterprise that promotes the sharing economy” .

I don’t for one moment want to make out that this person was simply an apologist for Uber — that wasn’t the case. But a somewhat blinkered view was nonetheless evident, as if it must be clear to every right thinking person that the “sharing economy” couldn’t possibly be anything but benign.

What exactly puts Uber in the “sharing economy” defeats me, but the part it has played in thrusting the “sharing economy” into the spotlight is a good thing. It reminds us all that proponents of new economic and/or business models have to be alert to their potential for ill as well as good. Over many years social enterprises have learnt that there is a constant need for scrutiny in order to ensure that the enterprising is balanced by the social. Proponents of the “sharing economy” should do likewise.

Surely, if “sharing economy” means anything it suggests fairness, non-exploitation and mutual benefit. Now, what does that sound like? That’s right: co-operatives. The same thought has occurred to the Grassroots Economic Organizing group and Co-operative News, both of which have interesting coverage at those links.

Birmingham UK. Freelance research, evaluation and policy consultant specialising in social enterprise and the third sector. I maintain the BSSEC blog and website

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