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Uber could give gig workers a better deal but it’s lobbying EU to lower standards, says Fairwork

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Uber has been accused of downplaying its influence over working conditions in the gig economy after the ride-hailing giant published a white paper earlier this week in which it lobbied for a ‘Prop 22’ style deregulation of Europe’s labor laws.

Fairwork, an academic research project that benchmarks gig platforms against a set of fairness principles to  encourage these intermediaries to improve conditions for workers, said today that Uber’s call for special rules for the gig economy is an attempt to “legitimize a lower level of protection for platform workers than most European workers benefit from.”

“Uber asserts that it recognizes the need for improved conditions but is dependent on regulatory change to realize that goal. The company’s recognition of dissatisfaction among drivers is commendableHowever, it is already well within their locus of control to address this dissatisfaction and improve conditions for its drivers under existing legal frameworks,” the platform work research group wrote in a response to Uber’s ‘Better Deal‘ white paper. 

Uber’s focus on policy change, furthermore, downplays the company’s significant influence over conditions in the gig economy. By calling for new regulations, the company is shifting responsibility for workers’ conditions to other actors, when it could step up to the plate and provide an exemplar of how a platform can treat its workers.” 

“Whilst we applaud Uber’s awareness of the need for change, we urge them to live up to their call,” Fairwork added. “The company has long set the blueprint for the gig economy, and, perhaps more than any other actor, is positioned to enact immediate change to improve the lives of their workers under current legal frameworks.

Fairwork noted that Uber has repeatedly fallen short of its (independent) benchmarks of ‘fair’ platform work. (NB: We covered the start of its initiative here back in 2019).

As we reported earlier this week, Uber is pushing for a ‘Prop 22’-style outcome in Europe, following its win in California last year when it convinced voters to exempt delivery and transport platform workers from employment classification laws — and as regional lawmakers are actively looking at how to improve the lot of gig workers.

In the white paper Uber has fired at EU lawmakers it argues that conditions for gig workers can only improve if regulators grant platforms a carve out from labor laws — lobbying for what it dubbed a “new standard” for gig work. However Fairwork argues this a blatant attempt to water down European employment standards, as Uber seeks to apply the same playbook it successfully deployed to reconfigure Californian legislation in its business interests.

Yet Europe is not California. And as Fairwork points out courts across the region have begun to roll back self-serving classifications of gig workers as ‘self-employed’ — with a number of these challenges going against Uber in recent years.

A major verdict is also looming for Uber Friday when the UK Supreme Court is expected to give the last word on an employment tribunal which it has been losing since 2016.

“The white paper reproduces the strategy taken by Uber in California where, after the state introduced new regulation that would have extended employee benefits to platform workers, they and several other prominent platforms successfully pushed for a watered-down alternative,” said Fairwork, noting that platforms (Uber and Lyft) spent some $200M persuading voters in California to back their ballot measure (“which exempted delivery and transport platform workers from classification laws in exchange for stripped-back versions of workplace benefits that have already been shown to be inadequate”, as the group tells it). 

“It is no surprise to see the company extending this strategy to Europe shortly in advance of a February 19 ruling in a UK Supreme Court case challenging the classification of drivers and the European Commission’s consultation with workers and employer representatives to inform gig economy regulation on February 24,” Fairwork also said, calling for regional lawmakers to engage with a process to strengthen and expand existing labor protections rather than get on board with Uber’s drive to lower European standards. 

“All workers, regardless of how their work is arranged, deserve decent wages and safe working conditions. Laboulaw provides these basic rights; and work arranged via a platform does not require a radical new approach. The benefits proposed in Uber’s white paper, like those provided under Proposition 22, represent weakened versions of those afforded to employees,” it added.

“We need to strengthen and expand existing labour protections in order to improve conditions, not create additional exclusions and exemptions that leave millions behind.” 

We’ve reached out to Uber for any comment.

The European Commission has yet to decide what kind of regulatory intervention it might make as regards gig work. But it has signalled an intention to do something in this area — and that’s likely been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic spotlighting the individual and public health risks when gig workers lack employment protections like sick pay.

In a 2019 mission letter, the EU president told the incoming jobs commissioner to look at ways to improve the lot of platform workers, writing that: “Dignified, transparent and predictable working conditions are essential to our economic model.”

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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The rise of the tech workers union and what comes next

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While not entirely non-existent, the union has been an elusive phenomenon in Silicon Valley. More recently, however, big names like Google and Kickstarter have taken key steps toward forming unions, as have smaller startups like Glitch, which made history this week by signing a collective bargaining agreement – the first team of software engineers to do so. Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama, meanwhile, are currently on the cusp of forming their own historic union. In this panel from TC Sessions: Justice, we discuss how we got here, what comes next and steps tech employees can take.


On Why Now?

As has been the case with management throughout history, tech companies have long fought tooth and nail against labor organizing. Over the course of the last couple of years, however, we may have seen something of a critical mass that could represent the beginnings of a sea change for the industry.

Redwine: It seems like tech workers are reacting to some of the maturity of tech and the expansion of the platforms that we all work on, and also more worker instability in general in the US, especially. I think it’s sort of a response that workers are becoming more formal in their organizing efforts. (Timestamp: 1:08)

Parul Koul (Google):

Koul: A variety of tactics and strategies have been tried, and we’ve been able to analyze the successes and failures of past movements and arrive at a point where we’ve developed enough institutional and organizational knowledge to try something new and – in some ways – more complex. (Timestamp: 3:25)


On Whether The Pandemic Will Spur More Organizing

Covid-19 has radically transformed where – and how – we work. It’s upended many industries and cause millions to lose jobs. Could the pandemic prove to be yet another inflection point for a growing movement.

Koul: In our case, what we saw was companies moving to work from home and then, in certain categories of employees, not really receiving the same benefits […] whether it’s a stipend to buy equipment or even having the benefit from working from home […] We also saw a mass movement and social and political protests against police brutality erupt right in the middle of the pandemic. For me, and many other organizers at Google, it really galvanized us to do something and respond to that in the streets and in our own way. (Timestamp: 6:56)


On How – or if – Unions Can Protect Against Layoffs

For many industries, layoffs have become all but an inevitability during the pandemic. In a number of the aforementioned cases, they’ve continued even in the wake of employee unionizing. Ultimately, how much protection does a union give workers against layoffs?

Reckers: Kickstarter won its union on February 18, 2020. The pandemic hit in mid-March. The company announced that they were going to have pretty massive layoffs in early-April. That was a very difficult time. We looked at the numbers and did see that a number of the people they were proposing to layoff were advocates for the union or union members. That was very hard to stomach. What happens, though – and where the union comes into play – is that the company was not able to just lay people off like that. Especially under the terms that they wanted to impose unilaterally, without any consultation with staff. The difference was that when the company proposed these layoffs, because there was already a union in place, Kickstarter had to negotiate with the group of employees about the terms of that layoff. (Timestamp: 9:10)


On How to Get Started

First steps toward unionization are often difficult in an environment where organizing is frowned upon management. Many early conversations happen after hours and off-the-clock for fear of repercussion. This can be doubly difficult in an environments like white collar workers tech company, where some employees don’t tacitly understand the benefits of organizing.

Reckers: You can best support each other by getting into conversations with your coworkers and understanding what’s been going on with them. The first question I often get from people is how to first start having conversations. I think that’s a challenge, especially since we’re not taught how to do that. But starting a conversation about what their experiences have been like at the organization or company, how long they’ve been there, how has there changed? What did they want to see when they were hired? What sort of workplace were they looking for? And how can we make sure that we have some way of achieving that? (Timestamp: 24:04)


On Whether Expressions of Support From Management Are Always Positive

Management often adopts the narrative that they support unions following hard fought battles. In the wake of support from certain tech executives and political leaders like Joe Biden, the question arises about whether such sentiments can ultimately have negative repercussions for organizing.

Redwine: First and foremost, it’s really important to remember that the things that people in power say do not matter. All of the power that you have doesn’t come from people at the top giving it to you. It comes from linking arms with the people next to you and taking that power and influence for yourself. (Timestamp: 28:27)

You can read the entire transcript here.

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PayPal to acquire cryptocurrency custody startup Curv

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PayPal has announced that it plans to acquire Curv, a cryptocurrency startup based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Israeli newspaper Calcalist originally reported the move. And PayPal has now made an official announcement.

Curv is a cryptocurrency custody company, which means that it helps you store your crypto assets securely. The company operates a cloud-based service that lets you access your crypto wallets without any hardware device.

Curv also lets you set up sophisticated policies so that the new intern cannot withdraw crypto assets without some sort of approval chain. Similarly, you can create allow lists so that regular transactions can go through more easily.

Behind the scenes, Curv uses multi-party computation to handle private keys. When you create a wallet, cryptographic secrets are generated on your device and on Curv’s servers. Whenever you’re trying to initiate a transaction, multiple secrets are used to generate a full public and private key.

Secrets are rotated regularly and you can’t do anything with just one secret. If somebody steals an unsecured laptop, a hacker cannot access crypto funds with the information stored on this device alone.

As you can see, Curv isn’t a cryptocurrency wallet for end users. The company offers its services to exchanges, brokers and over-the-counter desks. If you’re running a fund and you plan on buying a large amount of cryptocurrencies, you could also consider using Curv.

Finally, financial institutions that are looking for a solution to store digital assets and diversify their balance sheet could also work with Curv.

PayPal says that the Curv team will join the cryptocurrency group within PayPal. The payment giant has been gradually rolling out cryptocurrency products. It has partnered with Paxos so that users in the U.S. can buy, hold and sell cryptocurrencies from their PayPal account.

In the near future, PayPal also plans to let you buy and sell items using cryptocurrencies. During its most recent earnings release, the company also said that it plans to launch cryptocurrency products in other countries and in Venmo, the consumer fintech super app owned by PayPal.

Terms of the deal are undisclosed and the transaction should close at some point during the first half of 2021. Calcalist reported that PayPal was paying between $200 million and $300 million for the acquisition. A person close to the company says that the transaction was under $200 million. I guess we’ll find out what happened exactly in the next earnings release.

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Last-mile delivery robotics company Refraction AI raises $4.2M

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Ann Arbor-based Refraction AI announced today that it has raised a $4.2 million seed round. The startup, which debuted on the TechCrunch Sessions: Mobility stage back in 2019, was founded by a pair of University of Michigan professors (Matthew Johnson-Roberson — now CTO — and Ram Vasudevan) seeking to solve a number of issues posed by many delivery robots.

With an initial prototype built on a bicycle foundation, the company’s REV-1 robot is designed to operate in bike lanes and roads, rather than the standard sidewalk ‘bot. The different approach allows the robot to travel at higher speeds (topping out at 15 miles per hour) and removes some of the messy pedestrian-dodging issues that come with sidewalk use (while introducing some new ones on that narrow sliver of asphalt shared by cyclists).

Refraction is currently testing a small fleet in its native Ann Arbor. The seed round, led by Pillar VC, will be used for R&D, expanding the company’s reach and recruiting more customers, with a focus on grocery store and restaurant deliveries. Other investors include, eLab Ventures, Osage Venture Partners, Trucks Venture Capital, Alumni Ventures Group, Chad Laurans and Invest Michigan.

Another key differentiator is the use of cameras, versus LIDAR. The decision comes with some technological trade-offs, but benefits include a lower price point and the ability for the company to more quickly scale its fleet. The technology is also not easily districted by weather conditions encountered in the upper midwest, though it has limitations, too. As the company puts it, if you’re not comfortable walking out in it, the robot probably won’t be, either.

“Our platform uses technology that exists today in an innovative way, to get people the things they need, when they need them, where they live,” CEO Luke Schneider said in a release tied to the news. “And we’re doing so in a way that reduces business’ costs, makes roads less congested, and eliminates carbon emissions.”

With this new funding, the company plans to expand operations beyond its native Ann Arbor, though no additional test markets have been announced.

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