Algorithmic Wage Discrimination in the Gig Economy

Roshan Abraham, Vice:

“Algorithmic wage discrimination allows firms to personalize and differentiate wages for workers in ways unknown to them, to behave in ways that the firm desires, perhaps as little as the system determines that they may be willing to accept,” [Veena] Dubal writes. The wages are “calculated with ever-changing formulas using granular data on location, individual behavior, demand, supply, and other factors,” she adds.

In a study combining legal analysis and interviews with gig workers, Dubal concludes that Prop 22 has turned working into gambling. From a driver’s point of view, every time they log in to work they are essentially gambling for wages, as the algorithm provides no reason why those wages are what they are.

In a statement to Vice, an Uber spokesperson vehemently denied the claims in Dubal’s preprint study, emphasizing that its pricing algorithms do not include “factors like a driver’s race [or] ethnicity”. From what I can tell, Dubal never makes any such claim in her study, only stating that automatic fare structures may exacerbate existing pay disparities.

No matter whether these fee structures were made more transparent, Dubal’s study acknowledges the dangers of normalizing them. She writes of jobs which already have unpredictable wages which could be worsened by a wider rollout of pay determined dynamically by a series of factors out of their control. “Gig economy” drivers may be the first to experience it, but you just know there are employers salivating at the thought of saving money by allowing computers to make constant adjustments to worker pay.