Uber CEO Travis Kalanick
Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick was recorded swearing and losing his temper with an Uber driverReuters

Twenty-first century corporatese mimics 20th century communism in its disdain for the English language. To get a job in the contemporary low-pay economy is to be immediately buried in euphemisms. You are not a worker but are instead an "associate" or a "partner". You are not a salaried worker but a "self-employed contractor". You do not do jobs but instead you turn up to "gigs".

Another favoured buzz-phrase in the upper echelons of both the old and new economy alike is "personal responsibility". Every society is propped up to some extent by a great myth, and the myth which sustains Western elites is typically that of meritocracy: the idea that those doing well have got where they are through sheer grit, hard work and innate ability.

As for those left behind – well, as the boss of Uber Travis Kalanick put it in a row with one of the company's drivers on Tuesday night: "Some people don't like to take responsibility for their own s**t. They blame everything in their life on somebody else".

Kalanick's outburst came after he found himself embroiled in an argument with an Uber driver over the company's treatment of those who drive for the platform. The video of the incident, apparently shot on 5 February, shows the driver making a number of complaints to Kalanick. "You're raising the standards, and you're dropping the prices," he says to the Uber CEO, before adding: "People are not trusting you anymore. I lost $97,000 (£78,700) because of you. I'm bankrupt because of you."

Kalanick responded by calling this "bulls**t". He then launched into his diatribe about "responsibility", before exiting the cab. Kalanick has since apologised to Uber staff after a dash cam video of the incident surfaced, saying he was "ashamed" of his behaviour. The incident has heaped further pressure on the company - Uber was already under the spotlight over allegations of sexual harassment and accusations that it attempted to break a New York airport strike by cab drivers protesting against Donald Trump's immigration order.

But this latest round of bad publicity feels different because it taps into something deeper about Uber and companies like it. With his sweeping statement about the need to 'take responsibility', you can almost hear Kalanick being applauded by free market fanatic Ayn Rand from beyond the grave. Sat in the back being driven around by Uber's fleet of cars are the capitalist supermen who have 'taken responsibility', while stuck behind the wheel up front are the mere drivers, who are invariably bereft of such entrepreneurial spirit.

But turn things around and you are closer to the truth. Uber - like a host of other companies operating in the so-called "gig" economy – appears to base its business model on the circumvention of any sense of corporate responsibility. For one thing, the company offloads almost all the financial risks of the business onto its drivers (the cost of the car, the licence, the insurance, etc.,) while at the same time bringing in massive profits – Uber London made £1.83m before tax in the year to April 2016.

Similarly, far from taking responsibility, Uber's decision to categorise its drivers as "self-employed contractors" – as opposed to workers or employees - allows the company to avoid paying staff the minimum wage, statutory sick and holiday pay as well as other worker entitlements.

This is not, as some like to suggest, a case of Uber benevolently granting drivers a greater degree of flexibility. Uber drivers are currently (absurdly) classed as individual businesspeople, but status as a self-employed worker would provide Uber drivers with most of the worker entitlements enjoyed by full employees. Importantly, though, it would also leave them free to pick and choose their hours of work.

Uber rejects this and defines its drivers in black and white fashion as independent contractors – even though drivers cannot set their own fares, turn down jobs and must rent the vehicles prescribed by Uber. It does this because it wishes to avoid its responsibilities as an employer. As with Ayn Rand, who famously drew social security while labelling others who did so "parasites", the hypocrisy of those wedded to a utopian vision of the free market is astounding.

But some of the testimonies to Frank Field MP's recent report on the working conditions at Uber ought to make for discomforting reading for anyone with a Pollyanna attitude toward the bourgeoning gig economy. The working life described in the report is fraught with insecurity and little of the freedom and flexibility celebrated by free marketeers.

"I don't feel like I am self-employed driving for Uber, as they treat me like an employee," says one testimony. "If I cancel a job for good reason...Uber put me into something called the sinbin," says another. "Uber customers will throw up in my car, or spill beverages, and I have to spend £50 to get it cleaned professionally. But Uber do not reimburse this always," says another. And so on and so forth.

It would therefore be wrong to interpret Kalanick's words as a mere 'gaffe' or unfortunate faux pas. They were more significant than that. They cut right to the core of what Uber's dubious business model is all about: workers are landed with the worry, the costs and the responsibilities of a job, while company big shots like Travis Kalanick (net worth $5.3 billion) cream off the profits. This is what the gig economy is all about, and it is a model that is spreading like a plague of chickenpox in a playground full of children.


James Bloodworth is former editor of Left Foot Forward, one of the UK's top political blogs, and the author of The Myth of Meritocracy.