Instacart is messing with workersâ€™ tips, again. The companyâ€™s workers are so fed up hundreds of them are out on strike this week.
Instacartâ€”a gig economy company for same-day grocery deliveryâ€”has had problems with tipping date back to 2016. At that time, InstacartÂ removed tippingÂ from the app, before being shamed intoÂ reinstatingÂ a tipping policy the next month. Then, in 2018, the company altered its policy again by counting customer tips toward workersâ€™ guaranteed $10 base payâ€”leading toÂ situationsÂ where customers were paying almost the full base, with little contribution from Instacart. Now, Instacart is taking aim at the default tip amount. When customers finish their Instacart orders, the app had previously suggested a tip of 10%. This was unilaterally discontinued andÂ replacedÂ by a 5%Â default.
In response to the default tip change, Instacart worker and organizerÂ Vanessa BainÂ penned an impassionedÂ MediumÂ postÂ last month which inspired a walkout of more than a thousand workers demanding reinstatement of the 10% default. Instead of improving conditions in the workplace, their collective action was met with discouraging news. Two days after the walk-out, InstacartÂ slashedÂ workersâ€™ â€śqualityâ€ť bonus payâ€”oneÂ of the only remaining pay incentives on the app, and an incentive that has been alleged to make up toÂ 40%Â of the average Instacart workersâ€™ already low income (someÂ estimates put this between 30 and 35%). The company also did not respond to the concerns workers aired in theÂ MediumÂ post.
Starting December 16 and extending to December 21, over 300 Instacart workers are expected toÂ strikeÂ again to challenge Instacartâ€™s incentive cut, tip default changes, and declining work conditions generally, with events scheduledÂ each day.
Amid mounting outrage,Â Instacart has attempted to deflect criticism by vaguely citing data. â€śDuring the last year, we offered a new version of the quality bonus and found that it did not meaningfully improve quality,â€ť the company told shoppers overÂ emailÂ in November, after the first walkout. â€śAs a result, we will no longer be offering the quality bonus beginning next week.â€ť
Through this statement, the company blamedÂ unverified, unexplained metrics for the cuts, not its own exploitative model. The metric is presumably based on data, but workers and consumers are never given insight into that data. While the jargon is new, the underlying reality is not: A closer examination reveals this is just a justification for good, old-fashioned exploitation.
By what metric does Instacart measure whether an incentive can â€śmeaningfully improveâ€ť quality? For an improvement to be â€śmeaningful,â€ť what quantitative or qualitative factors must be present? Is there a specific â€śqualityâ€ť that is being measured, and how does it take into account worker quality of life? Furthermore, how does the company justify theÂ gap between its lowest- and highest-paid employees? TheÂ averageÂ Instacart executive compensation is $279,596 a yearâ€”with the most compensated executive making $790,000. In contrast, the average Instacart worker is making between $9.81 and $12.96 an hour.
By brushing off worker complaints through references to unexplained data that is available to neither workers nor consumers, Instacart is attempting to utilize an insidious rhetorical tactic: â€śmathwashing.â€ť
CoinedÂ by tech-entrepreneurÂ Fred Benenson, the term â€śmathwashingâ€ť can be used to describe attempts to use math terms like â€śalgorithmâ€ť to gloss over a more subjective reality. In the case of Instacart, algorithms are being used to justify poor work conditions, since a faceless algorithm is more convenient to blame than the greedy bosses behind the decisions. Benenson is clear in describing why this is a problem.
â€śThis habit goes way back to the early days of computers when they were first entering businesses in the 1960s and 1970s,â€ť heÂ stated, in an interview withÂ Technical.ly Brooklyn.Â â€śEveryone hoped the answers they supplied were more true than what humans could come up with, but they eventually realized computers were only as good as their programmers.â€ť
Though Benenson originally used the term to describe how Facebookâ€™s trending topics were not neutral, but insteadÂ manipulated by Facebookâ€™s data engineers, it arguably applies to Instacart and a lot of the “don’t blame the bosses, blame the algorithm” language that is common across the gig economy. While other companies likeÂ UberÂ andÂ AirBnbÂ have relied on this rhetoric, however, Instacart is a particularly egregious abuser.
Talking withÂ TechCrunchÂ in 2016, CEO Apoorva MehtaÂ reliedÂ on jargon and abstract language to defend workersâ€™ low wages. He praised his workersâ€™ â€śNPS scoreâ€ť and noted that wages were â€śnot a zero-sum gameâ€ť because â€śthe problem that weâ€™re trying to solve is very hard.â€ť
Instacartâ€™s process for deciding how to delegate orders is described by itsÂ website as a â€śStochastic Capacitated Vehicle Routing Problem with Time Windows for Multiple Trips.â€ť In describing delivery scenarios, Instacartâ€™s website discusses using â€śtime-based simulationsâ€ť to replay “the history of customer and shopper behaviors with the existing algorithm and the new one.â€ť The section shows colorful graphs and charts that fail to describe most of their variables, including one that simply lists â€śmetricâ€ť instead of even pretending to have a quantity for measuring efficiency. The language is so loaded with jargon and italics that it is likely inaccessible to the average consumer or worker.
While this jargon conveys little, Instacart uses it to market the companyâ€™s â€śgeniusâ€ť design. To help readers understand that they are dealing with a company that is much smarter than themselves, InstacartÂ includes a grocery-inspiredÂ illustration of Albert EinsteinÂ to accompany explanations of itsÂ black-box algorithim. Instead of leaving with a sense of awe, however, readers leave with a sense of having participated in a game of smoke and mirrors. The explanation reads less like a helpful primer and more like a desperate attempt to get consumers to believe anything other than the truth. Namely, that the companyÂ isÂ the “despot” in control of its own algorithm.
This is not a marvel of technological innovation. It is a marvel of exploitation. You donâ€™t need an advanced mathematics degree to know the score.
This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on December 18, 2019. Reprinted with permission.