by Evelyn Booker, Senior Writer, Tech Realities Journal (Persona)
In today’s rapidly evolving digital landscape, the gig economy has emerged as a fascinating yet controversial cornerstone. While these app-driven jobs have democratized access to employment, they simultaneously serve as harbingers of a growing trend of precarious livelihoods.
In the modern, digitally-driven age, the traditional 9-to-5 work structure is rapidly giving way to the “gig economy.” While platforms like Uber, DoorDash, and Amazon Flex promise flexibility and autonomy, a closer examination reveals a concerning trend: many large companies are exploiting gig workers under the guise of innovation. Let’s delve into the ways these corporations are shortchanging these workers.
Overview of Gig Work
Gig Economy Fairness Explored
The gig economy’s appeal often masks underlying issues. Many gig workers, such as those delivering for Deliveroo or working through Airtasker, find themselves earning below the minimum wage. The heart of the problem stems from classifying these workers as private contractors, sidelining them from typical employee benefits and rights.
While platforms like Foodora initially offered competitive wages to their riders, over time, the rates have diminished. The earning potential often correlates with experience; seasoned riders navigate faster, earning more, leaving novices at a disadvantage.
Globally, this disparity has triggered protests, with workers demanding better conditions. In Australia, Unions NSW pushed Airtasker for minimum pay rates and essential coverage. Although the two reached an agreement to educate workers on fair rates and safety, the lack of a stipulated minimum hourly wage remained a contentious point.
The gig economy’s allure of “being your own boss” is increasingly scrutinized, with many feeling it’s merely a euphemism for underpaid labor.
- The gig economy often pays workers under the minimum wage. This can be particularly evident in service sectors like food delivery.
- Popular platforms that engage gig workers include Deliveroo, Airbnb, and Uber. But, the real cost is the impact on the workers providing these services.
- When these platforms function optimally, they can empower individuals to monetize their skills in ways they couldn’t previously. However, there are concerns over the decreased rates some platforms pay over time.
- For instance, early Foodora riders earned a decent wage, but the company has since cut its pay rates. Experienced riders can earn more because of their speed and knowledge of the area, while newcomers might earn far less.
- The gig economy’s gray area comes from its workers being classified as private contractors instead of employees. This results in a lack of worker rights, such as penalty rates, permanent positions, workers’ compensation, and dispute resolution.
- The romanticized notion of ‘being your own boss’ in the gig economy is challenged by many, who feel they aren’t truly their own bosses but rather underpaid workers.
VICE News Motherboard staff writer, Edward Ongweso, discusses the impact of the coronavirus on gig economy workers, focusing on Uber drivers.
- Key Points:
- Gig economy workers were significantly affected by the coronavirus pandemic. These workers are often left without a safety net, and in the context of the pandemic, they face greater health risks without adequate protection.
- Companies like Uber are pushing the responsibility of healthcare for their workers onto the federal government.
- In China, Didi, an Uber competitor, took significant steps to mitigate risks for drivers, including suspending services in affected areas, providing dedicated fleets for healthcare workers, and consistent sanitizing measures.
- In contrast, Uber in the U.S. lagged in taking protective measures. They only began responding after their stock prices plummeted. While they eventually sent emails promising provisions like hand sanitizers, they have not provided drivers with substantial health or safety support, including basics like clean bathrooms or health benefits.
- The discussion mentions an Uber driver’s perspective, stating there’s little support for them. If a driver gets a confirmed case of coronavirus, Uber promises to pay two weeks of their average rate. However, this “average rate” calculation is unclear and potentially lower than a minimum wage due to declining trip requests during the pandemic.
- Uber has been identified as not adequately supporting drivers, with the company’s business model heavily reliant on classifying drivers as contractors rather than employees. This classification has significant consequences, especially during crises, as workers don’t get standard employment benefits.
- Edward mentions a letter from Uber to the federal government, where Uber’s CEO suggests creating a “third category” of employment status, a hybrid between contractor and employee. However, this still avoids providing drivers full employee rights and benefits.
- The ongoing situation may lead to a reevaluation of Uber’s model. Significant markets, like California and New York, could push for the reclassification of drivers from contractors to employees. This would force Uber to change its business approach.
- The service sector, in general, has seen workers either being laid off without benefits or being over-tasked without protection. Uber drivers are caught in between, seeing a decline in income while still being at risk.
Edward Ongweso suggests that the current crisis could be an inflection point, forcing a reevaluation of the gig economy, especially with businesses like Uber.
1. Misclassification of Workers
One of the primary ways companies take advantage of gig workers is by classifying them as independent contractors rather than employees. This distinction means that these workers are often ineligible for basic rights such as overtime pay, health benefits, and job security.
2. Absence of Benefits
Traditional employees often have access to health insurance, paid leave, retirement benefits, and more. Gig workers, on the other hand, are typically left to fend for themselves. Without these benefits, they are vulnerable to financial instability, especially during times of medical emergencies or economic downturns.
3. Unpredictable Pay
While some gig workers do well, many find their earnings to be inconsistent. A study found that nearly half of all gig workers earn less than $10,000 a year. After accounting for expenses such as fuel, vehicle maintenance, and self-employment taxes, the take-home pay can be paltry.
4. Lack of Legal Protections
Because of their classification as independent contractors, gig workers are often left out of crucial labor law protections. This omission allows companies to skirt responsibilities, leading to issues like wage theft, unpaid overtime, and a lack of recourse for workplace grievances.
5. Overdependence on Ratings
Many gig platforms rely on customer ratings to evaluate workers. This system can lead to unfair deactivations or reduced access to high-paying jobs based on subjective customer feedback. Moreover, workers may feel pressured to go above and beyond—even at their own expense—to ensure positive reviews.
6. Excessive Fees and Costs
Gig platforms often charge significant fees, which can take a considerable chunk out of workers’ earnings. For example, ride-share drivers might have to pay for their vehicle maintenance, while freelance platforms might charge fees for connecting workers with jobs.
7. No Voice in Decision Making
Most gig workers have no say in company policies, fare structures, or operational changes. This lack of representation means that decisions benefiting the company’s bottom line can be made at the expense of the worker’s wellbeing.
A Call for Change
The challenges gig workers face are not insurmountable. Some cities and countries are pushing for regulations that provide these workers with more rights and benefits. Additionally, there are movements to unionize gig workers and give them a stronger voice.
- Benefits? Think Again: Unlike the 9-to-5 office gigs of yesteryears, the new age gig jobs come with an asterisk. Health benefits, pensions, and the like are often off the table, making the pursuit more treacherous than it seems at face value.
- Algorithm: The Unseen Puppeteer: Today’s gig workers dance to the tunes of complex algorithms. A slight modification can spell disaster, slashing earnings or even leading to sudden job termination with scant justification.
- Unionizing: An Uphill Battle: As the modern workforce gravitates toward digital platforms, collective bargaining often becomes a distant dream, leaving many to fend for themselves in the vast digital ocean.
- Ratings: The New Age Performance Review: In the gig realm, customer ratings wield tremendous power. Workers often find themselves bending over backwards, trying to appease clients and the platform, all in the quest for a five-star seal of approval.
- The Earnings Roulette: The unpredictability of income in gig work can often feel like a game of Russian roulette. What one earns today might bear little resemblance to tomorrow’s take-home, making financial planning a tightrope walk.
- Hidden Expenses: The Silent Earnings Eroder: For the modern gig worker, out-of-pocket expenses come with the territory. From vehicle wear and tear to the hidden costs of tools and tech, these ‘minor’ expenses can take a substantial bite out of their revenue.
- Precarity Goes Mainstream: The widespread adoption of the gig model suggests that job instability is no longer the exception but the rule. What was once a niche is now a norm, as precarity takes center stage in the modern employment theater.
- The Great Worker Classification Debate: Are gig workers truly independent? Or are they merely employees in contractor clothing? This debate rages on, with significant legal and financial implications hanging in the balance.
- The Global Gig Arena: With platforms connecting clients and workers across continents, the competition has never been fiercer. Local workers often find themselves pitted against global counterparts, with pricing wars intensifying.
- The Flexibility Mirage: Flexibility, the oft-cited silver lining of gig work, sometimes casts a shadow. Beneath this allure of autonomy, lies the stark reality of unpredictability and instability.
In wrapping up, the digitization of work via the gig model paints a picture both enthralling and cautionary. As we hurtle further into this era, it’s imperative to balance innovation with the timeless tenets of worker rights and security. Only then can we truly harness the promise of the digital age without compromising the foundation of a stable workforce.
Gig Workers Collectives
The “Gig Workers Collective” is a known organization formed by gig workers, for gig workers, especially in the rideshare and delivery sectors. They advocate for better wages, rights, and conditions for gig workers. As the gig economy grows, various collectives, associations, and groups have emerged globally to represent and advocate for gig workers. Here are some examples:
- Gig Workers Collective: A grassroots organization primarily in the U.S., advocating for better treatment of gig workers, especially in the rideshare and delivery industries.
- Rideshare Drivers United: This Los Angeles-based group represents Uber and Lyft drivers. They push for better pay and working conditions.
- The Independent Drivers Guild (IDG): This organization represents over 70,000 app-based drivers in New York City. They fight for better wages and working conditions.
- App-Based Drivers Association (ABDA): Based in Seattle, this group works in collaboration with Teamsters Local 117 and aims to give app-based drivers a voice.
- Mobile Workers Alliance: Based in Southern California, this group comprises over 10,000 app-based rideshare drivers pushing for better wages and a right to unionize.
- Courier Workers Toronto: A collective representing food delivery couriers in Toronto, they focus on better wages, safety, and working conditions.
- United Private Hire Drivers (UPHD): Based in the UK, this branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) represents private hire drivers.
- Glovo Couriers Strike Platform: This is a collective of couriers working for the delivery app Glovo in Spain, which has organized strikes and protests against the company’s policies.
- Deliveroo Riders Melbourne: A group of delivery riders in Melbourne who have rallied against issues like low pay and unfair terminations.
- Ola and Uber Drivers and Owners Association: In India, this association represents the interests of drivers working for ridesharing platforms like Ola and Uber.
These collectives, unions, and associations often collaborate with traditional labor movements, while also using social media and other modern organizing tools to rally their members, share information, and stage protests or strikes. They play a crucial role in the rapidly evolving landscape of labor rights in the digital age.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on the Gig Economy and Worker Exploitation
1. What exactly is the gig economy?
The gig economy refers to a labor market characterized by short-term contracts or freelance work, rather than permanent jobs. This model often relies on digital platforms or apps to connect workers with clients.
2. How is the gig economy different from traditional employment?
Unlike traditional employment, the gig economy often lacks long-term job security, set hours, and typical employment benefits such as health insurance, sick days, and retirement plans.
3. How do algorithms influence gig workers?
Algorithms determine job assignments, earnings, ratings, and even deactivation from platforms. Any changes in these algorithms can have direct impacts on a worker’s livelihood, often with little transparency or explanation.
4. Why is there a debate over gig worker classification?
There’s a tension between classifying gig workers as independent contractors (which usually excludes them from many employment protections) versus classifying them as employees (which might entitle them to benefits and protections). The debate has significant implications for worker rights and company costs.
5. Are all gig jobs the same in terms of earnings and benefits?
No. There’s a wide range of variability. Some gig jobs offer lucrative payouts and more stability, while others might provide below-minimum wage earnings and high unpredictability.
6. How do customer ratings impact gig workers?
Ratings often determine job availability and earnings. Low ratings can reduce a worker’s access to high-paying jobs or even risk their deactivation from platforms, making them crucial for gig workers.
7. Is the gig economy growing?
Yes, the gig economy has been on an upward trajectory, driven by technological advancements, the appeal of flexible work schedules, and changing business models.
8. What are the main challenges faced by gig workers?
Key challenges include income unpredictability, lack of employment benefits, potential for algorithm-driven deactivation, competition from a global workforce, and the often-hidden costs associated with their jobs.
9. How can gig workers protect their rights?
Awareness and advocacy are key. Joining gig worker collectives, staying informed about local and international labor laws, and using platforms that are known to treat workers fairly can help.
10. Does the gig economy exist globally?
Absolutely. While its presence is more dominant in some regions, the gig economy is a global phenomenon. However, the nature of gig jobs, regulatory environments, and worker experiences can vary widely between countries.
11. Is there any upside to the gig economy?
Yes, many workers appreciate the flexibility, autonomy, and opportunity to diversify income sources. For some, gig work offers a chance to pursue their passion projects or balance other life commitments more effectively.
12. What is the future of the gig economy?
While predictions vary, it’s likely that the gig economy will continue to evolve, influenced by technological advancements, regulatory decisions, and shifts in societal values regarding work. The challenge is to ensure that growth is paired with equitable treatment of worker rights.
A-to-Z list of various gig economy jobs
Here’s an A-to-Z list of various gig economy jobs. Remember, the landscape of the gig economy is constantly changing, and new roles and platforms are emerging all the time. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it offers a comprehensive overview:
A. Airbnb Host: Renting out property or rooms to travelers.
B. Bike Courier: Delivering items on a bicycle, especially common in urban areas.
C. Content Creator: Producing content for YouTube, blogs, or other platforms.
D. Dog Walker: Offering dog walking services, platforms like Rover and Wag come to mind.
E. Etsy Seller: Creating and selling handmade or vintage items.
F. Freelance Writer: Writing content for various clients on platforms like Upwork or Freelancer.
G. Graphic Designer: Designing visual content for clients.
H. Handyman Services: Providing home repair on platforms like TaskRabbit.
I. Influencer: Earning through social media platforms by endorsing products.
J. Jewelry Maker: Crafting and selling jewelry online or at fairs.
K. Kitchen Services: Providing homemade food or catering services.
L. Lyft Driver: Driving passengers to their destinations.
M. Music Teacher: Offering music lessons locally or online.
N. Nanny/Babysitter: Providing childcare services.
O. Online Tutor: Teaching subjects or skills online.
P. Photographer: Offering photography services for events, products, or portraits.
Q. Quick Gig Apps: Short tasks on apps like Gigwalk or Field Agent.
R. Rideshare Driver: Driving for platforms like Uber or Ola.
S. Stock Photographer: Selling photos on stock platforms like Shutterstock.
T. Transcriptionist: Transcribing audio content into written form.
U. Urban Farmer: Growing and selling produce in urban settings.
V. Virtual Assistant: Providing administrative services remotely.
W. Web Developer: Creating or maintaining websites for clients.
X. Xeriscape Consultant: Advising on water-saving landscaping (a niche job, but it fits the ‘X’!).
Y. Yoga Instructor: Offering yoga classes locally or online.
Z. Zazzle Designer: Designing custom products to sell on Zazzle.
Remember, the gig economy can encompass a vast range of jobs, from traditional freelance roles to newer, app-based opportunities. It’s about flexibility and leveraging skills in an on-demand, often digital, marketplace.
Definitions of the gig economy
The gig economy is a multifaceted concept, and as such, it has been defined in various ways depending on the perspective or emphasis. Here are a few definitions:
- Broad Definition:
- The gig economy refers to a labor market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work, as opposed to permanent jobs.
- Technological Definition:
- The gig economy is driven by digital platforms that connect workers with clients or customers, enabling individuals to offer their services on a job-by-job basis, typically without long-term employment contracts or benefits.
- Economic Definition:
- The gig economy is a segment of the economy which consists of independent contractors and freelancers who perform temporary, flexible jobs, often mediated by technology platforms. This can reduce costs for businesses and provide flexibility for workers, though it may also lack traditional employment benefits and job security.
- Sociological Perspective:
- The gig economy reflects a shift in societal work patterns where traditional notions of employment and job stability are being replaced with more fluid, task-based employment, often driven by personal choice, necessity, or the evolving structure of modern economies.
- Business Perspective:
- The gig economy is seen as a system in which organizations and businesses hire independent contractors and freelancers instead of full-time employees, often to improve scalability, reduce fixed costs, and enhance agility.
These definitions capture various aspects of the gig economy, which is a complex phenomenon influenced by technological, economic, and social factors. The rise of the gig economy has generated debates on its implications for workers’ rights, job security, benefits, and the broader implications for society and economic systems.
Here’s an A-to-Z list of gig economy platforms, each paired with a more commons-focused or equitable alternative where possible:
- Alternative: Couchsurfing – a platform where individuals offer their homes or spare rooms for travelers for free, emphasizing cultural exchange and hospitality.
B. Bolt (formerly Taxify):
- Alternative: La’Zooz – a decentralized ridesharing app where users earn cryptocurrency tokens for rides, creating a fairer distribution of income.
- Alternative: MyVillage – a platform that emphasizes community in childcare, ensuring that providers receive ample support and parents receive quality care.
- Alternative: CoopCycle – a federation of delivery co-ops ensuring fairer wages and conditions for bike couriers.
- Alternative: Fair Trade Crafts – platforms that ensure artisans are paid fairly for their handmade goods.
- Alternative: HireOwl – connects students looking for work with potential employers, offering fairer opportunities for young professionals.
- Alternative: Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) – Directly connecting consumers with local farmers, emphasizing sustainable and fair practices.
- Alternative: Tool Libraries – local initiatives where community members can borrow tools, fostering collaboration and reducing consumption.
- Alternative: Farmigo – a community-driven approach to fresh food delivery, connecting consumers directly with local farmers.
- Alternative: Shared Earth – a platform connecting gardeners who need land with landowners who have space to spare, emphasizing community and sustainable agriculture.
- Alternative: OpenStreetMap – a collaborative project to create a free editable map of the world, emphasizing openness and collaboration.
- Alternative: RideAustin – a nonprofit rideshare platform where profits go back into the community.
M. Mechanical Turk:
- Alternative: SamaSource – an organization that connects marginalized people to dignified digital work, ensuring fair wages and conditions.
- Alternative: Community-driven notary services at local banks and public institutions.
- Alternative: Free Skools – decentralized education communities that operate outside of the formal education system, emphasizing peer-led learning.
- Alternative: Community Food Co-ops – cooperative grocery stores owned and operated by members, ensuring fair wages and sustainable practices.
- Alternative: ProZ – a community-driven platform for translators ensuring better conditions and pay for professionals.
- Alternative: Community pet-sitting cooperatives or networks where members support one another.
- Alternative: Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU) – a grassroots open education project emphasizing community and shared learning.
- Alternative: Time Banks – a community model where individuals exchange services without money, based on time spent.
- Alternative: Cooperatives – worker-owned platforms where freelancers collaborate and share profits.
- Alternative: Local clothing swaps or The Buy Nothing Project, emphasizing community sharing over buying.
- Alternative: Collective Agency – a community-focused co-working space emphasizing collaboration and mutual support.
X. X-Team (a platform for hiring developers):
- Alternative: Open source community projects where developers collaborate for common goals.
- Alternative: LocalWiki – community-driven platforms for sharing local knowledge.
- Alternative: Community car-sharing initiatives or co-ops where members collectively own and share vehicles.
Top Gig Economy Companies
The top gig economy companies paired with commons-focused or cooperative alternatives:
Alternative: RideAustin – A non-profit rideshare based in Austin, Texas. All profits are reinvested into the community or the driver’s pockets.
Alternative: CoopCycle – A federation of European delivery cooperatives that promote sustainable and socially just food delivery.
Alternative: Couchsurfing – A platform built on trust and cultural exchange, where individuals host travelers in their homes for free.
Alternative: Time Banks – Platforms where members of a community exchange services based on time instead of monetary value, promoting mutual aid.
Amazon Mechanical Turk:
Alternative: SamaSource – Provides digital work to marginalized people in developing countries, ensuring that they receive living wages.
Alternative: Buy Me Once – A platform promoting long-lasting and sustainable products, often handmade or sourced from craftspeople dedicated to quality.
Alternative: Worker co-operatives that are owned and operated by freelancers. Instead of competing against each other, members collaborate and share resources.
Alternative: Collective Agency or other local co-working spaces that are more focused on fostering community and shared values than just providing workspace.
Alternative: Local community-driven food co-operatives that provide delivery or pick-up services while promoting local and sustainable produce.
Alternative: Farmigo – Connects consumers directly with local farmers, emphasizing fresh, sustainable produce and fair wages for producers.
These alternatives often prioritize community engagement, sustainable practices, and fair wages. It’s worth noting that while these alternatives can offer more equitable structures, they may not always match the convenience or scale of their more mainstream counterparts.
A to Z list of gig economy jobs that can be done from home:
A – Affiliate marketer: Promote products/services and earn commissions on sales.
B – Blogger: Write and manage your own blog, monetizing through ads, sponsored content, or affiliate links.
C – Content creator: Produce content for platforms like YouTube, TikTok, or Instagram.
D – Data entry specialist: Input data for companies or individuals.
E – E-book writer: Write and self-publish your own books on platforms like Amazon.
F – Freelance writer: Write articles, web content, or other materials for clients.
G – Graphic designer: Create visuals, logos, and other designs for clients.
H – Home-based customer service: Answer calls or chat inquiries for businesses.
I – Illustrator: Draw or design artwork for clients, often for books or websites.
J – Journalist: Work as a freelance reporter or writer for various publications.
K – Knowledge broker: Sell your expertise in a particular field, often through consultations or online courses.
L – Language tutor: Teach a language online via platforms like VIPKid or iTalki.
M – Music instructor: Offer music lessons virtually.
N – Nutritionist: Offer diet and health consultations online.
O – Online ad manager: Handle advertising campaigns for clients, especially on platforms like Facebook or Google.
P – Proofreader: Check and correct written texts for errors.
Q – Quality assurance tester: Test software or websites for bugs from home.
R – Resume writer: Help clients craft professional resumes.
S – Social media manager: Handle a company’s or individual’s social media presence.
T – Translator: Convert documents or content from one language to another.
U – UX/UI designer: Design user-friendly interfaces for websites or apps.
V – Virtual assistant: Offer administrative services to clients remotely.
W – Web developer: Design and maintain websites for clients.
X – Xero expert: Offer bookkeeping or financial services using the Xero software.
Y – YouTube channel manager: Manage and optimize a brand or individual’s YouTube presence.
Z – Zoom webinar host: Organize and run webinars or online events for brands or businesses.
What is difficult about gig economy work?
The gig economy, while offering flexibility and autonomy, also comes with its own set of challenges. Here are some difficulties associated with gig economy work:
- Income Instability: Gig workers often face unpredictable incomes. Their earnings can vary dramatically from day to day or month to month.
- Lack of Benefits: Many gig workers do not receive the traditional benefits that regular employees enjoy, such as health insurance, paid leave, or retirement benefits.
- Job Security: There’s no guaranteed work in the gig economy. Projects can end abruptly, and there’s no assurance of future gigs.
- Overhead Costs: Gig workers often bear the brunt of business expenses. For instance, ride-share drivers have to cover their car maintenance and fuel.
- Work-Life Balance: The flexibility of gig work can sometimes blur the lines between professional and personal time, making it hard to “switch off.”
- Isolation: Gig workers often operate in isolation, missing out on the social aspects of traditional workplaces.
- Competition: The gig economy can be highly competitive. With platforms open to a global audience, workers often find themselves competing with others willing to work for lower rates.
- Lack of Protection: Many gig workers are classified as independent contractors, which means they don’t get labor protections, such as minimum wage guarantees or overtime.
- Irregular Hours: To maximize income, gig workers might need to work during peak demand times, which can sometimes be inconvenient, like late nights or weekends.
- Uncertainty about Legal Rights: The legal status of gig workers is still being debated in many jurisdictions. This uncertainty can make it challenging for workers to understand and assert their rights.
- Reliance on Ratings: Some gig platforms rely heavily on customer ratings. A few negative reviews, whether justified or not, can significantly impact a worker’s ability to get future gigs.
- Lack of Skill Development: Gig work might not always provide opportunities for career growth or skill development in the way that traditional employment might.
- Inconsistent Workflow: There may be “feast or famine” periods where a worker gets many job offers followed by dry spells with no work.
- Platform Dependency: Workers often rely on platforms (like Uber, Airbnb, or Upwork) to get gigs. Changes in the platform’s policy or algorithms, or even being banned from a platform, can severely affect one’s income.
- Unforeseen Liabilities: For instance, if someone renting out their home on Airbnb has a guest who damages their property, they might have to bear unexpected costs.
The gig economy certainly offers opportunities for many to earn and have flexible schedules, but it’s essential to weigh these benefits against the potential challenges and risks.