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The gig economy has grown big, fast — and that’s a problem for workers

It’s not about “sharing” — it’s about service, and it clearly demarcates the served and the servants.

Drivers from Uber and Lyft and representatives from Amalgamated Transit Union gathered outside the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission office to urge them to compel the ride-share companies to consent to elections that would allow their employees to vote on union representation.
Drew Angerer / Getty

A version of this story was published on The Bold Italic.

“Children are running the company [Homejoy] and they act like they are still in college. The poor cleaners are being treated like slaves; the children make fun of them behind their backs; this company is a tax-evader and a moral concern to the working class.” — Anonymous former employee of housecleaning startup Homejoy

While the gig economy promises to free workers from the traditional, drab 9-to-5 work environment, the reality is quite different. Many contractors employed in gig-economy–type jobs lack health care and retirement benefits, are at the mercy of their employers’ scheduling needs and  —  despite being promised so much freedom  —  find themselves little more than glorified service workers.

While the term “gig economy” is sometimes vaguely defined, the Bureau of Labor Statistics describes it as a workforce characterized by “single project[s] or task[s] for which a worker is hired, often through a digital marketplace, to work on demand.”

You’re not just imagining all those Ubers trolling San Francisco’s Market Street on any given day: The gig economy has gotten big, fast. One recent study revealed that 20 percent to 30 percent of the U.S. labor force is now made up of contractors and self-employed workers. And those numbers are expected to grow significantly in the coming years. This presents some very real problems for the workers who depend on such gigs to make their living —  which soon may encompass almost all of us.

Wave good-bye to benefits

Most workers in the gig economy have no minimum wage, no unemployment benefits, no paid sick days, no pensions, and even no maximum or minimum working hours. They live at the whim of the platform(s) they’ve chosen to affiliate themselves with.

One great way to have job security is to be in a union. That said, unionized workers tend to be more expensive for corporations than non-union ones  —  which is why most gig-economy companies loathe unions.

While unions in the U.S. remain weak (and increasingly rare) compared to those in Western Europe, they’re still incredibly important in protecting workers from being exploited. But to be in a union in the first place, you usually have to be an “employee” —  and the people who work for the various gig-economy platforms are considered independent contractors, not employees. As a result, they’re robbed of the protections and rights that unions and workers’ movements have spent more than a century fighting to achieve.

Most workers in the gig economy have no minimum wage, no unemployment benefits, no paid sick days, no pensions, and even no maximum or minimum working hours. They’re not free to make their path in this new sector but are at the whim of the platform(s) they’ve chosen to affiliate themselves with.

So, for instance, when car-sharing service Uber decided to cut its rates, drivers had no recourse or input on the decision  —  even though it meant that their hourly wage dropped suddenly and precipitously. Though Uber claims that rate cuts bring more people to the service (allowing drivers to accept more rides), drivers report they need to work longer hours to earn the same amount  —  and taking more rides means more wear on their vehicles, which the drivers (as independent contractors) have to pay for themselves.

“I have an accounting background and I lost my professional job. Out of desperation, I became a driver for UBER/LYFT. I keep precise records of all income and expense. The bottom line statistics are not at all promising to be a driver … [I make] an hourly wage (before taxes) of $9.12 per HOUR!”

Anonymous, via UberDiaries

Despite Uber’s claims that their drivers make between $25 and $30 per hour, this figure has been shown to be realistic only in New York City, the company’s largest market. Drivers in San Francisco are likely to earn closer to $14 per hour, while in other cities the rate is closer to $11 per hour. Worse, these are gross earnings, and don’t account for fees paid to Uber and vehicle maintenance costs, which would make the real hourly rate for San Francisco drivers below $12  —  and even this is possible only if drivers schedule themselves strategically.

False promises of autonomy

In 2014, Fast Company reporter Sarah Kessler spent a month working in the gig economy, and her experience didn’t reflect the rosy image of the sharing economy that companies like Uber, TaskRabbit and Homejoy promote.

Kessler had a difficult time even getting accepted by the various platforms she applied to join, and once she did start offering her services, she had little control over her schedule, and no chance of earning any more than she needed to scrape by. After attending an orientation for bicycle-delivery–startup Postmates, Kessler remarked how the business model of the gig economy places all the risk on its “contractors,” so the apps and platforms never have to accommodate the people who make their profits possible.

If you work for Postmates and you don’t beat your coworker to accept deliveries that might fill your shift, you  —  not Postmates  —  are out of luck. If you get a flat tire, you —  not Postmates  —  are out of luck. And if there aren’t enough jobs to go around, you  —  not Postmates —  are out of luck.

“I’ve worked for Postmates for over three months because I lost my job unexpectedly …

But [the job] pays less than minimum wage … Most deliveries you earn around five bucks and they take any where from half an hour to an hour … Many people don’t tip … [I am] being paid less than minimum wage and destroying [my] vehicle in the process. It’s often dangerous, exhausting and ultimately unprofitable.”

Anonymous former employee

Kessler’s experience confirmed many of the criticisms that have been made about worker treatment in the gig economy. She concluded, rather damningly, that the gig economy relies on the very people who are suffering in the post-recession job market: Young people experiencing high levels of unemployment and underemployment, and all those being forced into part-time and low-paying work because they can’t find full-time jobs that make use of their skills.

This observation makes it impossible to ignore how the gig economy benefits from current economic trends, most notably the pressure automation is placing on certain workers and the rising levels of inequality  —  both of which have accelerated since the recession.

The first stage of a larger transformation

Automation is already changing the way we work, though so far it has impacted only certain segments of the labor market. In 2011, The New York Times reported that since the beginning of the recovery, companies were spending only 2 percent more on employees, yet 26 percent more on new software and equipment. Clearly, companies are much more interested in minimizing labor costs, even if that means spending more on equipment.

While technology allows for the elimination of repetitive labor, that doesn’t mean it isn’t impacting other work as well. The apps that have emerged to “disrupt” industries as diverse as taxi driving, delivery services, housecleaning and other trades are evidence of this.

Technology hasn’t progressed to a point where such workers can be fully replaced by AI or robots, but that doesn’t mean it can’t completely upend those industries in preparation for further automation.

Uber and Lyft have been transparent about this reality. Both companies’ CEOs have professed their desire to automate their drivers once self-driving cars are ready  —  a point that could be reached in less than five years. Uber is so bullish on the technology that it has even begun testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh.

While this automation presents many potential social benefits, it also endangers the people who previously worked in those sectors. In 2015, 23 percent of workers were worried that their hours would be reduced, and 24 percent thought the same could happen to their wages  —  up from numbers in mid-teens before the recession.

There has been little talk about how to assist those who lose their jobs because of automation, but these numbers will only get worse the longer political leaders spend ignoring the issue to focus on border walls and outsourcing.

The gig economy isn’t about sharing; it’s about service.

Benefiting from inequality

The near-unprecedented levels of inequality in the U.S.  —  which are particularly exacerbated in the Bay Area, given the housing crisis and inflated tech-sector salaries  —  are drawing a distinct line between those who benefit from the system and those who don’t. This division is exploited by the gig economy, if not furthered by it.

In a story for Matter, Lauren Smiley investigated the new social dynamics being created by the gig economy, which she terms the “shut-in economy.” She visited an apartment building in San Francisco where the units rent for as much as $5,000 but the residents rarely even use their kitchens. They rely almost exclusively on the gig economy for food, cleaning services and various other forms of pampering.

Smiley asserts that the gig economy isn’t about sharing; it’s about service, and it clearly demarcates the served and the servants. While those who are benefitting from the current economic model can pay people to do their errands, many of those on the other side are being pushed into the gig economy by a job market that doesn’t offer fair pay or dependable hours. Workers are faced with an employment outlook that is more precarious than it’s been in decades. The difference is that the gig economy, generally, has a lower barrier to entry.

So if the gig economy is characterized by low pay, a lack of benefits and a predatory relationship where the business risks are burdened by the worker, why aren’t workers aren’t abandoning it? Simple — they have no other options. The gig economy isn’t about helping people who are being left behind; it’s about exploiting them because they have to accept whatever work they can find.

Companies operating in the gig economy may use positive slogans and present hopeful yet misleading statistics about their operating practices, but they benefit from the dire economic circumstances that their workers experience  —  and as a result, these companies have no incentive to rectify the situation.

The dark future of gig work

The gig economy has created an employment model that robs workers of the rights they’ve earned over more than a century of fighting. It uses automation not to make a better world for everyone, but to put the risks of doing business on the backs of workers without providing them fair compensation. Though it doesn’t abhor inequality, its business model is well suited to take advantage of the growing divide.

Doug Henwood perfectly encapsulates the worldview of the gig economy when he writes that it “sees us all as micro-entrepreneurs fending for ourselves in a hostile world.”

That’s not the kind of economy that is inviting to the vast majority of people and that is committed to improving their quality of life. Instead, it sounds like the fantasy of techno-libertarians brought to fruition, where we’re all forced to compete against one another for increasingly atomized work that provides little pay and no benefits, while facing a lack of job security when much of that work becomes automated.

If the gig economy is going to continue its growth, we need to seriously examine how it’s regulated  —  to ensure that it’s not ripping off workers while delivering services to the rich. A world characterized by the gig economy does not sound like a better world, but a far worse one, where distributed exploitation of workers is taken to a new extreme and we all have to suffer the consequences.

Paris Marx writes about politics, travel and the economy. His most recent book, “Freedom From Jobs: How Automation Will Revolutionize the Future of Work,” was published in August 2016, and his writing has been published by The Bold Italic, The Billfold, Matador Network and more. He's currently completing a B.A. in Political Science. Follow him @parismarx.

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