Yes, the gig economy sucks; No, it’s not fulfilling its promise of freedom

Despite having worked in the gig economy and experiencing the purported advantages of working outside a full time employee arrangement — or perhaps because of this — I am somewhat hostile to this new form of work because it clearly and unfairly advantages one side (business) over the other (the people who perform the labour) in new and perverse ways.

The lack of regulation, or the slow pace to keep up with labour market innovations leaves a gap for supposed ‘tech companies’ to exploit human resources and make hay while the sun shines. It provides an unfair competitive advantage over other businesses who are competing in a regulated environment with all its associated costs and bureaucratic burden, and at the same time lowers the bar of what’s acceptable in our society, changing the labour landscape. The hard fought rights of workers are being stripped away in a race to the bottom of gig workers struggling to make a living, while excessive profits are made by so-labelled innovators who do little more than develop some software and succeed in mass marketing, then take a clip for every hour you work or gig you perform.

We’re told it’s liberating people.

Apparently, gig workers are micro-entrepreneurs living the dream of self-determined work lives, when the reality in most cases is they can barely make a living wage, and have fewer rights and no benefits compared to the ever decreasing majority of people gainfully employed under awards and enterprise agreements. Many work more than full time hours and if they can’t work they have no income whatsoever. In most cases they’re excessively controlled by the platforms with punitive treatment for perceived damage to the companies’ brands. To paraphrase,

The power dynamics have shifted. The gig economy sits in a grey area where a gig worker is somewhere between a service provider or supplier, a customer, and an employee, but not wholly any of them so lacking a formal avenue or legal recourse when they know something isn’t quite right. The global nature of these tech companies protect them from Australian laws, and by the time judgements are found against them in the courts, they’ve innovated their way to a different business model, or simply pay the fines as a cost of doing business and continue on.

The platforms are one-sided in terms of the ‘trust’ factors because public reviews are only ever about the individual workers, thus opening them up to future disadvantage in ways never before experienced when jobseekers could chose which references they provided when applying for another job. Negative reviews or ratings are routinely used against workers as a reason to terminate their access to a platform without any due process or investigation in order to protect the platform’s reputation or sometimes its end consumers, or simply because they don’t like you, or because you insist on your rights. There aren’t two sides to the story when you’re a gig worker, but both your reputation and your livelihood are at stake.

The cost to the community, and other taxpayers, is increased as gig workers need to rely more heavily on public services because their income doesn’t allow for them to be privately insured, for example, or they need to rely on welfare during a dry spell. They may pay little or no tax (or superannuation payments) because they earn so little, and so not only do they take more, they contribute less.

The gig economy enables both workers and the businesses hiring them to skirt work restrictions for visa holders, such as maximum hours and taxation, and for employers to ignore minimum wage conditions and OH&S requirements. But it’s not just worker safety and welfare. Public safety is compromised when your Uber driver has been on the road for 16 hours trying to make enough money, and isn’t subject to mandated rest breaks.

The on-demand economy masks the scale of unemployment (and underemployment), and exacerbates the downward trend of businesses offering full time jobs with full benefits which is contributing to Australia becoming more unequal with a growing underclass. Masters degree holders are working as delivery drivers because they can’t secure proper employment in their field of study. The ‘stop gap’ solution that is touted by proponents of the on-demand economy becomes the destination because gig workers have to work so many hours for income parity that they don’t have time for job hunting or internships.

Many gig economy workers get stuck in a cycle of insecure work, reducing their opportunities for career advancement, denies them access to credit (for example a mortgage or credit card), exposes them to greater risks in cases of financial shocks, robs them of a safety net now and in retirement, provides insufficient leisure time, and locks them in to a life on the breadline.

Partnerships such as the recent one between a not-for-profit organisation and a food delivery company provide cheap, government-subsidised labour to a private, foreign enterprise under the guise of ‘job training’, entrenching young people in low-skilled, low paid work for the benefit of global corporations and consumers who can afford to pay. These types of government-sponsored partnerships are not far off the descriptor ‘21st century slave labour’, in particular when it is tied to mutual obligation requirements for Centrelink payments.

Innovation should not come at the expense of our community (or a section of it).

It is a misnomer to call large companies flouting regulations and exploiting human labour for private profit ‘innovation’. It’s as old as capitalism itself. The on-demand economy “socialises risk and privatises profits” and on the whole does not benefit our society, nor individual workers, in the long term.

To ensure this future of work meets its promise of liberating and empowering workers, we must fix the unequal power dynamics which favour companies and exploit people’s labour. Gig workers need to be legally recognised and treated as genuinely independent workers with the ability to set their own rates, be fairly compensated for the labour they perform, work their own hours without penalty or future discrimination, and have the ability to access customers on a level playing field. Co-operative business models where the they are worker-owners of the companies they work in is one solution.

If we fix these power dynamics, we may have a chance to fix the unintended consequences of an on-demand workforce so that businesses, consumers the army of gig workers all have a chance to share in the prosperity of this new world of work.

Reframing what we value — a world which is just, sustainable, and works for all people and planet Earth. Join the conversation!

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