Missoula Running around doing errands and catching up on Skype calls and emails in Missoula on our last trip in town before heading back home, doesn’t give me much time to keep up with the news, but hitting the Times business page quickly, I saw an article about the so-called “sharing economy” which seemed to be calling my name and singing my song. The good news was the fact that the notion of the “precariat,” which we have discussed frequently in recent months rated a subhead. The bad news was that after reading the piece in depth there was no way to avoid the fact that modern technology and the recession, that has driven millions out of gainful, fulltime employment, and consumers with rising needs and declining resources, have combined to create the perfect storm, drowning workers.
It has long been a factor of organizing and community life that we were working with a constituency that often are balancing full and part-time or numerous part-time jobs in order to string together a living. Now it seems that employers in this newly exploitative workplace environment can totally control the access, hours, and wages of work without having to even maintain the semblance of being held up McDonald and Walmart-like as bad employers, because they can refuse to be employers at all, hiding behind algorithms and consumer demand for cheap work. Reading about workers, even those embracing this new economy, wanting part-time employment even with the minimal legal benefits that come with such work, like Social Security and unemployment payments, tax withholding, and, heck, even a regular schedule, and instead having to settle on being on-call for TaskRabbit, Favor, Uber, and god knows what else where they might make as little as $15 per hour as independent contractors was not only depressing, but knocking on the door of a high crime. I just don’t have a dictionary that would bend the words “sharing” and “peer” into the pretzels that would mask such blatant exploitation and predatory behavior.
The number employed in this way is estimated to be huge, and that likely understates the facts:
There are no definitive statistics on how many people work in the gig economy. But according to a report from MBO Partners, a company that provides consulting services to independent contractors, about 17.7 million Americans last year worked more than half time as independent contributors, among them project workers
Professor Guy Standing from London who literally wrote the book on the “precariate” calls this new phenomena and its aspects that create a sort of technocratic slave market a situation of “pitting workers against one another in a kind of labor elimination match.” Sarah Horowitz, the head of the Freelancers Union, a workers’ advocacy group based in New York City, offers that, “Having a diverse portfolio is the best protection. People are doing this in the midst of wage stagnation and income inequality, and they have to do these things to survive.”
Several years ago I remember a friend referring to himself as a “portfolio” worker, meaning that making it for him mean having a couple of jobs. Now this phenomena has evolved not to “gigs,” but piecemeal and piece rate work for random clients and shadow companies that seems to only really exist as Wall Street fundraisers and investor darlings running hot shop computer operations.
What a predatory sewer no matter how much makeup is applied on the way to these so-called jobs. These workers need real organization, but they also need real jobs and a real life rather than this predatory swamp they are gamely trying to navigate.