Labor Department Gigs Workers

New Orleans    When talking about the gig economy, a gig is defined as a short-term job, a little something extra even though we have come to find that for some workers all of their work is composed of a series of gigs.  Musicians famously called their collection of jobs gigs, but that didn’t mean they were happy with the business model as anyone could learn by sitting in a meeting at your local musicians union hall.

Others know that a gig is a spear of sorts, usually with a long handle and one or more sharp points attached.  Youngsters in the South along the coasts, riverbanks, and swamp-lands have often looked forward to summer nights walking in the swallow waters of the gulf for example with a lantern in one hand and the gig in another to spear flounder lying in the water.  Gigging frogs was also popular.  Not to make too fine a point, but understand that gigging is a killing sport.

The Department of Labor in a new opinion letter, after having held during the Obama administration recommendation that workers in the gig economy were employees of their companies, rather than independent contractors, has now in a specific case held the opposite, potentially making a gift of billions of dollars to what I believe we need to call the gigging economy and its companies.  The company involved in this case is not named but its workers were residential cleaners.  Declaring them contractors allows the companies to escape payments for unemployment and Social Security, making this work even more precarious and deferring the private responsibilities to these workers to all of us in the public as taxpayers, while also allowing them to escape the obligations of paying even the federal minimum wage or overtime.

Make no mistake about the size of this potential giveaway to companies whose entire business plan is based on exploiting workers, because the industry estimates, according to the New York Times, that classifying them as workers would add 20 to 30% to their labor costs.  Make no mistake either about whether or not this action ends up near the top of the list as the most anti-worker by the Trump administration.  There are wide disagreements on the number and impact of workers being gigged from one to five million in some absolute estimates of workers doing some gigs to other estimates that are less based on aggregating the small jobs against the impact of full-time work on the economy.  Either way, there’s no way to put lipstick on this pig.

The DOL provides some hope in between the lines by establishing what may become criteria for determining the degree of independence that would keep a worker from being gigged.  “In explaining its conclusion about the company in question, the department cited the fact that workers had the freedom to choose when, where and how long they worked; the fact that they provided their own equipment’ and the fact that the company did not have a mandatory training program.”  Additionally, at this company, “…workers…have some room for negotiating pay, although the company provides default prices, and are permitted to schedule future jobs with the same customer without using the platform.”

It’s a slender reed, but for now, it’s about all we have between us and millions of workers being gigged.

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Sweating Labor in the Gig Economy and People by Tech

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

New Orleans      In a piece about climate change, one author quoted a commonplace statement that the corporate business model in a capitalist economy puts no inherent value on public resources like land, air, and water, so that the costs are for acquisition, extraction, marketing, and delivery without concern for the after affects like global warming, downstream water or air pollution, and the like.  The burden then falls on the commons, the public, and the government to force regulation or cost recovery, often too little and too late, especially when wealth is increasingly concentrated, and people with lesser income cannot afford the price of restoration.

I’m really not talking about climate change though.  It seems to be that within that business model, app-based and other tech companies fit squarely, if we add people themselves as a natural resource in the same list with land, air, and water, and likely even valued less by many.

Take the business model for Facebook and the rest of the tech companies that is based on selling people’s privacy for their own and corporate billions without paying anything for it, and without being accountable or, until very recently, worrying about the consequences.   Take as another example the continued resistance to dealing with the ubiquitous consequences of enslaving millions that still reverberates throughout every level of the American economy and culture.  Democratic presidential candidates are quick to agree to study reparations, but take my word, oil companies will pay for climate change and Facebook will give us a residual payment on using and selling our data way before reparations are paid for slavery.

In the run up to Uber going public, the company offered a slightly lower opening price valuation than investors had placed on it privately, because they continue to lose literally billions.  A sidebar noted that like Lyft, the company has said they might pay between $100 and $10,000 to longtime drivers, that they don’t acknowledge as employees by paying benefits, social security or unemployment or anything else, but increasingly are finding it harder and harder to recruit in a tight employment market.  Here is another business model that tries to sweat a common resource, people, without paying in order to extract rents or excess profits from their labor for free.  There was a long story of a fulltime driver for Uber and sometimes Lyft in the Bay Area who was barely making it because despite his share of the fares, the fact that he was classified as an independent contractor though totally dependent on the company and their arbitrary division of income, he had to pay all the cost for the vehicle, gas, and maintenance which was clearly unsustainable.

This problem is global as well.  An organizer in Buenos Aires shared with me this week the embryonic efforts to organize personas de platformas or gig workers there.  We have organized multi-union and multinational meetings of bicycle delivery drivers in Europe, but everywhere the organizing problem continues to be the lack of leverage.

Air, water, and land are voiceless.  In modern economic labor, people doing the work are becoming as voiceless as the clickers and likers on social media.  Simply another natural resource to be exploited for as long as they can get away with it.  None of this is sustainable, but stopping it is another matter.

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