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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Gig Economy Promoters Drinking Their Own Kool-Aid

Los Angeles     There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the explosion of the so-called “gig” economy and whether its growth foretells the future of work for Americans.  Such a future would mean a series of part-time jobs, no clear employer or employment status, skimpy to non-existent benefits and a narrow path to sustainable work for millions.  Some think that the growth of such jobs would be plentiful enough to substitute for automation and deindustrialization.  Other have argued that a universal basic income needs to supplement the availability of such work in order to create sustainability.

No one ever really knows the future, but it’s always worth some amount of worry, especially when it comes to work.  When it comes to the gig economy though a recent report by Lawrence Mishel of the respected, DC-based Economic Policy Institute lays out a comprehensive case that those soothsayers arguing that the gig economy is the future are basically drinking their own Kool-Aid at least when it comes to its current impact on employment.

The EPI report looks most carefully at recent data on Uber drivers and their incomes.  The bottom line is that Mishel found that once all expenses, commissions, and benefit costs were factored in, an Uber driver was lucky to average $9.21 per hour.  When converting the number of part-time and some time almost 850,000 Uber drivers, Mishel was only able to convert about 90,000 into full-time equivalents.  Factoring in other studies that put the impact of Uber on total gig economy at about two-thirds, the role of gig work in overall US employment was a relatively miniscule 0.1%.  That’s not nothing, but it certainly doesn’t convincingly lay claim to portending the future of work past pure speculation.

Mishel brings his argument to a sharp point on the academic side, saying,

These findings—and the fact that many Uber and other workers who provide personal services via a digital platform do so on a part-time basis primarily as a way to earn supplementary income—argue for a change in perspective. There has been much hype around Uber and the gig economy. But in our assessment, in any conference on the future of work, Uber and the gig economy deserve at most a workshop, not a plenary.

If at best it’s only worth a workshop for economists, it’s hardly worth a full beer’s worth of discussion for labor organizers.

Informal, contingent, and temporary employment, no matter what they are called in the less than full-time service economy continues to give huge definition to global and domestic employment.  These are challenges worth the full-time struggle and effort.  Gig employers seeking special favors from legislators and money from investors to allow them free rein over workers have clear interests in promoting themselves as the future of work and everything else, but the rest of us need to brush off their special pleadings and keep our eyes on creating winning strategies for workers struggling now to build power in an array of real jobs in the current economy.

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