The gig economy, sounds all fun, like what you imagined life as an adult was like as a child. You go to work but it does not swallow up and occupy all your time. You earn some serious cheddar and spend your free time doing fun things like buying food that’s bad for you and hanging with friends till God knows what time because nobody tells you what to do.
It may sound childish and immature but is in so many ways similar to the promise of the gig economy. The key selling point of the gig economy is freedom and flexibility where workers choose when they work and for whom they work and ostensibly stand to make as much money as they are willing to work for without answering to any boss but themselves. It covers a wide variety of jobs including ride-sharing services like Uber to home health care to catering to professional services like proofreading, editing, software development, and legal work.
The term gig economy comes from the world of performing arts in which musicians, comedians, etc. are paid per individual appearance, per gig. For this reason, the gig economy has presented itself as this fun alternative to the old style of work and employment where you had a boss scrutinizing your every move and making all manner of demands on your time. You had to be at work at a certain time, stay until a certain time dressed in your most uncomfortable clothes in the name of formality. Your paycheck was also fixed regardless of how much work you did month to month.
Enter technology and this idea that the old way of doing things was just bad, outdated, and unsustainable. The new way was proclaimed better in every way. In this new way of work, you work for whoever you want, making your own hours and not answering to no one but yourself. Your earnings also reflect how much work you do, the more you work, the more you earn. Freedom to set your own hours, a great paycheck, and most of all no stuck-up clothes to force yourself into. All you have to do is download an app and sign up to work ‘with’ a company of your choice. Sounds like a winner, right? Wrong.
No doubt the old model of labour had its problems. This is not an effort to sanitize traditional labour practices. However, just because something is new does not mean it’s better. This essay will focus largely on ride-sharing apps and Uber in particular just because of Uber’s reach and the availability of data around it.
No benefits and protections
Workers in the gig economy are considered independent contractors, not employees. That is deliberate. The term independent contractors sounds like something you’d want to do with a better psychological connotation than an employee. That’s the only thing about it that’s better than being an employee.
Employees have benefits such as paid annual leave, sick leave, maternity leave, health insurance, work injury benefits, and pension among others. Independent contractors get none of these. If they don’t work, they quite literally don’t eat. They are stripped of all hard-won workplace protections like minimum wage. When employees are unwell, they get paid sick leave, and if they are injured on the job they are protected by the work injury benefits act. When gig workers are sick they get nothing and this includes getting injured on the job.
They have to always be working or they earn nothing. Instead of working less, gig economy workers overall end up working more so much for all that promised free time and flexibility.
Pathetic pay & overall horrifying contracts
The claim that the sky is the limit when it comes to how much you can earn on these apps is a bald-faced lie. One team of researchers compared Uber’s treatment of its drivers to that of sweatshop workers who are closer to enslaved labourers than workers. They take home less than the minimum wage and it’s barely sufficient to sustain existence.
Globally, Uber and Bolt drivers have lamented their poor pay threatening numerous times to go on strike. Drivers have actually gone into debt because of driving for Uber finding themselves in situations where they lose money and go into debt rather than make money from driving. Uber drivers in Kenya have described themselves as ‘slaves in our own country’. These drivers all over the world are part of the growing segment known as the working poor.
Increased stress and isolation
Because of a social or employee safety net of any kind, these jobs are very precarious and the workers know. This persistent state of insecurity and living gig to gig paycheck to paycheck comes with intense stress. Depending on the nature of the job, you may not have any confidence about having another gig after the one you currently are working.
The stress is further exacerbated by the fact that drivers work alone and are alienated from each other. One study found that 75% of Uber drivers had never had a drink or meal with someone who had driven for Uber. This isolation and alienation of workers from each other is deliberate. It makes the worker feel alone and borderline helpless in the face of a massive faceless corporation and it also makes it exceedingly difficult for workers to come together, organize, and like countless workers before them agitate for better working conditions.
Capitalist upward redistribution of wealth
These companies have all built their wealth on the literal backs of the workers they refuse to acknowledge as employees. Uber’s annual gross profit in 2020, during a global pandemic, was $5.9 billion dollars. While drivers, the people who actually work are living precarious lives steeped in inconceivable levels of stress, Uber’s CEO earned a base salary of $1 million dollars. That’s excluding the rest of his compensation package which brought his total 2018 earnings to a cool $45 million dollars. Uber’s top five executives earned a total of $143 million dollars in total compensation.
The gig economy literally takes from the workers to give to the already wealthy non-working management at the top. The drivers work and the executive management appropriates the wealth generated from their work.
People continue to join these services because they are desperate and something is better than nothing. That does not make them good. That also does not in any way make them less of a pest in society. The fact that they prey on the vulnerable and then actively increase their vulnerability and dependence on them is not erased by the pittance they give workers as compensation for their labour.
It’s all lies. There is no freedom and flexibility when your life is so precarious every gig you take matters. There is no freedom and flexibility when you have no benefits to cushion you in the event of illness or injury. The ‘you earn whatever you want’ is a lie. What will happen is you will earn all that and they will take it and give you a pittance. There are also so many hours in a day and you are not a robot. You cannot work continuously.
It’s all upward distribution of wealth from you to them. All you’ll have to show for it will be intense stress and isolation, totally alienated from your fellow workers with whom you can organize and unite against these forces of evil. And make no mistake it is evil that workers are fighting against. Reject the lie of the gig economy. In the words of Karl Marx, ‘Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains’.
Check out: Opinion: A critique of entrepreneurship