The gig economy is here to stay. Now let’s humanise it | John Naughton
The US didn’t have just one election on 3 November. All kinds of other public offices were up for election too. And in California, electors had an additional choice to make: whether to approve Proposition 22, a referendum on whether ride-hail and delivery companies (think outfits such as Uber, Lyft, Deliveroo) should get an exemption from California employment law that would allow them to continue treating workers as independent contractors rather than as employees with rights that come with conventional employment. The companies had spent $200m on a campaign to preserve their exemption and it worked: voters approved the proposition by 58% to 42%. It was, said the Los Angeles Times, “one of the most closely watched ballot measure contests in the country and the costliest in state history”.
Now, $200m is peanuts to these money-burning enterprises, but it was peanuts well spent from their point of view. Having to shoulder the responsibilities of “real” employers would grievously undermine their business models and therefore the prospects of big eventual payouts for their investors. For the trade unions and the civil society groups who opposed the proposition, the outcome is somewhere between a disappointment and a disaster. For the rest of us, it’s confirmation that a referendum is a lousy way of resolving a complex problem that’s not going away. The gig economy, in one form or another, is here to stay and we need to find a way of making it compatible with social equity and human dignity.
Pandemics, as Yuval Noah Harari has observed, have a way of accelerating history. Only a year ago, I remember estimating that it would probably take a decade before remote working became accepted practice in many industries. And look what has happened; in a few months, entire industries and occupations have been Zoomed out. In those same months, we have discovered that Amazon has metamorphosed into the critical infrastructure of most western states. Less shopping and more working from home means more households are using Deliveroo and other gig economy platforms more frequently. A study by the consultancy film McKinsey in August found that “approximately 35-55% of existing [European] consumers intend to continue using delivery more in the future”.
What the pandemic has brought home to us is the extent to which our economies – and our industries – were being reshaped by technology and economic ideology. Evidence of this reshaping has been available for years to those who were disposed, or professionally obliged, to pay attention to it. But now it’s inescapable. And the question is: will we use the lessons we’ve learned from the pandemic to reshape our world? In particular, how can we adapt our laws and institutions to exploit the benefits of new industries while reducing their downsides?
Here, the gig economy might provide a useful case study. At the moment, most of the challenges to platform-based enterprises such as Uber and Deliveroo have involved trying to shoehorn them into legal frameworks that were designed for a pre-platform age. This is a piecemeal approach that has so far produced erratic results. In February, for example, a French court ruled that a Deliveroo courier should be treated as an employee rather than a contractor. In September, Spain’s supreme court made a similar ruling about another delivery startup, Glovo, after lower courts had made a series of contradictory rulings.
We can’t go on like this. A better way of thinking about it would be to recognise that we’re in a position analogous to that of Britain in the 1830s and 1840s when parliament passed the Factory Acts to regulate the conditions of novel kinds of employment as the Industrial Revolution roared ahead. The Factories Act of 1847, for example, colloquially known as the 10 Hours Act, met a long-standing demand by mill workers for a 10-hour day. Other legislation regulated the use of child labour and other practices.
We need that kind of comprehensive approach to the gig economy because, as other kinds of employment get automated away, it will be what provides employment for an increasing number of people (just as the factories of industrialising Britain provided jobs for people coming off the land). We should be thinking of what the French entrepreneur Nicolas Colin calls “a new social contract” that would cover workers against the new risks of the day – the impossibility of renting housing in cities when your income is derived from gig platforms; access to loans when and where you need them, not necessarily to buy a car but instead to learn new skills when it’s time to move on. And, as he says, “to help workers organise so that they defend their interests themselves, but with a different approach from that which was embraced in the coalmines of the 19th century or the car factories of the 20th”. Uber drivers of the world, unite: you have nothing to lose but your ratings.
What I’ve been reading
Wings of desire
Enjoyed Patricia Lockwood’s stunning essay on Vladimir Nabokov (Eat Butterfiles With Me?) in the London Review of Books.
Deaths on the ward
A post on the Intima blog is the most vivid, most moving, piece I’ve read about what it’s like to be a medic in a Covid-19 ICU unable to save people who are dying.
Land of hope and glory?
What kind of country do we want? A terrific essay by Marilynne Robinson in the New York Review of Books.