The gig economy

The gig economy is a fitting feature of a fly-by-night world in which nothing endures, nothing is remembered and all human activity is broken down into simple, measureable tasks: a commodification of work, says Jeremy Seabrook.

'JOBS for life', we are told, are a thing of the past. The world has turned, and with it, human labour. Identity is no longer to be found in economic function or social purpose. We are to be liberated from these archaic concerns, and, separated from place-bound activity in farm, factory or office, are privileged to operate from digital work platforms of our choice. In this way we may create multiple sources of income: we shall gain autonomy and receive payment by task, assignment or project, which will involve only short-term relationships with those who enable us to perform the service our clients require.

This represents the rise of a 'just-in-time' humanity in a 'shared economy' bringing together with the utmost efficiency elements required for the completion of a given task - maybe simply a taxi ride or the delivery of a meal or document, or a longer-term project, legal work, a medical consultation, transcription of data. New jargon has emerged to paint this prospect in the rosiest of colours, in which such outmoded concepts as 'employment' and 'worker' - let alone 'trade union' and 'organisation' - no longer have currency. The idea of 'a fair day's work for a fair day's pay' is even more incomprehensible, since the free market, in its superior but capricious morality, has its own notions of justice and equitable treatment. The current buzzwords are 'gigs', 'tasks', 'favours', 'services', 'rides', 'deliveries' - a triumph of public relations which gives the impression of a post-labour economy where everything can be pleasantly accomplished without friction or conflict. Social peace is assured and everyone advantaged by it.

The 'gig' economy, far from being a recent development in the casualisation of work in capitalist society, has profound historical echoes. In the Poor Law Commission Report of 1834, a farm labourer is quoted as saying, 'The farmers keep us [on the poor-rates] like potatoes in a pit, and only take us out for use when they can no longer do without us.' Workers in the London docks were also employed casually, according to the requirements of loading and unloading ships, while memories linger of prospective employers physically testing the muscles of prospective labourers to see if they were fit for the work of carrying, loading or lifting. Most things hailed as novelties in contemporary society have already been practised. Only the words are new.

The word 'gig' originated in the 1920s among jazz musicians, meaning a performance. It gained wide use among pop groups and nomadic entertainers for denoting an appearance, a single show at one particular venue. It connotes impermanence - an ideal term for certain forms of labour, ad hoc or temporary, brief and quickly finished, usually in activities associated with mobility, urgency and disposability.

The 'gig' economy is the opposite of settled labour, the reverse of trades and skills acquired over years by painstaking observation and instruction by tailors, goldsmiths, engineers, weavers or dressmakers. It implies minimum skill, maximum availability, and suggests insecurity, low pay and dispensability. In other words, it is a fitting feature of a fly-by-night world in which nothing endures, nothing is remembered and all human activity is broken down into simple, measureable tasks: a commodification of work. The chief executive officer of CrowdFlower in the US is quoted as saying of his 'independent contractors', that 'with technology you can actually find them, pay them a tiny amount of money then get rid of them when you don't need them any more'.

One in 10 Americans and one in six Britons currently work in the gig economy, mainly taxi-driving and transport, house-cleaning, couriering, messaging and the provision of domestic services. Among the best-known companies are Uber, Amazon, Deliveroo and the classically named Hermes (messenger of the gods), a German company delivering parcels in several European countries. Workers are connected with clients and customers through computer programs or smartphone apps. They are sometimes described as 'freelancers' or 'self-employed contractors', but this status has been in dispute. Are they truly 'free-lancers', with its suggestion of medieval jousting, or are they simply lowly employees? Although they find customers by using a company's app or website, the companies argue they are not in fact employed by them. The theory, according to Uber, is that its drivers are customers who pay to access an app, and that Uber simply takes a fee. They should not therefore be treated as employees, since this would require wages and benefits - sick pay, paid leave, and much else that is part of the vast subsidy of the welfare state to private employers.

In October 2016, two drivers took the issue with Uber to an employment tribunal in London. The judgment found in favour of the workers, namely that they were employees and entitled to minimum wage and benefits to which other employees have access. One driver claimed he had earned less than 5 an hour. A hearing is scheduled later this year at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for an unfair competition case brought by a Barcelona taxi drivers' association: Uber's claim to 'online service status' has enabled it to escape transportation regulations in some European countries. Advocate-General Maciez Szpunar, an adviser to the ECJ, says the San Francisco-based company's primary purpose is transport; but given its success undercutting traditional taxis, the outcome of this challenge is far from certain.

The propaganda around the gig economy has been relentless. Such jobs provide flexibility. People are 'their own boss'. They can work as many - or as few - hours as they wish. This helps their work-life balance and accommodates what they do to childcare arrangements or simply their own convenience. For many, this is a second job to augment income. The ability to dip in and out gives them a sense of being in control. Only one-fifth of Uber drivers work full-time.

The gig economy is global. Instant online communication creates a global putting-out system of translation, data copying, transcription of texts, and legal and medical services. People can be engaged anywhere at a moment's notice, their work accepted or rejected within minutes. This is even more competitive than a physical pool of labour in any one place - there are only so many drivers in one town or city, but the potential number of online workers across the globe is practically limitless. Nothing is easier than to lower the price offered globally for any given task or service: discrete, disposable and highly competitive, $5 an hour would be insulting to someone in Seattle, but to a woman in Nairobi or Asmara, it represents a small fortune.

In a report published in October 2016, McKinsey Consultancy reviewed the practice in several Western countries and found that 30% of workers in the gig economy used this as their main source of income; 40% used it to top up earnings from elsewhere; and 30% 'reluctantly' had recourse to the gig economy or did so because they were 'financially strapped' and in urgent need of ready money. McKinsey estimated that 162 million people in Europe and the US were currently 'independent workers' of this kind.

In Britain, this is reflected in the number of workers classified as 'self-employed': about 4.6 million or 16% of the labour force. The self-employed do not have the same rights as employees - neither sick pay nor redress against unfair dismissal. They cannot claim annual leave or a minimum wage. The UK hailed its unemployment figures of May 2017 as the lowest for 42 years. The problem is the nature of much of that employment, precarious, insecure, part-time, and 'self-employment' that commands an income below any minimum wage. The average income of self-employed people is now lower than it was in 1995. At the same time, the number of people on zero-hours contracts stood at just under one million.

All this is a feature of what an International Labour Office report of 2016 by Valerio di Stefano described as a wider casualisation and informalisation of labour; deregulation has scattered and depowered the workforce; and although none is 'compelled' to it, economic forces are the great impersonal drivers of forms of servitude thought long ago abandoned.

It is presented as liberation, the forerunner of future employment for a majority of the people, who are masters of our destiny by means of a smartphone app that will connect us to personalised employment of our choice. This generates eclectic 'income streams' from a variety of sources, as opposed to wages. In reality, however, we are witnessing a worldwide, long-term convergence of rich and poor worlds, so that the employment structure of the US or Spain will come to resemble that of India, where the informal sector engaged 82.2% of the workforce in 2015.

We are looking at a world of cultural rag-pickers, of odd-job men and women, of errand boys and girls, of servants and lackeys all dressed up in the livery of phantasmal non-employers, described in a rhapsodic language of futurity and optimism; humanity as an extension of technological gadgets and devices, in intense competition not only with each other but also with robots and artificial intelligence. However 'modern' the global workforce, one thing remains unchanged - the power of those who 'give', 'create' or 'provide' labour over those whose destiny it remains to perform it.

Jeremy Seabrook is a freelance journalist based in the UK. His latest book is The Song of the Shirt (published by Navayana).

*Third World Resurgence No. 319/320, Mar/Apr 2017, pp 29-30