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The Real Cost Of The Gig Economy

In a rare moment of candour, the then Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, gave us an insight into what he feels are the optimum conditions for workers. The so-called healthy economy that he presided over, owed its success to what he called growing worker insecurity. Workers with precarious existences are not going to make demands.

It’s this compromised position, coupled with diminishing wages, that is the cornerstone to the global gig economy. But with workers pushed to breaking point, is it now time to call time on predatory business models that give rise to this form of exploitative relationship?

Host Ross Ashcroft met up with Writer and Filmmaker, Shannon Walsh, to discuss.

The end of the gig?

In her latest film, The Gig is Up, Writer and Filmmaker, Shannon Walsh, exposes the global phenomenon of exploited, and largely forgotten people often written out of the story of technology who work precariously behind apps in the gig economy.

The filmmaker tells the story of ordinary folk who, at the tap of an app on a phone, arrive thanklessly and tirelessly at doorsteps all over the world to deliver goods and products to other folks, sometimes under potentially perilous conditions.

Walsh’s fascination for the project, highlighted in her previous film, is centred on the illusory notion of how technological utopianism is supposedly saving humanity from environmental crisis. In observing this capitalist sleight of hand trick through the lens of human labour in The Gig is Up, the filmmaker unpacks how contemporary technology is used as an illusory foil for century-old exploitative working practices.

“It’s beyond the pale that 100 years of labour organising is effectively being erased through deep exploitative means under the illusion of innovation.”, says Walsh.

Covering some of the themes contained within Mary Gray’s book, Ghost Work, the filmmaker draws parallels with the piecemeal and precarious work typical of the industrial capitalist era to the way work is organised in the modern techno economy of today.

Walsh explains that making the film was educational:

“As someone delivering food to your house or helping a guy, that was a real revelation for me and understanding what algorithms had to play the way that labour laws had really rolled back. I learnt a ton about that, and definitely that 80 percent of this work happening behind screens is invisible.”

Fast money and exploitation

The filmmaker notes that there is something deeply problematic in the way in which contemporary techno-era capitalism is predicated on nefarious and unaccountable loss-making business models. These models are celebrated and propped-up through people looking for fast money while simultaneously exploiting workers in the process.

Companies such as Peloton, WeWork, DoorDash and Uber that the typical urban, upper-middle class millennial increasingly interact with, lose billions of dollars between them on an annual basis. And yet the habits of those who use these platform services are subsidized on a semi-permanent basis because the prices the companies charge do not meet their costs.

One of the unique things about digital platforms is their use and dependence on network effects which has led to a winner takes all model of a kind that drives them. On the consumer side, this often involves the offering of various forms of freebies, bonuses and discounts.

On the workers side, one way that Uber, for instance, has been able to dictate the terms of the market, is to get network effects going by encouraging drivers to flock to their platform only to saddle them with all sorts of exploitative financial liabilities later on.

The lack of regulation that enables this, has also resulted in slippage in employment status between employees and independent contractors. In many cases, companies pull back rates of pay without any oversight and rarely notify workers of any changes to their pay and conditions in advance.

“I think the idea of network effects and what it takes to get dominance means throwing money basically into the wind in order to take over. This isn’t just happening in an app. This is real people’s lives, their real physical objects and the physical impacts on the planet”, says Walsh.

During the making of The Gig is Up, the filmmaker was shocked at the large scale way in which companies are engaged in this kind of Bait and Switch method.

Global scale

Another thing Walsh discovered while making her film, was the breathtaking extent to which this form of exploitation is happening on a global scale. The filmmaker says that, increasingly, people are falling outside formal modes of employment and are being shut out of the system.

There are many reasons for this. Some people, for example, might have criminal records or have undocumented migrant status. Others might be disabled, caring for sick parents or stuck in a cycle of financial dependency that doesn’t afford them time to look for alternative forms of employment.

The reality is, it’s difficult for these workers to organise collectively and often there is no recourse for justice. The problems are compounded by the fact that, in recent years, the oppressive nature of ghost work in the era of AI and algorithms has become ubiquitous.

“Companies absolutely know that they’ve got a stranglehold on workers and that people are stuck. That’s why they’re taking these types of low pay jobs and footing the bill for all the costs”, says Walsh.

On a more optimistic note, the filmmaker says there are cooperative movements throughout the world that are using platforms to organise and build for fair and equitable conditions for ghost workers.

Walsh is hopeful that her film has gone some considerable way in helping to connect workers with one another both within and across borders. The filmmaker notes that in her home country, Canada, workers managed to successfully organise against the company, Fedora.

More broadly, Walsh believes that it’s important for workers not to lose sight of the fact that all of the rights they have won around labour are created by people and that there is always potential for the exploited under capitalism to change the situations in which they live through their collective power.

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