Labour’s shadow chancellor, John McDonald, once claimed that workers’ rights are now in the kind of precarious situation that has not been seen since the 1930s. Specifically, the shadow chancellor highlighted the gig economy and zero-hours contracts. He likened them to the kind of employment his father had to endure. His father was a docker, and every day he had to stand around with other men in the hope he would be selected for work that day. It was a precarious existence with no guarantee of wages from one day to the next. The gig economy, claimed the Shadow Chancellor, offers a similarly raw deal.
Some commentators reckon that this is not the case, claiming that many workers enjoy being independent contractors and the flexibility that comes with it. That flexibility is apparently so desirable that they would gladly give up other rights that labour unions fought hard to establish, such as sick pay, holiday entitlement and a minimum wage.
So, is it really true that people crave the flexibility offered by the gig economy, so much so that they would forgo a great many workers’ rights if offered the choice?
I think that depends on what kind of flexibility we are talking about.
I can imagine a form of flexibility that would make gig work pretty darn attractive to the employee. The kind of flexibility I am imagining is the kind where the availability of work is entirely at the workers’ convenience. In other words, whenever you want to work you may do so, but equally the moment it’s more convenient to quit that is also perfectly OK.
One can imagine people adopting all kinds of working patterns, tailored to all kinds of lifestyles. People who work through winter and relax through summer; people who have one day on, one day off; people who have no routine at all and are in and out of work as the mood takes them. If the flexibility that the gig economy offered really is the kind that works entirely at the independent contractor’s convenience, then the critic must have a point when he says that many people prefer this kind of work.
But there is another kind of flexibility, the kind where you are at a business’s beck and call. When the business has work available, you are there to do it. As soon as your services are no longer required, you are sent home, ready to spring into action the moment it is convenient for the business to hire you once more. Notice that this kind of flexibility need not necessarily work entirely in the independent contractor’s favour. There may be times when you’re called to work but it’s not so convenient. It’s a sunny day and your friends are off to the beach. You feel under the weather. Your partner is in labour and you want to be there to see your first-born enter the world. And those times when it’s convenient for the business to send you home may not be so convenient for you. “No work available today, huh? Darn, I could really have used the money”.
Now, who would benefit from the kind of flexibility that puts workers entirely at a company’s beck and call? Obviously, the employers would be the ones to benefit. You can’t tell me that in an ideal world (as seen from their perspective) companies like Uber wouldn’t rather there be flexibility of the ‘beck and call’ variety.
Strictly speaking, workers have always had the choice to work any hours they like. It’s not as if factories and offices lock the doors, trapping their workforce inside until the boss declares sufficient work has been extracted from them (well Ok some sweatshops in developing countries do this, but these are exceptional cases). So, really, you could walk away from your job at any time.
I should point out that I am talking about a particular kind of freedom here. What I really mean is that you are free to do something like walk away from your job, provided you are willing to accept whatever consequences may result. Provided you are prepared to face whatever may come, it’s hard to think of an example where one is not free to choose. You are free to commit crime, free not to pay taxes, free to jump off a cliff.
Of course, most people would say that the consequences could be so bad it acts as a sufficient restraint on how we behave. So, most people pay their taxes and obey the law not because they must in the sense we must all die one day, but because they choose to obey and therefore avoid the consequence, rather than choose not to and maybe face those consequences.
Similarly, even if you are in a regular, full-time, Monday to Friday, nine to five job, you don’t have to stick to that schedule. You could decide, “you know what, it’s Wednesday, it’s 10 AM and it’s a sunny day outside. So I am off”, and just go, cheerily telling your superior, “I’ll be back tomorrow. Or not. Depends on my mood”.
Would there be consequences? Probably yes. Most likely, you would figure that such behaviour would result in your being fired, and the threat of that would be enough to ensure you stick to your contract and be at work when it says you should.
For gig work to offer the good kind of flexibility where you get to work only when it is convenient for you, then the consequences resulting from your choice not to work can’t be so (presumably) dire that you regulate your behaviour like people tend to do in regular work.
Now, where regular work is concerned, the long struggle of unionisation and workers’ rights has established procedures that must be undertaken when dealing with workers who break the rules. In lots of cases you can’t just be sacked, but must first receive verbal warnings, written warnings, and only if you persist in your behaviour does the company finally have it in their power to terminate your employment.
But what about the gig economy? Businesses offering work of this kind do not need to go through any kind of disciplinary procedure. They don’t even need to fire anyone. Indeed, seeing as how workers in the gig economy are supposedly self-employed contractors, they can’t fire you because you do not officially work for them. But what they can do is stop you from using the app.
I can imagine how rumours going around could constrain workers’ freedom to choose whether or not to work. The chatter might go something like this. “Man, be careful. That app you use to accept or refuse work? It logs every time you refuse. I heard that if you turn down too many offers you go on ‘Blacklist’ and can’t get any more work for months. I would accept at least 80 percent of the jobs they offer if I were you”.
By the way, this isn’t just a made-up scenario. In actual fact, businesses in the gig economy often do require their independent contractors to submit to a certain percentage of tasks or otherwise face being temporarily or permanently banned from using their app. And it usually is a high percentage that you must accept, like 80%. Put another way, you are free to turn down the opportunity to work…twenty percent of the time. But other than that if the app says there is work to be done you had better agree to do it, or else. To me, this is kind of like saying something is entirely free…you just have to pay £80 in order to access it.
Furthermore, we should not assume that things will stay as they are. Perhaps things will change in a positive way, with future kinds of gig work offering more of the ‘work whenever you feel like it’ kind of flexibility. But, then again, it could go the other way and become more about working at the businesses’ convenience.
Which way it goes depends on who has the greater power to influence the market and the political system. Given that the owners of successful disruptive software can become multi billionaires, a sum of money way beyond the aspiration of anyone tasking for the gig economy, it seems to me that the safe bet is to say it will be the gig business owners who wield the greater influence.
Since we mentioned disruptive software, we should also take into consideration the effects of artificial intelligence. According to some experts, the algorithms coming in the foreseeable future will wipe out most middle-class jobs. The result will be a market that on one hand consists of a few owners of algorithms that come out on top in a ‘winner takes all’ environment, perhaps becoming multi-trillion dollar businesses.
On the other hand there will be everybody else, a great mass of humanity competing for whatever jobs are left. When you consider Moravec’s Paradox, which is named after a roboticist called Hans Moravec and states ‘whatever we find easiest to accomplish, AI finds hardest and vice versa’, you can see that AIs are more likely to take away the sort of jobs you need a college or university education for, rather than the sort of jobs anyone can walk in off the street and do. In other words, it will be AIs that do things like writing articles for journals, flying airplanes, and work in legal and medical practices (which they can already do to a limited extent), leaving work like scrubbing toilets and dusting shelves to humans (which robots are still pathetic at).
This larger group has been labelled the ‘precariat’, a combination of ‘precarious’ and ‘proletariat’ or ‘many mouths’. It underscores the precarious situation this mass of humanity (which will include the majority of us, by definition) because there would be so many competing for whatever jobs are left, and that would provide an enormous amount of pressure that businesses who still require human labour could use to their advantage.
We imagined earlier how gig-based businesses could use the data harvested by their apps to filter out those who persist in working at their own convenience, encouraging (coercing?) more to lean toward the ‘work at the company’s convenience’ approach to tasking. Once you have a reserve army of independent contractors prepared to leap into action whenever the boss snaps his or her fingers, where do you go from there?
Probably, you then have your independent contractors bid for tasks, with the ‘winner’ being whoever is prepared to do the best job for the least amount of money. Thus, potentially, the combined disruptive effects of artificial intelligence and precariat work would result in a race to the bottom where the vast majority of us find it virtually impossible to get anything beyond minimal reward for labour, squeezed by pressure from demand for remaining jobs from our fellow precariat on one hand, and on the other by the rapacious profit-seeking demands of that tiny minority who have now become so wealthy and influential they form a plutocracy as powerful as any emperor or pharaoh.
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