Disposable Humanity: The Sharing Economy

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I’ve recently been reminded of something my grandmother used to do. Keep in mind she was from a much harder time than now. She lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War. She was taken to Nazi slave labour camp when fourteen and once liberated, narrowly escaped communist death squads. She remembered real hunger. Boil your belt for food hunger. I saw a picture of her after the war and she was rail thin. She would save everything. Every piece of bread, chicken, cheese, whatever, she would throw nothing out. Chicken bones would go into soup. Meat from someone else’s plate could be saved for later. Once I found her scraping the ketchup off a plate and putting it into a small container. When I asked her what she was doing, she looked at me like I was stupid. And maybe I was because I think we might be heading towards the kind of hard times she had lived through.

The first story that sparked this recollection about my grandmother was an article on CNET about the sharing economy. It’s titled, Uber hit with new lawsuit on whether its drivers are employees. You would think this is simply semantics, but there are some deep legal implications to this distinction. The company calls the drivers independent contractors, and the article says this means that because they’re not technically employees they don’t get sick days, overtime, health benefits, social security, all of those cornerstones of modern employment are thrown out the window. A Global News article states that Uber drivers make minimum wage. CNBC indicates drivers earn $9 an hour. That’s $2 less than the average taxi drivers. Taxi companies also sometimes offer benefits. According to the Atlantic, in some areas, if the taxi breaks down, they’ll pay to have it fixed, whereas with Uber the driver is on his own. On the whole, they seem worse than taxi jobs, with less pay, and fewer benefits. With self-driving cars, the drivers will likely be out of jobs very soon.

These sharing economy jobs seem to have one thing in common. They treat their workers badly – or their independent contractors, whatever you want to call them. The company DoorDash was recently outed for stealing tips from delivery drivers. If you were like me, and you tipped the drivers more so they would handle your food with care, the company was pilfering a lot of that tip. I thought I was tipping generously. The driver probably thought I was cheap. My plan to give a hard-working delivery driver extra so they’d take better care of my order was thwarted by corporate greed. As you can tell, I’m immensely annoyed. Mostly because I wouldn’t have tipped so much if I knew the driver wasn’t getting it.

I have a lot of sympathy for these workers. If you’ve ever written for places like Fiverr or Freelancer, you know how underpaid you can be. These race-to-the-bottom sites don’t seem to benefit the writers at all. They’re not quite the same type of organization as Uber or DoorDash, but to me, these sites are the writer equivalent to a company like Uber. The only difference is that with Uber, you need a local driver.

I’ve used both Uber and DoorDash – frequently. I know how bad it is for workers who make their living as Taxi drivers, who now have to compete with ride-sharing apps that provide a worse a salary and no benefits. I can’t say that I don’t care about them, because I do. It bothers me on a certain level, but these apps are also a better experience. I just don’t know if they’re sustainable. It would help if my experience with taxi drivers wasn’t consistently dreadful. The very last taxi I took was a ride home from visiting a relative in the hospital. It was close to 2am, and when I sat in the back seat of the cab, the driver turned to me and said, “Have you ever seen that movie Drive?” He sped out of the emergency room parking lot, drifting around corners and zigzagging through traffic while I white-knuckled the car seats. I installed Uber the next day, and I haven’t taken a cab since.

The lawsuit doesn’t only affect Uber. It also has implications for any sharing economy platform that operates in California: “In the case of Grubhub, former driver Raef Lawson says that because he wasn’t classified as an employee, he was paid less than minimum wage. After he doled out money for expenses, like gas, parking and phone data, he often made less than the legal minimum of $10.50 per hour in California, according to court filings.” – CNET

The second article that sparked my recollection was a Gizmodo article about how Kickstarter recently fired two employees who also happened to be union organizers. The company claims that they fired them due to consistent lousy performance, and the union claims they were targeted due to collective bargaining affiliation. It’s hard to tell who to believe in this situation, but the union wrote this long letter, most of which seemed reasonable, but then they ended with a call to action for the “creators, backers, alumni, comrades.” The word comrades made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I guess it triggered some genetic memory imprint of the gulag. I can’t explain why it annoyed me so much other than that. I don’t have any problems with unions or collective bargaining, just don’t call me comrade. The last time people talked like that, my grandma and grandpa had to cross the Atlantic to avoid being killed and buried in pits. I don’t appreciate that language coming from the mouth of some new-gen hipster who doesn’t understand what that word means to people with the kind of background I have.

Every time I read about the growth of the sharing and gig economy, I’m convinced this system is going to devalue labor to the point that it’s difficult to put food on the table. Technology has opened this up to us, particularly mobile tech and location tracking technology coupled with digital payment infrastructure via credit cards. This type of work is very new – it’s not something we’ve yet figured out how to make equitable, or not exploitative. It reminds me a bit of early industrialized capitalism. Labour was cheap, plentiful, and not yet specialized to the point of being scarce enough to hold any leverage over a company. The employees were sullen, broken, ashen-faced, overworked, and underpaid – gaunt men and women who were barely scraping by, working sixteen hours a day. It took the world a lot of hardship and, to be frank, bloodshed to figure out that we need some way to make the situation more equitable for the workers. It seems like we’re making the same kind of mistakes over again. If you also consider the speed with which artificial intelligence frameworks are catching up to us in more conceptually creative work, it seems like we’re heading towards a labor catastrophe of the same kind my grandmother experienced so long ago. With that in mind, my grandma doesn’t seem so crazy with the ketchup.

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