Bethany sits on the park bench, her legs resting on the blue and grey backpack in front of her. Typing on the laptop that sits on her lap, she looks up once in a while at passersby as they hurry to whatever urgent thing awaits them at the end of their journey. She takes a sip of her coffee and goes back to work. This is her ‘office’. It’s where she works, at least when the weather is nice. When it’s not, her office is the nearest Starbucks, Wendy’s or, when she’s feeling lazy, her bed.
Bethany works whenever, wherever. She’s a copywriter who writes content for online clients around the world. For her, this is the ideal job. The ability to set her own schedule and work from wherever is something she would never exchange for a traditional job, even with all its perks. Bethany is part of today’s ever-growing gig economy.
An economy that works for many
Coined at the height of the 2009 global economic crisis, when unemployed people worked several jobs to make ends meet, the term ‘gig economy’ refers to the rising model of employment and economy in which people are hired, often through online platforms, to work on a single project or task (otherwise known as “gigs”).
While people working on short term arrangements is not exactly new, the possibilities opened up by the internet certainly have taken the concept to a whole new level. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say the internet has completely transformed the world of work and the characteristics of the workforce. According to a recent Pew research, some 24% of American adults earned money in the gig economy in 2016. Often the motivation is the need to make an extra income, but not always. Sometimes the main motivation is simply to pass time. Which would explain why participants in the gig economy cut across all age groups – from high school students to retirees and those in between.
But it’s not only the multigenerational makeup of the gig economy that makes it stand out – the diversity of gigs available is such that businesses can effectively run without having a single full time staff, and in some cases never even having a face to face encounter with those who deliver the projects on which the company runs. From drivers who are part of the ride sharing companies Uber and Lyft, to homeowners who let out rooms via AirBnB and web developers who get work from freelancing sites like Upwork and Freelancer, the possibilities are endless. And then there are other great aspects like the sense of ownership that the model gives to workers, having the power to choose who to work with and make decisions about the direction of work and of course, the most oft-cited benefit – flexible schedules, times and location which allows workers to take a vacation without the fear of using up all their vacation days or compromising their jobs.
Controversial Practices Give Cause for Concern
Despite such benefits that “giggers” like Bethany enjoy from the gig economy, the whole concept itself has not been without controversy. Uber naturally comes to mind. The company is currently faced with over 50 lawsuits across the world alleging various misdoings on the part of Silicon Valley’s favorite startup. The most prominent of the lawsuits however, relate to the classification of its drivers. While the company alleges they are independent contractors, the drivers claim they are employees, and are entitled to be reimbursed for expenses like gas and vehicle maintenance. In one of the concluded cases in the UK, the Tribunal rejected Uber’s contention, via a clause in its contract which stated that Uber is not a provider of or agent for transportation. It held that Uber did in fact engage its drivers as “workers”, according to the definitions in the UK law and drivers could therefore claim rights to be paid the minimum wage.
While Uber alleges they are independent contractors, the drivers claim they are employees, and are entitled to be reimbursed for expenses like gas and vehicle maintenance.
The case opened up a vigorous debate around the world about the nature of the gig economy, and whether it can be made to work for everyone – corporations and workers alike – or whether it is an undesirable that should be done away with.
The fact is that gig economy workers are at a disadvantage when compared to workers in the traditional economy. There are no pension benefits or company-sponsored health coverage, or other insurance and such other necessities that are available to permanent workers. There is no guarantee of even making minimum wage and for the most part, gig working is often skewed in favor of the company over the individual, which has led to skepticism in some quarters as to whether the gig economy might not undermine corporation’s dedication to fair treatment of employees. After all, it might be more cost effective to carry out projects on a gig basis than to employ a full time worker.
Can There Be A Model That Works for All?
All of these worries are legitimate and should definitely be addressed. But the fact still remains that the gig economy offers advantages for today’s world and is, it would seem, the future of work. How then can we ensure that it works for everyone and not just for business?
The first step is quite obviously the establishment of a framework that ensures that workers in the gig economy don’t become second class citizens, living on the peripheries and earning wages that can barely sustain them. This requires concerted efforts that include policymakers, labor unions, businesses and workers themselves. The goal of such efforts need to be creating a balanced gig economy model in which workers have access to dignified and sustainable livelihoods, while companies are also able to access needed skills that help their bottom line in a manner that respects the rights of these workers.
Need to create a balanced gig economy model in which workers have access to dignified and sustainable livelihoods, while companies are able to access required skills.
Providing clearer definitions around who constitutes an employee, improved regulations as well as tougher enforcement of employment laws are some of the other solutions that have been proffered by experts. All these are needed, and it is imperative that key players begin an inclusive discussion on how to achieve this. It is in everyone’s interest that the gig economy is beneficial for the likes of Bethany and the millions of others who earn a livelihood this way.