Escaping the New Serfdom

The gig economy is undermining our hard-won rights and our livelihoods — it’s time to demand a better deal


By Thomas Venner, Citizen State Advisory Committee Member (Europe)

· Opinion,Gig Economy,Work,Workers Rights,Flexible Work

There was a quote I saw online a while ago describing the standard model of “disruptive” Silicon Valley startups as “thing that already exists + borderline illegal labor practices”. And let’s face it, there probably isn’t a more perfect summing-up of the gig economy as a phenomenon than that.

Would it be a good thing if we had the opportunity to work with greater flexibility; to develop multiple skill sets; to have the option to work outside the nine-to-five paradigm that doesn’t work for most of us in the first place? Of course it would. That’s what the gig economy offered. What it delivered was a new road to serfdom. If it had come with essential guarantees — and existed within a broader socioeconomic model that guaranteed the core essentials of life — then it might have been the kind of radical disruption people could have really benefitted from. Instead it became nothing but another corporate experiment in pushing the envelope on worker exploitation and erosion of regulations; forcing more people into job insecurity and poverty.

The key driving force behind these developments has been a business model designed from the ground up to use employment law evasion as the foundation of a new market sector, exploiting regulatory loopholes to undercut even the limited base level of pay and working conditions required by law — a typical example being that of simply reclassifying employees as self-employed “independent contractors” to deny them workplace rights or a minimum wage. Its entire basis is in skirting the edge of legality — and discarding ethics entirely — to pursue an operational model designed from first principles to circumvent and undermine hard-won labor rights while shunting costs onto its workforce. This isn’t a business model that can be reformed, because the problems aren’t malfunctions but the model working as intended. The gig economy sold us a promise of freedom, choice, and ownership over our own working conditions. It lied.

The gig economy sold us a promise of freedom, choice, and ownership over our own working conditions. It lied.

It’s now become a zero-sum contest between the gig economy model as it stands and the rights — few and inadequate as they might be — that workers still have. For one to continue and thrive, the other will and must necessarily cease to exist. It’s a stark reality — but there’s still something that can be gained if we face it head on. The chronic exploitation of freelancers and the resulting push by many employers to force their employees into a freelance work model has underlined the importance of collective bargaining; how vital it is to be able to negotiate from a position of strength, and how the atomization of the workforce allows many employers to make us powerless and disposable. As lone individuals, we have no leverage — something the business model of companies like Uber depends on and is directly designed around. If we want a better deal, we need to demand one together, and if employers are going to blur the boundaries between freelance and full-time employment — or if we’re serious about wanting more flexible working conditions to be a genuine and viable career choice for everyone — then we need to demand a unified framework of rights for both and create a unified framework of organization to champion it. Like it or not, the norms of employment are changing; the old model of work is long gone and isn’t coming back, and if we want to make a new one that benefits ordinary working people instead of unethical business models that innovate only in their mechanisms of worker exploitation, we’re going to need to come together and shape that new model ourselves.

The gig economy’s promises might have turned out to be false; but perhaps the sheer brazenness of the lie can, ironically, spark something genuinely valuable. After decades of neoliberalism methodically slow-boiling its metaphorical frog, the gig economy’s architects got sloppy with overconfidence and cranked the temperature up too fast. The rapid and increasing Uberization of employment has become a shock to the system that’s woken a hell of a lot of people up to the reality of how much we’ve let slide. Any right is 90% enforcement, and the kind of blatant envelope-pushing we’ve seen from many employers over the last few years has shone a blazing spotlight on just how much we’ve collectively stopped enforcing our rights. It’s demonstrated clearly that it’s long past time for the renewal of a labor movement that’s been fragmented and demoralized for too long, and a new push for genuine ownership over both the conditions of our own work and the value it creates. And this, in the end, is the real potential that’s been unlocked; the genuine opportunity we can now see for a new and better deal. Perhaps the growing revolt against an abusive and exploitative work culture that’s finally pushed too far too fast will become the substrate for a truly radical reclamation of the power that working people have lost — and the ultimate backfire of the gig economy will be a revitalization of what its architects wanted to extinguish once and for all.

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