The times they are a changin’: gig-economy under scrutiny

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La gig-economy sul banco degli imputati

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There’s a lot of unrest, among crowdsourced drivers, all around the world. Delivery boys and girls, in both the food/grocery and parcel sectors, are moving towards more or less improvised forms of unionization. They demand to be considered as employees and not “collaborators”, and want better wages, possibly tied to the number of hours worked and not to the number of deliveries carried out.

Startups, even those valued in the billions, are desperate to keep them out of employee status. Willing to pay millions in settlements to keep things the way they are. These companies know very well that their only chance to eventually become profitable, without a drastic increase in prices for the end-user (or a transition from on-demand to mixed-demand), is to hang to the “gig” economy, or “sharing” economy, or “crowdsourced” economy, or whatever you want to call it.

Their excuses are almost always the same: these are not “jobs”, it’s something you do to earn that little extra; it’s a student occupation; it’s a condition people like, because in doing so they’re in charge of their own time; pizza delivery boys exist since the dawn of time and have never complained; etc. etc. Some fly over absurdist territory: “It’s for those who love cycling, and want to make some money while doing so”. This gem is credited to Foodora’s management and earned them the scorn of comedian Luciana Littizzetto, on primetime Italian National TV.

As Peter Fleming relates in “The Guardian”:  “If you’re self-employed then all the costs that a normal employer would cover must now be paid by you – including training, uniforms and vehicles, not to mention basic provisions for pensions and sick pay. This is the case even when a contractor works for the firm on a de facto permanent basis”.  

In Italy, unemployment is at 11%. Among youths, it reaches a stunning 39%. Entrepreneurs should know the reality they work in, so it gets silly when they pretend to ignore that the gig-economy is a harbour into which millions will inevitably drift. Some of them are looking for “that extra cash”, yes, but not nearly enough to make a giant like Uber properly function. The others need to eat and pay rent.

Acknowledging the truth might be a good start.

Those who work for the likes of Deliveroo and Foodora have to wear mandatory colours and logos, even when they’re idling between one delivery and the other. This means that while they’re not paid they keep making gratuitous publicity for the company. They cover more ground than traditional pizza delivery boys, have time constraints, are paid by the delivery, may work 7 days a week, and use their own bicycles and their own smartphones. They should be protected by their nation’s minimum living wage policy, but if you work for an algorithm and are not recognized as an employee, it could get difficult to have your rights taken into consideration.

Until today only London has stepped in and might become the first city in Europe to enforce minimum living wage for gig economy workers. Edward Troup, Permanent Secretary of UK’s HMRC, says: “Individuals cannot be opted out of employment rights and protections, simply by calling them ‘self-employed’. We are committed to tackling false self-employment.” The House of Commons right now is investigating the courier Hermes, whose “self-employed” drivers might be paid under the National Living Wage.  

Every kind of work should be retributed with a dignified salary. It’s wrong to enforce progress on the skin of those who cannot afford to say no to low incomes. New laws will eventually regulate this ecosystem, which still develops faster than bureaucracy. Before we get there, though, we should remember that every revolution built upon a lie it’s bound to end in a big bubble burst.

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