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Economy

Freelance Or Bust? Stitching A Safety Net For Workers 2.0

The boom of platforms for freelance workers, on the Uber model, presages a world where the wage system will no longer dominate. This will require new social protections for the good of workers — and the economy.

Where do I sign?
Where do I sign?
Benoît Georges

PARIS — Since the end of September, any U.S. resident over the age of 21 who has a car and an Android smartphone can offer occasional delivery services for Amazon. With its news service, called Flex, the e-commerce giant steps further into on-demand work for private individuals — a sector in which it was a pioneer 10 years ago with Amazon Mechanical Turk. In exchange for payment, Turk allowed Internet users to perform tasks such as analyzing images, moderating forums and conducting surveys.

This new way of working, which has been popularized by Uber, now goes far beyond passenger or package transport. In the U.S., independent workers have access to platforms for pet-sitting (DogVacay), on-demand moving (Lugg) and all sorts of other odd jobs (TaskRabbit). In France, they can offer their services on Youpijob or Hassle, but the most used marketplace for these tasks is no other than Leboncoin, whose services section has more than 100,000 offers from private individuals.

The trend isn't limited to low-skilled jobs: In the U.S., the platform Upwork claims 2.5 million freelance service providers working intellectual jobs (developers, lawyers, graphic designers, assistants etc.). According to a study commissioned by the Freelancers Union, 53 million people are independent, or one in three working Americans. With rising online platforms, as many as half of American workers will be self-employed by 2020.

Some analysts have deduced from all this that the wage system as we know it has reached its limits. "In France, we think we are facing an employment crisis, which is true when you look at unemployment figures," ays Denis Pennel, who heads the International Confederation of Private Employment Servies (Ciett). "But this crisis hides a work revolution and a structural change about the way we work."

He recently wrote a report advocating the creation of an "active status." "I'm convinced we have reached the peak of the wage system in our developed economies," he says. It's a perspective that until recently didn't really interest the political world, which is too occupied with debating the 35-hour work week or public service status.

The age of the independents

David Ménascé, author of a study called "The Bon Coin France," makes the same conclusion. "The wage system is being eaten away downwards because people don't find jobs, or only jobs that are too precarious," he says. "It's also being eaten away upwards, because the intellectual professions aspire to something different than what the previous generations aspired to." Confronted with a job market that is much more closed than their elders, but also wanting more freedom and autonomy, the under 35-year-olds now constitute the majority of the "worker 2.0" generation.

The living conditions of a self-employed strategy consultant, a freelance designer, an Uber driver or an on-demand "service provider" are admittedly different. But they all face the same problem: Employment law, both in France and in the U.S., is not yet adapted to their situations. Whether it's social protection or housing loans, the dominant model is largely based on the wage system — to the detriment of those who are excluded from it. Of course, tools such as self-employment status have been developed, but "the labor code covers at 99% only waged work, with the exception of certain articles regarding inherently independent jobs (freelance journalists, entertainment professionals, domestic workers)," Pennel notes. "It has become both too complex and unable to defend these new forms of employment."

Subordination and dependence

Hence the necessity of creating a new status for the post-wage worker, one that would take into account their particular realities, particularly regarding subordination and dependence. "These new forms of employment are characterized by both legal independence and economic dependence," explains David Ménascé, who describes independents working mainly for platforms such as Uber as "micro-franchised."

In an interview with Les Echos, French politician Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet proposed as a solution the "creation of an "economic dependence limit," after which a business that has regular contracts with an independent must grant him rights, like paid vacation or compensatory time."

Pennel says the subordination question is no longer relevant. "We need to look at who's bearing the economic risk," he says. "This risk is a lot heavier on the shoulders of individuals, which is why we will need to work on offering them safety nets."

For this, he suggests the creation of a unique social account that would integrate all the social insurances (unemployment, training courses, pension) — a wider version of the future personal activity account, whose implementation the French government announced will begin Jan. 1, 2017. He also goes so far as to resurrect the idea of an ultimate safety net, envisioned as early as the 1960s by U.S. economist Milton Friedman: a basic income, paid unconditionally to any individual, "in the form a tax credit allowing each person to provide their basic needs."

In other words, we can now maybe imagine a world where everyone would work freely and independently, without risking losing everything if a contract ends.

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