Consumers are convinced. Wall Street is buoyant. Demand around the world for app-based services is booming, with entire nations stuck at home during COVID-19 lockdowns and the prospect of goods and services at their door with just a click. As the so-called "Gig Economy" spreads alongside the pandemic, society has struggled to keep up.
• Online sales in South Korea have grown by 17% this year, and 42% in food deliveries.
• The freelancer platform PeoplePerHour registered a 300% increase of users in March of this year in the UK, 329% jump in Spain, and 513% in Japan.
• Upwork reported a 24% increase in signups over the summer.
Investors and founders of the likes of Doordash and AirBNB are cashing in, with the two companies IPOs hitting record highs and earning Wall Street approval for their respective market dominance. Still, the stock market is not the economy, and white-collar and blue-collar workers alike have been forced to turn to gig-work out of financial necessity — offering little in the way of social benefits or long-term prospects.
"I have to work twice as much to make half of what I was making to survive," said Tyrita Franklin-Corbett, a former retail worker turned Instacart gig-shopper, to Reuters in October.
How it works: Rather than earning a regular wage, these apps pay for each "gig" completed. While it's not uncommon that people turn to freelance work during periods of economic downturns, the health crisis presents a unique scenario in which freelance workers risk being exposed to the virus in order to get paid.
• In the UK, a recent survey by the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) found that 78% of app workers thought their health was at risk while working.
Exploited & Exposed: The pandemic has exacerbated the vulnerabilities of millions of workers already in precarious financial situations and without a safety net. Deliverers are considered "essential," but they don't receive the same protections (both physical and economic) as other essential workers.
• With Uber Eats in France offering 10 euros to customers on three orders during lockdown, workers have accused the tech-giant of "promonavirus," that is, using them as "cannon fodder," to serve meals while everyone else stays at home, Le Monde reports.
• "We have no protection," migrant food delivery rider Diego Franco in Australia recently told the Sydney Morning Herald.
• Already this year, 15 delivery workers in South Korea have died from "kwarosa," literally "to die of overwork." The gig-world is at its tipping point.
At a rally by Uber and Lyft drivers calling for basic employment rights in Los Angeles — Photo: Ringo Chiu/ZUMA Wire
Pushing back & shutting down: In the face of this harsh reality, gig workers have responded with work shutdowns, lawsuits and union organizing.
• In the U.S., thousands of Amazon workers have gone on strike in New York City after reports emerged that several employees had tested positive and still lack safety gear.
• The Independent Workers' Union of Great Britain (IWGB) won a lawsuit which accused the UK government of failing to extend health and safety protections such as PPE to gig workers.
• The Italian food delivery industry, Assodelivery, has threatened to protest in order to give legal status to relationships with workers.
• As a result of the increase in demand during the pandemic, Scottish workers created the Workers Observatory union to discuss difficulties and track data in order to "challenge conditions in self-employed and gig work."
Fixing a fairer future: Ultimately, gig work has thrived until now on its lack of regulation. Yet the pandemic has clearly displayed the need for basic regulations, both for the workers and ultimately for the companies as well.
• La Stampa reports that Italy is attempting to strike a solution, where companies like Uber, Deliveroo, Glovo, JustEat will recognize workers as employees starting in 2021, earning a minimum wage of 10 euros per hour, along with overtime pay equal to 10%, 15% and 20% linked to following night work, holidays and bad weather.
• California recently passed Proposition 22, which seeks to provide contractors with health insurance and retirement benefits. The ballot initiative was funded by $200 million from Uber and its competitor Lyft, who presented it as a way to add some protections for its drivers while leaving them flexibility in when and how they work. Still the measure's main point was to specifically exclude gig workers from basic health and retirement benefits of a new law. Californians overwhelmingly supported the proposition, passing it 58 to 42 %.
• France is offering € 1,500 to self-employed entrepreneurs who have experienced a drop in turnover of at least 70% as a result of COVID-19. But some gig workers simply cannot afford to face this drop to begin with. For them, it's even more crucial to keep working, even if it means extra hours and health risks.
The real takeaway? Critics have argued that these efforts are mainly face-saving measures that protect the platforms in the long run, and do little to address exploitation. In Europe, labor experts say that reforms that have long been driven by the rights of permanent employees must now focus on the broader status of "workers." Others are pushing for the implementation of a universal basic income (UBI) to address the entire economic system. The pandemic has offered further proof that the Gig Economy is not going away. But it has also shown that it is built on a system of inequalities that, IPOs aside, are not sustainable in the long run.