Flexibility is the future of employment. Collaborative consumption will save the world. The internet is a democratic revolution. These are some of the enthusiastic statements that have marked our economy over the last ten years, an economy scarred by the global economic crisis and the expansion and multiplication of the web as a platform for supply and demand. Since What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption by R. Botsman and R. Rogers was published in 2010, we have witnessed a proliferation in attempts to make a new dogma out of employment collaboration and flexibility: if some examples show the possibility to create value in a less rigid and more sustainable form from multiple points of view (like Blablacar), in most experiences the impact with reality has been traumatic and controversial from an ethical standpoint. A few years after the introduction of these new forms of business, we can observe the impact of such models on the creation of new jobs, as well as the development of services.
In theory, the essence of a sharing economy means that it should not result in an actual impact on employment figures. Especially if we consider that the founding principle is to exploit non used or underused objects and energies, thus making them available practically for free. These activities could generate incomes that surpass costs, since we are talking about cost sharing. It is therefore impossible to define the number of people employed in a “pure” sharing economy.
Nevertheless, some (often not regulated) parallel businesses were born under the sharing umbrella, creating “piecework” intermediated by an IT system that evaluates performances and dictates prices. Ridesharing, Airbnb, and online service centres are all experiences that fall under the gig economy category – small jobs intermediated by software, occasionally created to integrate one’s income, with no contract, and performed on request only when required or possible – and are easier to measure in order to reveal the dark side of this new job market.
Antonio Aloisi, Max Weber Postdoctoral Fellow at the European University Institute of Florence and European Social Law Teaching Fellow at the Bocconi University in Milan, has analysed the gig economy at length. “Those that are considered the ‘dark sides’ of the economy are caused by a breaking of the initial promise, i.e. the sharing and collaborative consumption paradigm, the reintroduction of underused energies into the system. The naïve approach of the sharing economy left itself open to typically capitalistic modalities that took hold due to the fact that they adopt the dictates of a market economy. Furthermore, it initiated within a system that tightens the forms of command and control, in the face of a liquefaction of responsibilities that typically fall on the employer. “
What are the numbers? Aloisi continues by saying that: “Numerous research centres are attempting to measure the number of people employed in this sector, but they are facing great difficulties. It is in fact very complicated to gather and analyse data, since it becomes difficult to classify and qualify a certain type of performance in order to formulate questions. Furthermore, the employee that is answering the question often doesn’t even know his occupation could be included in the gig economy, because he could be continuing the same job he had in the past through a digital infrastructure, without it actually influencing how he perceives his occupation.”
Something that everyone agrees on is that the gig economy has consolidated itself on a global level. Two significant reports have been published recently in Italy. The first one is of the Rodolfo Debenedetti Foundation, according to which between 700,000 and one million people are employed in the gig economy in Italy. According to the annual INPS (the Italian Social Security Authority) Report, published in July of 2018, autonomous workers represent 22% of the workforce, compared to the EU’s quota of 14.5% (even though they cannot be completely included in the gig economy). The INPS admits that “it is extremely difficult to identify the workers who belong in this category,” since the way in which platforms are used may be more or less occasional, connected to one or more platforms, bound by bland contracts and, in any case, very different from the ones of traditional employment. What emerges is the appearance in all the economic sectors of the paradigmatic characteristics of the gig economy, i.e. control, task fragmentation, and payment by project or on delivery.
According to research on the workforce in the United Kingdom, 2.7% of employment contracts were estimated to be zero hour contracts. The analysis carried out by Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger in the United States shows that the amount of autonomous workers that are part of this alternative type of employment increased by 50% between 2005 and 2015. Other European data emerges from the study carried out at Hertfordshire University: “Working in the European Gig Economy.” The number of people that declared to have worked through a platform are approximately 19% in Austria, 18% in Switzerland, 12% in Germany, 10% in Sweden, and 9% in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Ursula Huws, Professor of Labour and Globalisation and curator of the report, confirmed the difficulty in distinguishing jobs pertaining to the gig economy and other autonomous occupations, whilst still underlining a “substantial ‘platformisation’ of the European employment market, where jobs on online platforms are part of a wide array of casual and on call jobs that spread through various sectors and tasks in a complex mix of old and new.”
Those who are carrying out these studies highlight a need for regulation in order to better identify and protect these evanescent employment types. Attempts to regulate have been made, but they may turn out to be unsuccessful due to the nature of the phenomenon, which continues to evolve or react rapidly to the regulation attempts carried out by regulators. The debate initially centred around the issue of competition, both in Europe and the US, such as with the Uber case which gave life to clashes with the traditional taxi co-operatives. In this particular case, Europe attempted to regulate the booming American company with a ruling by the European Court of Justice in December of this year, establishing that: “Uber provides a transport service, and does not involve the supply and demand of a service.” This is one of the cases of “betrayed promise of the sharing economy” illustrated by Aloisi, where the competitive advantage simply comes from not respecting the rules that are followed by other competitors operating in the same sector.
France attempted to regulate the gig economy with legislation in 2016 (Contrat de travail à durée déterminée), which postulates a sort of social responsibility for platforms, that must ensure certain rights – like accident insurance, training programmes and other trade union rights. Nevertheless, the question relative to the type of employment remains: is it autonomous or subordinate? The law is unclear on this issue, but it establishes that whoever works through these platforms has the right to take advantage of the aforementioned rights. The United Kingdom and the Netherlands have activated study commissions, and Australia is working towards this goal through unions; however, there are no other clear examples of regulation. The European commission is alarmed by the possible social consequences and therefore established a working table on these issues, shifting the perspective from the digital market to strengthening the European pillar of social rights. Two statements have been published on this matter: one on digital platforms in general, the other on the “collaborative economy” – an expression used in Brussels – where various points are clarified on employment, competition and transactions; even though these are not binding instruments, they still highlight the European legislator’s efforts. Therefore, a parliament resolution was produced and the focus over the last few months has shifted towards “non standard” workers, in an attempt to update directives on working conditions (“predictable and transparent types of employment”), whilst also investing on broadening social safety nets, especially with regards to welfare.
Which sectors are most involved in the gig economy? Aloisi explains that “the collaborative economy is the sum of the real world and the digital world. We are still talking about real jobs, since there are physical persons providing the service even if the exchange takes place online.” The main sectors are those regarding personal services, from gardening to baby sitting, from packaging delivery to maintenance, from repairs to care for the elderly.
“Very traditional forms of employment that simply began to adopt the digital channel as a vehicle to promote and exchange services.” The other world is the one of online services, often defined as cognitive jobs – even though they have little to do with cognition, since they are mostly routine procedures that may appear to be carried out by software and are actually performed by people. A study carried out by CEPS on the design platform for architects called CoContest (now GoPillar), shows that platforms used by high-end creative professionals to provide services on a global scale can still guarantee positive results, for example by expanding the scope of professionals.
“Cognitariat” workers (in reference to those that perform an intellectual job a whose main capital is knowledge) face a much bleaker fate: those employed by the digital economy are being exploited, with non-existent contractual conditions, often based on performance. Many of these activities are delocalised in Sub-Saharan Africa or Asia, where the so called “click farms” are located: actual factories that often provide terrible working conditions, where a large amount of accounts are managed by an army of virtual workers, managed in such a controlling way that Kristy Milland defined them as “digital slaves” in her article “Slave to the keyboard: the broken promises of the gig economy.”
Eight years ago, the winds of innovation brought by the digital employment market promised to combat the economic crisis through a collaborative and flexible resolution, but today the reference text is the one written by Jeremias Prassl, Deputy Director of the Institute of European and Comparative Law: Humans as a service. If employers can select workers for very short periods of time and with little responsibility through online platforms, as if they were products-as-a-service, then those employed in the gig economy lack the social and economic safeguards they desperately need. This transforms workers into the worst end-of-life product on the planet: human waste.
K. Milland, “Slave to the keyboard”, www.researchgate.net/publication/317202178/download