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Digital Economy Workers Fight For Their Rights And Fair Treatment

The digital economy includes a variety of industries, ranging from e-commerce and auction sites (e.g., eBay, Etsy) to ride-sharing services (e.g., Uber, Lyft), and more. A lot of people love them, and participate as consumers, sellers, or workers. A recent article New York Times article about workers in the digital economy caught my attention:

"... many workers have felt squeezed and at times dehumanized by a business structure that promises independence but often leaves them at the mercy of increasingly powerful companies. Some are beginning to band together in search of leverage and to secure what they see as fairer treatment from the platforms that make the work possible."

Uber logo The article described a growing awareness among workers:

“We started realizing we’re not contractors, we’re more like employees,” said Berhane Alemayoh, one of the UberBlack drivers in Dallas. “They tell us what kind of car to drive. They kick you out if a customer accused you of not having a clean car. They started to tighten the rope. Gradually, we can’t breathe any more.”

In June, the California Labor Commission ruled that Uber drivers are employees, not contractors. In December, the Seattle City Council approved an ordinance allowing ride-sharing drivers to unionize. That was a first.

Uber drivers in New York City have protested. Clearly, rates for drivers must exceed the costs of auto payments, insurance, government fees, maintenance, repairs, gasoline, and commissions due the ride-sharing company. Otherwise, it's pointless. Learn more about UberBlack and how it differs from Uber X. Learn about UberSelect, UberBlack, and UberXL in Los Angeles.

Postmates logo The article cited more examples, including compensation and workers' safety issues:

"A group of couriers who find work on the platform Postmates is waging a campaign to create an “I’m done after this delivery” button because they worry that turning down jobs will affect how many future assignments they receive... The National Domestic Workers Alliance, which organizes nannies and housekeepers, recently produced what it calls the Good Work Code, which it has urged gig economy companies to adopt. “They would be dispatched to a home that didn’t feel safe, but would be hesitant to exit themselves from that situation because it might affect their ratings...”

National Domestic Workers Alliance logo Historically, independent contractors negotiate rates with businesses. Employees don't. Independent contractors, often called freelance workers, typically set their own hours and work approach. Employees don't. Employers typically tell employees when to work, where to work, how to do the job, specify the materials they must use, and dictate the pay rate. Perhaps, most importantly:

"... to the extent that the Dallas drivers have been successful, one crucial advantage is that they were able to organize in person rather than depend exclusively on the Internet and social media. That also helps explain the success of the campaign in Seattle, where Uber had previously reversed a rate cut after facing pressure from drivers..."

Experts have observed:

" "There’s a sense of workplace identity and group consciousness despite the insistence from many of these platforms that they are simply open ‘marketplaces’ or ‘malls’ for digital labor," said Mary L. Gray, a researcher at Microsoft Research and professor in the Media School at Indiana University who studies gig economy workers."

Who are these freelance workers? Forbes Magazine explained:

"... 53 million Americans, or 34% of the population, qualify as freelancers. Not all of them make their living exclusively as freelancers. The number includes 14.3 million workers who would be called “moonlighters”—people who have a primary, traditional job that pays benefits, and supplement their income with extra work, like a full-time tech support worker... Of the remaining 38.7 million, 21.1 million are what the survey calls “traditional” freelancers who do temporary work on a project basis. Some 9.3 million have multiple sources of income which can include a part-time job like working 20 hours a week at a dentist’s office. Another 5.5 million are temporary staffers who work for a single employer but not on a permanent basis that comes with benefits, like a business strategy consultant working for a startup on a contract that can include months of employment. Then there are the 2.8 million business owners who have between one and five employees..."

The issues aren't going away, as companies continue to outsource work globally, not only in the United States. So, you probably know people who work as freelancers. I know many in graphic design, website and mobile app development, and copy writing. Maybe you're a freelancer. I am.

Like any other business, companies in the digital economy merit watching by both freelancers and by customers. Nobody wants to support a business that mistreats its workers.

The examples cited in the newspaper highlight the fact that there's strength in numbers. Companies organize into trade associations, or industry trade groups, to promote their interests and influence government policies through federal, state, and local politicians. Workers should have the same freedoms to organize, if they choose. Both are natural (and necessary) components of a free-market capitalist system.

Don't like organizing? You don't have to join any group. However, when bad things happen in the workplace and you're unable to solve it alone, you may regret having rejected the support of a group. What are your opinions?

Comments

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Ken Cooper

Nice post, George, on a subject we've discussed before. I know there are associations of freelance writers like me, but I don't think any of them have much leverage with publications. There's such a labor surplus in what I do (pros downsized out of jobs like me, amateurs with little or no training) that it's hard to see how one of the freelance writers groups could gain leverage. Too bad. I'm a member of a couple groups on LinkedIn that do share valuable information about rates, payment practices and the like.

Chanson de Roland

Workers and firms in so many fields find that their bargaining leverage for their goods and services and, thus, their economic prosperity and even security is greatly impaired in today's economy. And the reason for that is the Internet. While enabling new types of work and industries and providing for many other benefits to society, the Internet has been far from an unalloyed blessing. Unfortunately for many workers and firms, the Internet has either made them obsolete or, what is perhaps worse, let them survive but has commoditized their goods and services; impaired, if not destroyed, their intellectual property rights in their work, or placed them in savage competition with very low wage domestic and foreign workers; or all of the foregoing. And the Internet has done these things at such rapid pace that neither individual workers, firms, or society can make an orderly adjustment in its laws, its institutions, its social safety net, or culture to what the Internet has wrought and is continuing to work upon us. The Internet has been particularly hard on freelancers, though it has at least initially benefited some others.

The urgent questions before us are: Will the unregulated, unabated Internet be net positive for society? And what can we do to make certain that the Internet provides economic equity, security, and prosperity for workers and firms and is a net benefit for society and the vast majority of its members? We don't have answers to these questions, yet the Internet and its modalities not only proceeds unabated; it is accelerating in its capabilities and effects.

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