Decent Work in the Gig Economy?

  • Laura Monti
  • Conversations, Future scenarios, Industry 4.0, Skills
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The future of work is approaching more quickly than most people might have guessed. The so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0, is upon us, altering the way we live and work.It is certain that this shift is taking place, but the outcome is still not yet determined.

The narrative is based on the assumption that the technological dividends from Industry 4.0 will increase prosperity and create new job opportunities.

The idea of a tech-powered future has been carefully crafted by industry to promote a technological deterministic future of work, and it is already influencing regulations and policies.

As a result of this discourse, governments including the G7 countries andG20 countries are promising new investments to re-skill workers toward the STEM fields, encouraging workplace flexibility and promoting entrepreneurship.

To encourage this discourse, the World Bank’s upcoming World Development Report 2019 on the changing nature of work (the final report will be released in October 2018) recommends labour institutions and employment regulations to get out of the way of progress.

The Bretton Woods Institution questioned the perception that technology increases inequality claiming that the evidence does not support this claim (Parag. 12). It further argues that “When rules on firms’ hiring and dismissal decisions are too onerous, they can also create structural rigidities that carry higher social costs in the face of disruption” because protecting jobs is bad for productivity, technology adoption, and the need for more flexible HR practices (Parag. 358). It also calls for the lowering of wages to promote job creation (Parag. 497).  

If the WDR 2019 and the dominant discourse on innovation remains in their current form, the question of “flexibility for whom – workers or industry” will no doubt continue to feature in the debates on the future of work and jobs.

The Gig Economy    

The gig economy is often viewed as a glimpse into the future of work, where gig workers are re-characterized as micro-entrepreneurs and independent contractors.

Although its size is small, the gig economy grew by 26% in 2017. India accounts for about a quarter of global gig workers, Bangladesh at 16%, the United States at 12%, and 8% for Pakistan according to the Oxford Internet Institute.

Online Labour Index top 20 worker home countries, 1-6 July 2017  | Oxford Internet Institute

The innovations in digital work platforms like Uber, Fiverr, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, and UpWork, they have allowed workers to access new income opportunities that afford greater autonomy and flexibility. Consumers are also provided with more choices and competition. However, these changes have come at a cost.

Jeremias Prassl, a Professor of Law at Oxford University, challenges the technological utopian narrative in his new book Humans as a Service: The Promise and Perils of Work in the Gig Economy. Instead of greater autonomy and flexibility, he argues that under the gig economy, workers are becoming ever more commodified and controlled by these Platform’s terms and conditions and compliance or rating systems.

Technological advancements today are intentionally designed to circumvent regulations and to keep employment laws at bay. He claims that the entrepreneurship promoted in the gig economy is a part of a broader trend of fissurization from outsourcing, temp agencies to zero-hour contracts, just that they are disguised behind the veil of technological innovation.

“Work, in short, is legally protected; entrepreneurship is not” declared Prassel. Innovation is disrupting worker’s rights and making labour more hidden. If the current trend persists, humans will be reduced to a service.  This has led others like Mark Graham and Joe Shaw to call for a fairer gig economy and the Fair Work Foundation certification. 

Without strengthening regulations and institutions, platforms are making workers more disposable by shifting the fundamental rights of workers and the responsibilities for the employees away from the employer and widening existing inequalities – a potentially dystopian scenario of our technological deterministic future of work.  

Feature Image by Greydient.