“What does a really healthy hourly labor market look like in the twenty-first century?”
“This gig-work market wouldn’t be run for profit but to facilitate local economic exchange.”
Over the last year, there has been a lot of discussion happening over where the gig economy is going:
The ‘gig’ economy is now everywhere:
Pre-pandemic, 35% of adults were reliant on uncertain employment. In 2021 that could be 50%…
Employment is fragmenting. Odd hours of work through platforms like Uber are just the tip of an iceberg. Tens of millions of corporate W2 employees don’t know next week’s hours or pay. Ad-hoc work in the informal economy is bigger than “gigging” through platforms.
A year ago, it was of enough interest for Exeter City Council to commission a report:
Last month in the UK, a Supreme Court ruling declaring that Uber drivers are workers who are entitled to benefits “sent shockwaves across the gig economy”:
And in California, similar moves have happened:
Gig workers are independent contractors, online platform workers, contract firm workers, on-call workers and temporary workers. Gig workers enter into formal agreements with on-demand companies to provide services to the company’s clients.
In many countries, the legal classification of gig workers is still being debated, with companies classifying their workers as “independent contractors” while labor advocates have been lobbying for them to be classified as “employees”, which would legally require companies to provide the full suite of employee benefits (time-and-a-half for overtime, paid sick time, employer-provided health care, bargaining rights, and unemployment insurance – among others).
In 2020, the voters in California approved Proposition 22, which created a third worker classification whereby gig-worker-drivers are classified as contractors, but get some benefits (minimum wage, mileage reimbursement, and others.)
This is where a piece in the latest New Yorker starts:
Should Gig Work Be Government-Run?
The labor reformer Wingham Rowan wants to reimagine labor markets for the digital age.
Last October, the East Bay Economic Development Alliance, a nonprofit in Oakland, California, hosted a virtual event called “Beyond the Gig Economy.” The Presidential election was a week away, and a new law on the ballot, Proposition 22, promised to affect the fate of many of California’s gig workers. In 2019, the state’s legislature had reclassified some part-time and gig workers—including drivers for services such as Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash—as employees, rather than contractors. This would entitle them to paid sick leave, a guaranteed minimum wage, and other benefits. But Prop. 22, which had been crafted by the gig-work platforms, made app-based companies exempt from the new rule. Work part time as a nurse in a doctor’s office, and you’d get benefits; drive part time for Uber, and you wouldn’t.
Throughout the fall, Prop. 22 had been a subject of intense debate. The gig-work companies argued that, if it didn’t pass, prices would go up; they threatened to take away workers’ flexible schedules. Gig workers, labor unions, and Democratic politicians, meanwhile, contended that the platforms were impoverishing their workers, dismissed as a false choice the trade-off between flexibility and benefits, and cautioned against setting a legal precedent for other states. It was the costliest ballot measure fight in California history, with the gig platforms pouring more than two hundred million dollars into the campaign for Prop. 22—outspending their opponents ten to one. The mood in California’s progressive circles was grim.
The invited speaker at that morning’s event, a British policy entrepreneur named Wingham Rowan, maintained that the real battle lay elsewhere. Sixty years old, with dark hair, a lean face, and glasses, Rowan has a youthful affect and a quick wit honed through a career as a TV host. He called Proposition 22 a “tempest in a teapot”—“a sideshow”—and told the audience not to think of it as “some sort of endgame in the fight for precarious workers’ rights.” During a data-dense presentation, he outlined eight major challenges faced by gig workers: misclassification, lack of benefits, no progression, high worker overhead, misleading promises from employers, sudden market closures, pay cuts, and having an algorithm as a boss. He said that defeating Prop. 22 would solve only the first issue, part of the second, and maybe the fourth, then offered an ambitious plan that he thought could address all eight.
Rowan’s idea is to create markets for gig work that are run as public utilities, by non-profits and governments. Instead of getting work through a private company, such as Uber, a job seeker in Rowan’s system could use a Web site or app overseen by the government and regulated to promote the public interest. Many kinds of work could be offered through such public platforms, not just driving. The platforms could be run on open-source software, such as the system that has been built by his nonprofit, Modern Markets for All; private companies might bid to operate them, following the concession model currently used in national lotteries and parks. Such an approach wouldn’t use regulation to hobble the gig-work Goliaths. It would compete with them, combining many gig-work options into a broader labor market designed to benefit workers and the public.
“What does a really healthy hourly labor market look like in the twenty-first century?” Rowan asked the Zoom’s participants, from his book-lined office in London. As he enumerated such a market’s optimal features—the power to draw economic activity out of the informal economy; minimal transaction fees; responsiveness not just to labor laws but to workers’ ultimate goals, which might include education and training—it became clear what he was not imagining. “Everything I just described does not add up to a sizzling Silicon Valley investment opportunity,” he said. “It’s a public utility.”
Rowan offered an example of the sort of transaction that might be conducted on publicly run gig-work software. Suppose that you were Oakland’s city government, and you were in search of window-washers. “If you wanted to know how many people did window-cleaning bookings on a Tuesday morning, within three miles of Oakland City Hall, where the worker was under twenty-six and had previously been in the services, it will tell you,” he said, of the software. “If you want to compare their earnings to classroom assistants, working part time, on the eastern side of town, it will do that for you. You gain huge pools of actionable data that can be used to plot interventions, find the strugglers who need help.” Citizens could use the same software to book child care, yard work, tutoring, or bike repair, and to buy or rent appliances, vehicles, and living space. As on Uber, buyers and sellers would accumulate reliability records; unlike on Uber, features such as health-care contributions and retirement benefits could be built in. This gig-work market wouldn’t be run for profit but to facilitate local economic exchange. “You can have it for the East Bay tomorrow,” Rowan said, of the core software.
Here is more from the Guardian in 2015:
And here he is doing a TED Talk:
Finally, here’s his website: