It’s been almost two months now since 34-year-old Pablo Avendano was struck and killed on his bicycle in Philadelphia while working for the San Francisco–based food-delivery startup Caviar. Within a few short days of his death, a banner appeared near the scene at 10th and Spring Garden reading simply, “The Gig Economy Killed Pablo.” This wasn’t just hyperbole, and the questions raised by his death—and the gig economy as a whole—remain unanswered today. Pablo—whom I will call by his first name—was a close comrade and friend with whom I had organized for years, and until his death, he was my roommate as well. Our daily conversations offered a glimpse into the reality of today’s “gig economy,” in which intensifying exploitation masquerades as choice.
This is nothing new. From the beginning, capitalism has been based on a false choice: unlike feudalism, workers under capitalism are formally free to sell their labor on a free market. It’s not hard to spot the lie: If you don’t choose to do so, you starve. The choice is a false one, because workers have little control over the conditions of their labor and which choices are on the table to begin with. So the labor movement has historically fought to transform those conditions, winning important concessions around wages, health and other benefits, injury compensation, and union rights.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, however, flexibility and choice became code words for a shock doctrine that took advantage of the crisis to override or bypass workers’ protections entirely through a massive vanishing trick: With a flash and a puff of smoke, workers were no longer workers, but instead independent contractors. This legal loophole meant that they qualified for no benefits or protections and were simply opting into a “sharing economy” in which everything is shared—risk, social cost, medical expenses—everything but the profits, of course. The “gig economy” was born.
False choice is dispersed throughout this gig economy and taken to new extremes, epitomized by an absurd headline declaring that “Young people have embraced the gig economy.” In the wreckage of the post-2008 economy, millennials and others—student loans dwarfing their job prospects—were left scrambling for whatever work they could find and couldn’t afford to be picky. So now we “choose” whether or not to sell our labor, but we also “choose” when to do so, which gigs to accept and which to refuse, whether to work from home or not. But we still don’t get to choose the conditions under which those choices are made. Instead, those conditions are naturalized. It’s just the way things are: Your home is a hotel, your car is a taxi, and your bike is not for recreation anymore.
Founded in 2012, Caviar, like many of the food-delivery services that have invaded cities, is emblematic of a gig-economy business model that distributes social costs and risk onto the broader community. As one article about Pablo’s death puts it: “Caviar workers injured on the job often fall back on aging parents or adult siblings for housing when they can’t ride. Most Caviar workers depend on the goodwill of bicycle mechanic friends or sympathetic bike shops to keep them rolling (and thus eating) as their bicycles wear out from near constant use. This is all labor that maintains their workers, for which Caviar’s business model shirks responsibility.”
To be sure, working as a bike courier meant enduring dangerous and even abusive conditions long before the rise of the gig economy. For decades, the industry took advantage of a “vulnerable” workforce often made up of those with “murky immigration statuses, a willingness to work for tips alone and a fear of blowing the whistle on mistreatment,” as The New York Times reported in 2012. But with the rise of the gig economy—sometimes (and more accurately) described as the “on demand” economy—these abuses have spread and accelerated, with Caviar and other companies profiting off the vulnerability of independent contractors much the way independent restaurants have long profited off the vulnerability of unprotected and undocumented communities.
For more than two years as a Caviar courier, Pablo confronted this reality—a reality of vulnerability and false choice—on a daily basis. He had to wake up and decide whether to risk life and limb for a job with low pay and no benefits—making about $100 on a good shift, but as little as $30 on a bad one. But the alternative was not being able to pay the rent.
Conditions at Caviar weren’t always so challenging, couriers have said. One anonymous courier familiar with Caviar logistics in multiple cities explained how, as a young start-up, the company had made all its deliveries for a $9.99 flat fee, but by 2014—when Caviar was acquired by Square—it began operating on an algorithm-based model that claims to instantaneously match the supply of couriers with the demand for deliveries. As with Uber, Lyft, and other algorithm-based companies, Caviar enjoys an “immense data advantage” over customers and workers alike, with the algorithm functioning as a sort of proprietary black box offering delivery payments that couriers can only accept or reject, but not question. (That lack of transparency recently landed the company in the crosshairs of a class-action lawsuit in which customers charged that Caviar had collected gratuities from them but not passed the tips on to couriers. Caviar settled for $2.2 million but denied the allegations.)
The result has been a sort of race-to-the-bottom in which couriers—Pablo included—told me that they had to work longer hours and ride faster to make more deliveries: In other words, they had to take more risks. Some have even argued that Caviar incentivizes dangerous work in inclement conditions. When there was bad weather, like the day Pablo was killed, couriers might receive a peppy, emoji-adorned message. (“When it rains the orders POUR on Caviar!… Go online ASAP to cash in!” read a text received by another courier the day before Pablo died.) For couriers already struggling to make a living, it only made sense to work when conditions were bad, making an already dangerous job downright treacherous.
When contacted for comment, Caviar disagreed with these claims. In an email to The Nation, a spokesperson wrote that “Couriers choose to deliver with Caviar because it offers them flexibility and choice over where, how, and when to earn money. Caviar pays couriers very competitively because they have many options to choose from,” adding that average earnings for Caviar couriers is over $20 “per engaged hour.” While the spokesperson did not respond directly to the suggestion that Caviar incentivizes working in dangerous conditions, they insisted that, “During busy times—like dinner, Sunday nights, or events like the Super Bowl—Caviar offers couriers the opportunity to earn more money because we know their services are in high demand and they have many platforms to choose from.”
As it got harder and harder to eke out a living with Caviar, Pablo knew he needed to find an alternative, and for the past year he had been pursuing certification as a Spanish-language interpreter. But in the meantime, he had to work more and longer hours—often split shifts totaling more than six hours—assuming more risk in the process and often returning home to study for his interpreting exam only to be too exhausted to do so. In the gig economy, the trade-off between working more gigs and finding a way to escape is too much for many to navigate. But failing to do so proved fatal for Pablo.
In this equation, the consumer is no angel. As the name suggests, Caviar was designed to cater to an upscale clientele by offering food delivery from lavish restaurants, but it soon came to embody an absurd demand for convenience. I vividly remember Pablo’s astonishment that someone had ordered delivery on a quart of ice cream from all the way across town: They were willing to pay almost $10 for delivery on $6 worth of ice cream. And when the weather is bad, wealthier customers are more than willing to pay a premium for personal convenience even if it means putting others at risk.
There is an alternative. For the past year, Pablo also worked part-time for Sparrow Cycling Couriers, a worker-owned collective that, like Caviar, was founded in 2012. But unlike Caviar, Sparrow couriers keep 60 percent of their pay, with 40 percent covering rent and other collective expenses. If Sparrow were to turn a profit—they still haven’t—that profit would be shared as well, and all decisions are made collectively and by consensus. Sparrow founder Randon Martin told me that his goal was to “create an alternative, collectivist business model” that he hopes might provide “a positive model for non-hierarchical, worker-owned business.”
These two models are not complementary: When Caviar came to Philadelphia in late 2014, they undercut Sparrow (and other food-delivery services operating in the city) by temporarily offering free delivery. It isn’t hard to imagine how a startup sitting on more than $13 million in seed investments—not to mention an estimated $90 million sale to Square—could temporarily operate at a loss and effectively undermine smaller competitors, especially those that aspire to pay a living wage or more.
Martin recounts how one local restaurant—the progressively branded HipCityVeg—dropped Sparrow without warning in 2014. After more than two years with Sparrow, HipCityVeg—whose philosophy foregrounds a “compassion for all living things”—“dropped us just like that,” Martin recalls. That same day, Caviar launched its service in the city with HipCityVeg among its first slate of clients. Today, the company—which operates in more than a dozen cities—offers deliveries from hundreds of restaurants in Philadelphia, more than 40 of which are exclusive to Caviar. (HipCityVeg could not be reached for comment.)
While Caviar doesn’t pay by the hour, or even technically employ its army of independent contractors, it nevertheless insists that its couriers work for it and only for it in the course of making a delivery. According to Martin, many of the original Sparrow crew tried to avoid working for a company they saw as not only a competitor but a corporate adversary as well. But many newer couriers like Pablo—who was delivering for Caviar before Sparrow—again confronted a false choice, this time between their principles and paying the rent.
For now, Pablo’s family, friends, and comrades have issued a series of demands: that Caviar reimburse all travel and funeral expenses to Pablo’s family; that it “reclassify all its riders as W-2 employees, not independent contractors”; that it pay a living wage of $20 an hour plus benefits, hazard pay, and reimbursement for bike repair and maintenance; and crucially, that Caviar not obstruct the process of unionizing its couriers, as Pablo himself had hoped to do in the future. More than anything, Pablo wanted to help build a world where people don’t have to make such false and dangerous choices to survive.
Within an hour of these demands being released, Caviar sent a message to its own couriers lamenting Pablo’s death and noting that his colleagues at Sparrow “have opened their doors to friends, or anyone seeking comfort.” According to the Sparrow collective, Caviar did not reach out directly before sending this message. (Caviar told The Nation that the company “chose not to publicize any of our efforts to support Pablo’s friends and family.”) Like risk and liability, Caviar seems to want to outsource even the emotional labor of mourning to its independent contractors and society as whole.