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.”