On-demand. It makes everything sound so easy. For the consumer, app-based enterprises offer every service at the tap of a screen, from takeout to tutoring, babysitting to bookkeeping. For the worker, the on-demand labor market demands much and gives little, rife with unstable wages, erratic schedules, and intensifying precarity.
Now gig workers are realizing putting a crappy job on a platform isn’t particularly innovative. It merely replicates and intensifies an age-old reality of worker exploitation, casualized labor, and undermining of worker protections.
What is new, however, is perhaps something labor advocates haven’t anticipated: A few tech-driven on-demand companies are rediscovering the old rules of labor to inject fairness into the “new economy.” So what can labor learn from the brave new world of gigonomics?
National Employment Law Project (NELP) has flagged case studies of companies that have managed to break with the system by providing instantaneous services via swipe, as well as stability and control for their workforces. The good gigs NELP has outlined share a key feature: Workers are treated as regular employees, classified as “W-2s” rather than independent contractors or “1099ers.”
These tech-oriented companies show that, while “disruption” aids innovation, stability fosters workplace fairness.
Managed by Q, an on-demand office-staffing agency, maintains a full-time permanent workforce, not just anonymous temps. Janitorial and maintenance jobs—a sector generally associated with marginalized low-wage labor—pay upwards of $12.50 an hour, with health and retirement benefits along with stock options. Though the venture remains small and nonunion, it shows how flexible labor is not incompatible with long-term, stable employment and worker equity.
In the ride-sharing sector, some worker-driven app-based business are trying to counter Uber’s notorious model of irregular shifts and volatile earnings. Union Cab in Madison, Wisconsin, for instance, uses an online platform for dispatching drivers but is worker-managed through a cooperative structure.
The Boston-based shuttle service Bridj presents a direct counterpoint to the Uber system by meshing flexible transport with solid labor protection: an app-based “adaptive” travel network with a permanent driver workforce. Drivers get healthcare, regular schedules, and a fleet insured and maintained by the company. Last November the company jumped on the Fight for 15 bandwagon, providing a guaranteed $15 hourly wage to drivers and even challenging other startups to follow suit.