Same-old brand-new economy

When Walmart announced last week that it would lay off thousands of employees across the country with the closure of nearly 300 stores, Uber saw an opportunity. The company moved quickly in an attempt to lure the laid off Walmart workforce into new, albeit similarly unstable, jobs.

Uber’s unabashed play to gobble up the desperate workforce came as no surprise to industry observers. The company has been drawing from and extending old models of precarity, pioneered by companies like Walmart, to build its new empire. The Walmart workforce, long accustomed to inconsistent hours and low pay, seemed a natural fit for the Uber model.

{mosads}Companies like Uber, Instacart and the like have been hailed for their disruptive innovations in how we work, but under closer examination it is clear that in many ways they are little more than Walmart on wheels . Way before anyone ever hailed a car with their smartphone, clever CEOs had started to “disrupt” their companies’ relationships with employees. They came up with creative new methods of outsourcing work and risk, while increasing profits. Instead of providing stable, life-long careers that allowed people to raise families, companies sought to disavow themselves of responsibility for those whose work created their profits.

In this way, the so-called “on-demand,” “gig” or “sharing” economy is just the next development in a path CEOs started down decades ago. Whether achieved through franchising, subcontracting, hiring of temporary workers or calling employees “independent contractors” the objective remains the same. Businesses assume less responsibility, while hard-working women and men assume more risk and get less stability in return.

Precarious work arrangements like these often leave working people struggling to sustain their families. Instead of directly employing room attendants to clean hotel rooms, Hyatt hires temporary employees who lack the right to join together to bargain for higher wages and better working conditions. Likewise, Walmart subcontracts warehouse work, leaving other firms accountable for health and safety violations that occur as a result of meeting Walmart’s demands.

With the rise of on-demand companies like AirBnB and Lyft, we see the most advanced form of outsourcing yet – the app-managed “independent contractor.” Now multibillion dollar companies manage to employ massive workforces, but have no legal responsibility for providing them with benefits, safe work conditions, workers’ compensation or even so much as a minimum wage, let alone guaranteed hours.

Yet contrary to what many would have us believe, our shifting expectations of employment “from the career, to the job, to the task” is not just an undesired side effect of the inevitable march of technological progress. Instead, this moment presents us with an opportunity to embrace positive aspects of on-demand work, while simultaneously affording us the opportunity to address existing flaws in how we safeguard the rights of working moms and dads. That means pushing companies to create workplaces that provide the kind of flexibility that allow us to spend time with our children and pursue our passions, without sacrificing the stability we fought to achieve. That means demanding that one job pay us enough to raise our families without being forced to commodify every moment of our free time just to get by. That means making sure that people improperly categorized as independent contractors have the right to fundamental work standards and protections. That means not simply allowing businesses to transfer all of their cost to taxpayers, but being open to explore new ways that all people are able to access basic benefits.

People are coming together across the country to embrace the opportunities and challenges before us. Working people and their allies in San Francisco created new standards for fair work schedules, challenging the trend of retail companies shifting all of the risk onto their employees. Similar reforms are under consideration in Washington, D.C. and Massachusetts. Partnership for Working Families affiliates have worked to hold Airbnb responsible for the its impact on rent prices in Los Angeles, fought for organizing rights for all app-based drivers in Seattle and pushed the tech sector to be responsible for its contract workers in Silicon Valley.

Elected officials would be well advised to keep these examples of local ingenuity in mind. Our policymakers can innovate themselves by working to protect the high standards our communities deserve, rather than resigning themselves to the inevitability that the new economy will simply be the same old, new economy.

Gupta is the executive director of Jobs With Justice. Bas is the executive director of the Partnership for Working Families.


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