Manipulations of Freedom

The Dirty Fight for Prop 22 and the Gig Economy [of Modern Slave Work]

Sumona Gupta

T
he gig economy has grown rapidly over the past decade and is nearly ubiquitous. It is broadly defined as work on app-based platforms wherein workers set their own hours and complete individual jobs at will. This includes some professional services and clerical work, but is mostly comprised of driving and food delivery services.

Some of these companies are behemoths, especially Uber. It alone claims to have 91 milion active customers and 3.9 million drivers across the world. And although the company’s revenue is soaring, the company’s losses are also staggering. Upon its initial public offering in 2019, it was revealed that it lost $2.2 billion in 2018 and $1.8 billion in 2019. While this would normally hinder valuation and scare off investors, Uber’s initial public offering remained the largest in 2019.

The reason for this lies in the company’s initial public offering prospectus. Uber envisioned a future in which it has dominated the delivery and driver space, expanding into trucking and shipping as well. It hoped to be the replacement for a crumbling public transport infrastructure, building its own private infrastructure of cars, scooters, and bikes. This would require some initial losses, of course. It would require undercutting their competitors and lowering fares to take full control of their desired markets. But the company planned to go further, investing over $1 billion in driverless car technology. Ridding themselves of their drivers, their main workforce, was the key to future profitability, they believed.

Uber ended up scrapping most of these plans in late 2020 because driverless car technology is still not viable for widespread use and these ventures did not look promising. However, they retain the foundational ideas behind the prospectus: that the company should attempt to unburden itself of its responsibilities to workers to keep afloat and gain dominance.

This is key to understanding the gig economy. Its flexibility is a double-edged sword for its workers. Though flexibility allows workers the convenience of choosing their hours, it also offers their employers the chance to disown them, to treat them as independent and undeserving of minimum benefits. After all, workers are a means to an end for large gig companies like Uber—monopolisation.

In this light, it is revealed that the gig economy is merely a new slick of paint on an old phenomenon. It is one of the many manifestations of precarious labour, otherwise known as casualisation or flexibilisation. In the Global South precarious work is widespread, particularly among migrant workers,seasonal workers,and women. In recent decades, the United States and European Union have also seen a nincrease in the number of the working poor.Though workers seem to have quite a high degree of autonomy, they are completely dependent on their employers. This distinguishes it from true self-employment or independent contractor status.… Gig economy companies were not true pioneers. Their primary innovation, their app-based interface, was being developed for use by taxi drivers in 2010. Workers push themselves to work more hours and longer shifts as the burden of earning a minimum wage is not their employers’, but theirs.… Two centuries ago, Karl Marx described this type of wage, the piece wage, as the most advantageous form of payment for employers.

The hold of the private sphere on voters—with Proposition 22—was exerted both on the deeply personal and broad, structural levels. A reflection from Theodor Adorno puts it simply: “People have so manipulated the concept of freedom that it finally boils down to the right of the stronger and richer to take from the weaker and poorer whatever they still have.” As has been demonstrated many times during this pandemic, many may link capital’s and business’s freedom to go on unimpeded with their own.

 


For a full read of this brief, click here or on the picture to download the pdf file.

  

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