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Some quotes from Sarah Kessler, author of Gigged, being interviewed by Alexander Bisley of Macleans:

As I was reporting on this trend, I was listening to a lot of conversations between Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, politicians and union leaders. Nobody was talking to workers who had actually participated in this shift, which is what I wanted to know about. What did this change mean for their experience—what does it mean for our lives? I hope the way I told the story—by following five people who are working in different parts of the gig economy—gives people a nuanced understanding of what the shift away from traditional jobs means for the economy, policy and people’s lives, but does so in a way that is personal and interesting to read.

As a 22-year-old, the whole idea of the “gig economy” sounded pretty good to me. Then, a few years later, when I was working for Fast Company Magazine, I decided to try to make a living in the gig economy for a month. Because I had every advantage in the world—a college degree, professional-, I hope, level writing skills, white skin—I thought this would be easy. But I failed miserably. Finding work was difficult. When I did, it was unpredictable and required me to be available instantly. I kept agreeing to do work for cheaper and cheaper pay with the hope of competing with other workers. I realized that the narrative was much more complicated than the Silicon Valley story, and I wanted to see how the story looked like from different perspectives.

The way Uber advertised its jobs, at least early on, was as an opportunity to become an entrepreneur. They published press releases saying that drivers made $90,000 per year, even while internally calculating that—after expenses—drivers took home an amount that looked much more like the minimum wage.

It’s about 20 per cent to 30 per cent less expensive to hire an independent worker than an employee, so there’s a huge incentive to classify everyone as an independent worker. But we don’t have a clear-cut system for deciding which category a worker should be placed in—there’s a lot of grey territory, and that makes it easier to cheat.

I don’t think that it’s wrong to say the gig economy does solve problems for some people. Curtis, the programmer I followed in my book, for instance, used it to find clients instantly after he quit his job. It gave him immediate flexibility and independence. The problem is that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs act like this is the story for everybody. It’s not. If you can’t save a year’s worth of living expenses, like Curtis did, and you’re living paycheque to paycheque, it’s a big deal that you don’t know how much you’re going to make next week.

The app-based gig economy is part of a decades-long trend in companies trying to employ as few people as possible. It’s just the mobile and digital tech-fuelled version. Under the Obama administration, the Labor Department issued guidance that made it more difficult to classify workers as independent contractors. It was intended to cut down on employers cheating their workers out of benefits and labour protections by calling them freelancers. The Trump administration rescinded that guidance.

According to one estimate, between 2005 and 2015, almost all jobs created in the U.S. were in categories like temp work and freelancing. This trend is a huge problem for countries that have attached all of their social insurance to the traditional job. Things like health insurance, retirement-savings programs, unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation and regular work help people feel safe and secure. Security helps people buy things and take risks like starting businesses—and it’s worth figuring out how to protect it even as work is changing.

Paul Ciano

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