People, Not Code

People, Not Code

Labor reporter Sarah Kessler’s compassionate eye and readable prose inform her overview of the effects of gig work.

Quartz reporter Sarah Kessler, who specialized in writing about the gig economy for Fast Company and covered start-ups for Mashable, brings her considerable experience to bear in this thoughtful overview of the gig economy and its consequences. Dan Lyons, author of Disrupted, wrote of it, “If you want to know how work is changing and how you, too, must change to keep up, you must read this book.” A recent spate of worthwhile texts on disposable workers and the nature of work include Ellen Ruppel Shell’s The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change and Temp by Louis Hyman.

An Uber-New World of Work

Anyone writing on the gig economy must start with Uber, and Kessler does. In 2011, tiny Uber competed with other tech start-ups for venture capital and customers. Uber’s app connected people who owned vehicles with people who needed rides. Kessler goes straight to the core of Uber’s genius: It had low initial costs and endless potential for expansion because it didn’t buy cars or hire drivers. Classifying drivers as independent contractors meant Uber didn’t offer workers benefits, sick days or holidays. The Uber driver, Kessler reports, was a “piece of code,” not a person.

As the gig economy kicked off in 2013, it also looked like a potential solution for another pressing problem…A significant portion of the population was having trouble finding a job at all.Sarah Kessler

Kessler describes a gold rush by 2014: Uber-style companies offered housekeeping services, massages, grocery shopping and more. New platforms such as Upwork, Mechanical Turk and Handy gave people the opportunity to find work. Kessler offers numerous telling statistics. For example, between 2012 and 2015, the number of adults earning in the on-demand economy increased 47-fold, to about 4% of the US workforce.

“Independent Contractor”

Kessler plainly states the central tragedy of the gig economy: People with high-demand skills, like coding, have high-paying options; workers with common abilities, like driving or cleaning, don’t.

Applying for gigs on platforms like Upwork was just like applying for any job. It took a lot of effort, and it was rife with similar discrimination and sources of inequality.Sarah Kessler

Kessler understands that employers seek contractors to provide the cheapest labor possible. Employers cannot provide training, benefits or regular hours without categorizing workers as employees. But the author is reluctant to villainize any party in this roundelay. She points out that any misallocation of employees invites investigations and lawsuits by federal tax and labor agencies.

Platform Cooperativism

Kessler brings the effects of the gig economy to life with telling examples of its participants. Among the most evocative is the story of Kristy Milland, who, with only a high school diploma, turned to the Amazon-owned platform Mechanical Turk. Amazon built the company to “integrate human intelligence with code.” Kessler reports the shocking fact that the average median wage of Mechanical Turkers in the United States was less than $5 per hour; in India, it was $1.65 per hour.

Workers in the gig economy were disproportionately poor compared with the American population.Sarah Kessler

Milland could make $100 a day from Mechanical Turk, but, Kessler reveals, the hours of mouse-clicking gave her tendonitis. Milland created the Dynamo platform for Turkers to organize around workers’ rights and abuses, but few Turkers had time for it. Kessler details Amazon’s swift reaction: The company said Dynamo violated its terms of service.

With Milland’s help, New School economist Trebor Scholz wrote a book supporting platform cooperativism. Aiming to bring old-style cooperatives into the modern economy, Kessler explains how his new model would provide ethically sourced labor from smaller communities whose members would have a stake in the collective. For example, the author cites companies like Stocksy, a stock photo supplier in British Columbia, which paid out more than half of its 2015 earnings of $7.9 million to its 900 members.

Kessler concludes Milland’s saga by disclosing that she eventually earned a master’s degree in labor studies and went on to law school. Milland advocates for workers’ rights and believes in platform cooperativism but, Kessler explains, she has no time to devote to it: She’s planning for her own retirement.

Kessler refers to Samaschool, which sought to teach locals in impoverished Dumas, Arkansas, to use the internet to find remote jobs. In Kessler’s analysis, Samaschool failed because its participants lacked the skills to find online work that suited their capabilities. This, the author asserts, is a common occurrence.

Kessler relates that Samaschool changed its model to collaborate with workforce development organizations in training people for marketable occupations like carpentry. The author returns to a central argument: Tech schemes cannot deal with the human aspects of trauma, hopelessness and chronic unemployment.

Managed by Q

Kessler offers an example of a firm that intended to follow the Uber model but shifted to a more cooperative approach. Managed by Q aspired to bring the Uber model to office building maintenance in New York City. The founders planned to design management technology and find customers, while janitorial companies would provide labor for a fee. Thus, as Kessler recognizes, two layers of administration separated the work from the client, and both took a cut from cleaners’ wages.

Managed by Q’s high employee turnover and its struggles to retain customers damaged its brand. Kessler conveys how management responded by adopting the philosophy Zeynep Ton outlines in her book The Good Jobs Strategy: Investing in people improves your bottom line. Employers, Kessler underlines, should regard labor as an asset, not as a cost to minimize. She celebrates how Managed by Q changed its business model to include wage increases and benefits, and to designate 5% of its equity shares as stock options for its “field operators.”

Fewer Gigs

Kessler reports than more than half of people who start in the gig economy quit within a year. But tech firms that connect workers flourish, especially companies like Gigster and Accenture, which specialize in highly skilled labor.

For many, the gig economy is simply the next step in a losing effort to build some economic security in a world where all the benefits are floating to the top 10%.Sarah Kessler

Kessler ably returns to her theme again and again: For technology to transform work, it must coordinate with policy makers to treat people like people – not as pieces of code. The author understands this dilemma and the gig-work world it animates as few do. She is a solid writer with an eye for telling detail and revealing human interest. Kessler does treat her subjects as people, and her compassion for their humanity informs her reporting and raises this work far above the merely analytical.

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