There are now an estimated 1.1 million people in Britain’s gig economy. This new model of work, and the trend of using online platforms to source small, sometimes on-demand jobs is inexorably rising. Despite the fact that it disrupts not only old industries but also the entire concept of work, here is an economic transformation society must adapt to, because fundamentally, this change is here to stay. So the question we now face isn't as much how we go back to the ways of yesteryear. Rather, it's how we build towards a system that provides both customers and service professionals something ethical, and which they genuinely want. Basically: can a 'new' breed of tech platforms become catalysts for fair, fulfilling work in this evolving labour market?
So far, the answer has generally been 'no'. The on-demand tech startups responsible for introducing these precarious new models of work have done so under the guise of unrestrained capitalism. The result is a disruptive approach that has eroded the traditional employment relationship, and the labour and social protections that generally accompany it. All of this translates to low and insecure income as well as exploitative forms of labour for the service professionals we look to for help for anything from domestic cleaning to dog walking.
How we got here
The on-demand landscape is dominated by companies that favour rapid scaling over sustainable evolution. Oftentimes, this aggressive chase for growth “encourages cutting corners, ignoring regulations and doing whatever it takes to win” (1). And the end result is bleak: equally aggressive workplace cultures where corporate values are put aside. For years now, industry insiders, onlookers, and anyone who gives a damn have flagged this as a pervasive and rampant issue in the startup space. And yet, few initiatives have managed to address it convincingly, let alone fix it.
Recent events at Uber - unquestionably the most well-known representative of this on-demand model - may lead to the tide turning at long last. News of serial misdemeanours, linked in large part to the company’s infamous corporate culture, had put the tech giant under unprecedented scrutiny over the past year. It all culminated with a decision (2) that must be interpreted as an overdue wake up call: core values are (and always should be) central to all business operations, and should never waver. An organisation is liable to ’bend the market’ so to say. Adapting its offering based on feedback from customers, partners or stakeholders in general is a natural, perhaps even encouraged process. But core values are the intangibles which an entity can never compromise on. What we set as our vision, culture, or philosophy - those pillars are here to stay.
What we see today however, is a model in which digital start-ups are given a free pass to circumvent rules of business. This is the philosophy which many businesses in the on-demand economy thrive, at the expense of employees and independent workers. Day in, day out.
There’s a shift underway. Increasingly, consumers are rejecting the undisputed deference by investors and boards towards unscrupulous tech founders, who foster aggressive cultures to maximise profits and expand operations. Campaigns for labour and social justice are starting to call for solutions at the regulatory and legal levels. In the Uber case, mounting public pressure (the #deleteUber campaign comes to mind) shows just how impactful consumer-driven initiatives can have on corporate affairs. Keeping businesses honest on topics ranging on everything from ethics, racial, gender to income equality can, and must be a shared effort.
We may be on to something good. Let's keep pushing.
(1) Jerks and the Start-Ups They Ruin, Dan Lyons, The New York Times (April 1, 2017) https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/01/opinion/sunday/jerks-and-the-start-ups-they-ruin.html
(2) Uber CEO Travis Kalanick resigns following months of chaos, Julia Carrie Wong, The Guardian (June 21st, 2017) https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jun/20/uber-ceo-travis-kalanick-resigns