The problem of work and the gig labor market as a solution for precarious work?

At the end of the first week of the AEMS summer school we heard an interesting talk by Juliet Schor. Starting with the problem of work in market economies, where technology is used to enable productivity, which in return can be used for either producing more output or reducing working hours. Juliet focused on increased productivity and the gig labor as a solution to the current problem of work precarity.

Increase productivity

The sustainability narrative has stressed the imperative of reducing the use of fossil fuels  and the transition towards renewable sources of energy and production. In rich economies, this requires a coordinated effort to prevent the social structures from collapsing, as the current demand of energy would have to remain the same. However, time is of the essence to achieve temperature reduction of the planet, and technology could play a key role in enabling productivity; its use decreasing output and subsequently carbon emissions. As technology progresses and productivity increases, several questions arise. What to do with the trade-off of productivity, the time available? What could be the incentive for society to move away from the current economic system, to stop producing more and reconnect with nature?

One idea of using the increased productivity is to reduce working hours but keep paying the same wages. This would give employees more free time, and could reduce input in production and carbon emission in the workplace. Working less hours could lead to a relaxed schedule and decrease stress. Under favorable conditions this time can be used to change consumption behaviour to less carbon-intensive activities and products. However, people would have more time, and there is no guarantee that this time would be spent in a more sustainable way. It depends on the lifestyle and the available infrastructure whether the workers will use their longer weekends sustainably or for consuming other products that have high energy footprints themselves. Here the state is challenged to provide the recreational options, to facilitate the shift of recreational activities to those that have less-carbon intensive outputs.

Working less hours does sound appealing to many employees. However, some people also strive to make more money and see their job as their main source of identity. Who is to say that they won’t take up a second job, once they have less hours to work for their original job? When earning fairly the same wages and having more time, what prevents them from making money somewhere else? Or trading-off their income for non sustainable experiences? This is the rebound effect of more time available, having more leisure time, it is reasonable to think that households would rearrange their income, triggering the use of resources even further; although social engagement and life satisfaction increase (Buhl et al. 2016).

Productivity of platform models

Another aspect Juliet talked about are gig job platforms that use algorithms to increase productivity. Since the emergence of platforms like Uber or Lieferando, there has been a large discussion on controversial work practices. Juliet introduced us to Platform cooperative models, where workers are also the owners, and thus can keep the profit of the increased productivity for themselves. The cooperatives pose an alternative based on the premise that the founders gain access to capital and can leverage  their existing experience. Financing options and managing any sort of debt are highly dependent on the existing capacities of the members and its effect on the performance to allow productivity. The challenge then is addressing the governance aspect, and the capacity  of the platform cooperative to organize themselves fast enough to be truly resilient, once it has created their own means of income, giving them the power to make decisions. This empowerment is an opportunity to implement social and environmental justice changes more easily and for once technology could truly be in the service of the people and not only the owners of a big company.

To come back to the gig platform in its original form, Juliet mentioned how differently they are implemented around the world, accelerating inequality if the context allows it. For workers that have the possibility to join a platform as a source of extra income, it allows autonomy; while for workers that are highly dependent on the demand within the platform, it brings great risks. They are classified often as self-employed even though they would fit the criteria of employees but are not being granted the rights and social support that are intended by governments, which struggle to keep up with proper regulations. This implies that gig platform jobs supply a better experience for those working in countries in the global north, where people are already better off without it, compared to nations in the global south. The political or national context in which the companies operate allows the platform to exploit workers’ rights by operating in grey zones.

This leads us back to the contemporary problem of work. The gig job platform has to be regulated by the government in order to allow a more socially just experience. To end with the words of Juliet Schor: “The problem of work and non regulated platforms is Capitalism on Steroids” where inequality can be exacerbated by upcoming technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence and Algorithms.

Buhl, J., Acosta, J. Work less, do less?. Sustain Sci 11, 261–276 (2016).

Written by: Helena Bischof and Karla Nascheli

Based on the lecture "The problem of work in contemporary societies" by Juliet Schor during the AEMS summer school 2021

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