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‘The Gig Economy Is Really Just Pushing People Into Precarious Work’

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Janine Jackson interviewed Open Society’s Bama Athreya about the gig economy and Covid-19 for the April 3, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: As millions of Americans shelter-in-place as a result of Covid-19, and those who go out avoid public transportation, the reliance on food deliverers and car services is unavoidably clear. For some, that’s cause for celebration—so convenient, so helpful—but it ought to be raising questions.

What does it mean to rely on but not recognize the precarious workforce: workers with low wages, low or no benefits, and no security? How can people be “essential” and “expendable” at the same time?

As with so much of what’s happening right now, the question is, what’s being learned from these workers’ rare moment in the media sun? What, if anything, will change because of it? Because it turns out, having elite media call you a “hero” doesn’t pay the rent.

Our next guest works on this set of issues. Bama Athreya is an economic inequality fellow with the Open Society Foundations. She joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Bama Athreya.

Bama Athreya: Thank you so much for having me on.

Common Dreams: A Pandemic Is No Time for Precarious Work

Common Dreams (3/29/20)

JJ: While some are calling for concern or empathy for frontline workers, others see this moment as evidence of the success of the so-called “gig economy.” You wrote a piece recently—I saw it on Common Dreams—that you say was spurred by “the gleeful celebration of the gig economy” that you were seeing in some quarters. Before we talk about what’s the matter with that, what are these folks actually celebrating? What is the vision that’s being promoted here?

BA: I think I can explain that best by explaining that I have spent most of my career working on labor rights with workers in other countries, and not the United States. And one of the interesting things about this year, and the work I’m doing with Open Society Foundations, is I’m looking at what’s happening in the US economy for the first time. But the fact is, the kind of economy that’s being celebrated by the 1% is, frankly, the same economy that’s existed in a lot of other countries for a long time.

It’s the economy where, if you are wealthy, you can find somebody to do anything you need doing: go pick up your food, or bring it to your door, drive you around, clean your house. Whatever service you need, you can get it, you can get it cheaply, because people are in what we call precarious work. And most people are in precarious work. They don’t have formal, full-time jobs with benefits. They don’t have regular wages.

So this celebration of the “gig economy” here, most of it is really just, what we’re really witnessing, is pushing people into this kind of precarious work in the US.

JJ: You say that some folks are even imagining that folks who are laid off from waged work or salaried work, like in the airline industry, that somehow the gig economy is going to absorb these people.

WSJ: The Gig Economy to the Rescue

Wall Street Journal (3/18/20)

BA: The gig economy here, if you look at the positive spin on it that you hear in many quarters, it’s celebrated as being flexible. The reality is—and I’m certainly not the first person who’s pointed this out—you saw the rise of some of these app-based companies, like Uber and Instacart and the like, in the wake of the 2009 economic crisis and downturn. And at that time, you started to see these kinds of arguments of, “Oh, well, it’s OK because people may be losing regular jobs, but this new gig economy will absorb everybody. You can always take your car, you can take your apartment, you can take whatever assets you have, and get on a platform or an app, and make some money out of it.”

That was the first time I started noticing and saying, well, this is what people do everywhere else in the world, right? So why is this a great thing when you see it start to happen in the US economy?

And now if you look at the kinds of reporting—one of the pieces I called out was the Wall Street Journal. I feel like if you want to know what that 1% wants to have happen, post this pandemic, in the recovery, just read the Wall Street Journal editorial pages; they put it right out there. And one of the things that they’ve been celebrating, to that audience, is the fact that more and more people will be in precarious work in the gig economy, and won’t that be great for investors?

JJ: I just wanted to pick up on that. There was a study that came out in January from a workers’ rights group in Washington State that found that contract delivery drivers for DoorDash, the food delivery service, were making $1.45 an hour, on average, after their expenses were accounted for.

And the company is promoting these jobs, as you’ve just said, as, “Be your own boss, enjoy the flexibility of choosing when, where and how much you earn.” There’s this pay model that makes it look on paper like workers are getting a decent wage, when in reality, some are making right around zero. But investors love it. There’s a huge disconnect there. it seems like.

Bama Athreya

Bama Athreya: “The kind of economy that’s being celebrated by the 1% is, frankly, the same economy that’s existed in a lot of other countries for a long time.”

BA: I don’t know if this is a disconnect. I will say, I’ve seen the work that’s been done in Washington State, the activists there are fantastic. I’ve done more of my interviews with people who are driving for Uber and Lyft and other app-based ride-hailing companies. I think this is the business model, and I don’t think it’s new.

One of the things that we’ve seen, in terms of how the financialization of various sectors has operated over the past couple of decades, is that the markets, such as they are, reward companies that undermine formal wage employment with benefits, right? The more you can put people on short-term work and contract work, and just-in-time, and the more you can fracture regular full-time paid employment, the better your returns, right? And so just seeing that come into the transportation sector, that is the business model, or the delivery sector. That is the business model.

JJ: Yeah, the disconnect is only in the forward face of it. And I guess it’s more just kind of, deception might be a better word.

Well, so much of media is from a consumer point of view. So if you hear that precarious workers are suffering, it’s as though, “Well, that’s the fault of the people who use Lyft, because the bus doesn’t go by their house,” or “that’s the fault of you for ordering a pizza in your home.”

You don’t have to reject the whole idea of a digital economy in order to think that it could be done more fairly and more humanely, right?

BA: I have to say, this week has been quite a week. And I hope you are talking to some of the folks that are organizing the strikes of gig workers in different parts of the country that have been going on all week. It’s been amazing to see. So that I think the thing we all need to be doing, is paying attention to those calls for action, and supporting them wherever you can. Like, don’t order from Instacart this week, don’t order from Amazon this week, respect the fact that those workers are on strike, sign petitions to the companies to give them the protective equipment and the benefits and the sick pay that they need.

And I would  refer people to the Athena for All coalition. I would refer people to Coworker.org, to Gig Workers Rising. There’s a lot of information being put out there right now about what we all can do to support these workers, who are striking for just the right to be safe, and not be at risk of losing their lives to this terrible disease.

Medium: A Feminist Stimulus

Medium (3/30/20)

JJ: Absolutely. Well, let’s talk about a related set of ideas. You had a piece on Medium called “A Feminist Stimulus” that addresses the care work, as it’s called, that is also being foregrounded right now, and the failure to address that work as we talk about economic recovery. What are you getting at in this piece about care work, and how it can be acknowledged?

BA: Sure. Thanks for asking about that. As we are looking at these large packages that are intended to shore up the economy at this time, I do think we need to predict what’s going to happen when the crisis is over, as eventually it will be, and we need to go into a long-term recovery, because our economy is going to take a hit, and global economies are going to take a hit for a long time. And I think we need to get ahead of some of the proposals that are being put out there, and make sure this turns into a people’s recovery, that’s good for people and not just good for markets in the abstract.

So some people have been talking about a universal basic income. That’s fine. I think it’s healthy to have those debates out there. But one of the things that’s frustrated me for a long time of following the proposals around UBI, which is the shorthand for universal basic income, is that they’re largely written by men, and they’re largely gender blind.

And that was very frustrating, because I literally kept seeing things in writings by people who are well-respected leaders in this field, talking about how UBI was good for women, because it meant that women could stay home and do care work and get paid for it. And that just ignores the obvious fallacy, which is that no one’s paying women to do care work, right? I mean, care work is unpaid, virtually; undervalued brutally where it is paid. And that needs to get corrected, and UBI is not going to do that. If we don’t take some measures to stop that from happening, it will end up just reinforcing the notion that women should be doing unpaid care work.

And I’ll give you one example of that. There was actually a referendum in Switzerland a couple of years ago, to provide UBI to every citizen; that went for a vote, it failed. But I read through some of the arguments that the proponents of that referendum had made at the time, and it was really interesting, because the proponents that were out there, trying to sell this UBI proposal to the Swiss population, were precisely making the argument that it would enable women to stay home and take care of kids.

And that belied the reality that the men, or the people, who stayed in wage employment, were still going to be getting that same UBI, because it’s a UBI, it’s universal, right? So everybody gets it, whether you work or not. So the women who are going to stay home, were not going to get paid for care work. They were just going to get the stipend that everybody that was in the working world, the paid-wage labor world, was getting.

And this seems to be the fallacy that comes up over and over and over again, and I just want us to put an end to that, and to say that if we are now recognizing that we will have many, many people in this society, coming out of this coronavirus crisis, that are sick, that are vulnerable, we will have communities ati need, we will have poor children at need. We will need more care workers than ever.

So we had better figure out how to start properly valuing and paying for care work. Because, otherwise, there’s going to be this huge, huge, huge enormous unpaid care burden, and guess who it’s going to fall on?

What we need to do, again, is quantify the value of the unpaid care work that’s going on in our economy now, and then predict how much more is going to be needed during the recovery period. And let’s figure out how to get the money into the economy to pay the people to do the care work that we’re really going to need done.

JJ: Media promote a fiction, usually tacitly, that economic fortunes are natural; some work is just worth more than other work. Folks say, “Gosh, teachers work so hard, it really stinks that they don’t get paid a lot.” But it’s as though nature wants it that way, or something. Teachers just take a vow of poverty, God bless ’em.

There’s a notion of the naturalness of obtaining economic conditions that has to be resisted, but it’s really not that easy to do that.

BA: I think even when you see good data from progressive economists, you also see a lot of sort of bad faith arguments out there about what will stimulate the economy. And I think it helps to just pull ourselves back to a central question. And that is, whose economy? It is not an abstract thing, right?

And so when you see the kinds of talking heads that you very often see called up for news programs, etc., and they are wealthy individuals. They are corporate CEOs. They are people who are doing very well. They are talking about the economy that benefits them.

We need to start thinking about, and talking about, what an economy looks like that benefits your average childcare worker. And if that is the starting point and the premise, and you’re interviewing those people, and asking them what they think a fair economy looks like, you do have to have—I think you were pointing this out—a change in the very way in which we conceptualize the economy.

JJ: Let me just ask you for any final thoughts you have. Obviously, this is going to be the fodder in the news that we’re going to be seeing for weeks and months now. Are there questions you would be encouraging reporters to pursue, or, on the other hand, things you’d like them to not do, things to avoid doing?

BA: I would just encourage, interview the people who are on the frontlines of this as much as possible. I super appreciate that you’ve reached out to me, I hope you’re also interviewing people who are actually having to deliver groceries, or deliver takeout food, and getting their perspectives on what it’s like to be looking at the realities of the healthcare that they’re offered, the realities of the wages and the types of safety nets around them, and I think that’s where journalists really can play an amazing role.

And I wish, I actually wish we had more local journalists—one of our challenges now is that you need people who are also paid to go and interview people in the local communities about what’s happening to them.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Bama Athreya. You can find her piece, “A Feminist Stimulus,” on Medium.com, and “A Pandemic Is No Time for Precarious Work” on Inequality.org, as well as Common Dreams. Thank you very much, Bama Athreya, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

BA: It’s been great. Thank you so much, Janine.

 



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Embr is a co-op game about firefighting in the gig economy

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As we increasingly rely on delivery and ride-sharing apps to connect us with basic goods and services, it’s worth wondering how that system might play out applied to other public utilities – venture capitalists in the tech sector, after all, are measuring the drapes on services like public transportation and education. Embr is a game that provides a satirical peek at what “Uber, but for fighting fires” might look like.

As a game, Embr is a manic co-op affair for up to four players – start out thinking Overcooked or Moving Out and you’ll be in the right neighborhood. The action has you barreling into residential conflagrations armed only with a hose and some instructions gleaned from your firefighting app. You’ve got to try to put out the fire, sure, but the important thing is to make sure you get paid.

“With Embr, we set out to shine a satirical alight on the gig economy – not in terms of the people making those deliveries and driving those taxis, but rather the companies at the top powering this particular brand of venture capitalism and deregulation,” said Howard Tsao, the team lead for Embr at Muse Games. “On a gameplay basis, we also wanted to see just what mayhem would occur if the untrained masses headed out with a hose and tried to put out fires in the same way people deliver take-out or drive people around in makeshift taxis.”

Here’s the trailer:

YouTube Thumbnail

“The end result is just as fun and frenetic as we thought it would be,” Tsao said. “It just makes you appreciate what a difficult and almost impossible job real-life firefighters do.”

You’ll have to rush to put out fires, potentially stealing anything salvageable in the process, and spend the money you ‘earn’ on upgrades to your firefighting equipment – after all, you’ve got to keep up with rival firefighting app Hosr (naturally, it’s a Canadian outfit).

Embr launched in early access on Steam and Stadia this week, and publisher Curve Digital says cross-platform multiplayer is enabled, as well as iCUE integration for PC players with Corsair peripherals installed. Muse says it plans on “expanding the game significantly” while Embr is in early access.

For more fun with friends, check out our list of the best co-op games on PC in 2020.

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Ask Sonny Anything… Worst gig ever?

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Steve….welcome in to our shin dig. Reminds me sometimes of Lavonia, Georgia, or Columbus, Ohio. The good times.

The worst circumstances. There were several that I would think twice before going there again. Now, I have a choice… then I didn’t.

1. Winter of 1953 – We were working in Knoxville, TN for Cas Walker, since November 6. Bobby was 22 (just released from the Marine Corp and back from Korea), I was 16. Downtown Knoxville, flatbed truck bed, 25 degrees, snowing hard, 1 week before Christmas. When Cas said play, you play or go…. in this case we had to play or we wouldn’t get our $25 that week. But Lord, it was cold. My right hand was numb, I couldn’t feel the picks, trying to play the banjo and it had a skin head. Enos Johnson and L.E. White were there with Bobby and I. Thirty of the coldest minutes known to man.

2. November 1955 – Quebec Canada, snowing for a week, we had been playing every night for that week, no crowds, Not enough gas in the car to get back to Wheeling….Stress 101….5 PM…Kids were playing Hockey in the street. 7 PM a few people started to gather. 7:30…No one showed up to open the building, we needed every penny to buy gas…Food? What’s that? We needed gas for the hungry car. Top priority.. I found a window unlocked which I opened, climbed in and with a flash light found a light switch, unlocked and opened the front door, stood there and collected $490… did our show, people were happy, we were ecstatic, they loaded the car, while I locked the front door, locked the back door, turned off the lights, climbed back out the window, went back to Wheeling…still broke, but lived in the USA to play another day.

3. Presque Isle, Maine – Summertime 1968. Bobby, Dale Sledd, Ronnie Reno, and I (that’s me of course, how else would I know…DUH). We go on stage at the fairgrounds with over 5000 people in the bleachers. By our 3rd or 4th song the large, unhappy crowd had thinned down considerably. They left in droves of 20-50 each…’twas a mass exodus. There might have been 200-300 diehards remaining. Man, we didn’t even want to look at one another. Embarrassed, there must be another word, I know what that word is too, but it is not appropriate in mixed company. We felt better after I went to the office and collected our dough. I found out they had advertised us as The Osmond Brothers. I can just hear the conversation between a couple old ladies…”Which one is Marie?”

Steve, this probably doesn’t answer your question but these were a few of the trying times which makes one appreciate the good ones, and also makes one realize that there must, simply must be a higher power.
s

—–

Hi Sonny. Sure Fire is one of my favorite tunes. Can you tell us how that one came about? All the best, Chuck.

Chuck V.

Chuck, come on in here…Thank you for your time. It’s appreciated you know. Sure Fire is a mandolin tune written by my brother Bobby. The Wilburn Brothers, Doyle, Teddy, Leslie, and Lester are the people responsible for quite a lot of the successful paths we took which brought us to this town and being able to further our career playing the music we grew up around. And not to mention a membership in the Greatest show in the history of Country/Bluegrass Music…The Grand Ole Opry…back when that membership really meant something.

I mention all of the above to get to the point that the Wilburns owned a publishing Company with the name of Sure-Fire Music. We recorded many of the songs Teddy found for us, and Bobby wrote several too, all which were published by Sure-Fire… One being an instrumental with the name of Sure Fire. Great tune played by close to 100% of all mandolin players.
s

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Ok, I’ll bite. Tell us about the great con job of the recording industry. Truly enjoy your music and have been a fan as long as I can remember. Thanks for giving us an inside view. Your music has always been the best.

Larry Stahl

Larry, I don’t want to do this, but it says ask me anything. I do appreciate your time and I thank you.

1959. We realized that we HAD to have a good record deal and The Grand Ole Opry. The Wilburn Brothers seemed to be the most probable to get that done for us.

Fast forward to Doyle Wilburn’s office, Nashville, April of 1963. Doyle is on the phone with Owen Bradley, head of Decca records in Nashville. He is telling Owen that we are good and Chet Adkins is going to sign us on RCA this afternoon. Owen can get us for Decca if he’ll do it NOW.

Owen says No. We’re devastated.

Yes, we had been to Chet at RCA and he turned us down flat. Doyle says not to worry, he’s not done yet. He puts a call in to New York, the absolute head guy of Decca (seems like I remember his name as Sid). Doyle tells him the same story and that Owen has turned us down, and Decca would be losing a good group to RCA if he didn’t do something right them. And he closed that with “Have I ever steered you wrong?” He hung up and Doyle looked at us Bobby, Benny Birchfield and I and just smiled and winked. He said, “Owen will call in about 10 minutes.”

I will swear to this as truth. Under 10 minutes his secretary opened the door and said…”Mr. Bradley is on Line 5.” Doyle picked up and said “Owen, how you doin’?” “Yeah, They’re still here….sure, we’ll be right over.”

So, all this happened within a period of 45-60 minutes and we signed the first of 13 one year contracts with Decca.

We told Doyle we needed the Opry and he promised that in 18 months. 13 months later, late July 1964 we were members of the aforementioned Grand Ole Opry. Wilburns were a powerful bunch mid ’50s throughout the ’60s . s

—–

Hi Sonny, It’s always so good to read your posts at Banjo Hangout and on Bluegrass Today. I have Chief MP-13 built in 2007, which is a good un of course. Sounds and looks awesome! Do you know how many of the MP Chiefs were made? Thanks so much!

Gary

Gary….Thanks for following Banjo Hangout and do you realize how long the Hangout thing has been going? I said that because I want to remind everyone who reads this that Terry Herd and John Lawless have endured me for one, uno, ein, year with this episode. My goodness.

Gary you asked how many Maple Chief banjos were built…I would guess probably 250-300 range. Maybe 50-75 Mahogany and Walnut. That number is a guess. I don’t want to actually get down in the floor with books and figure it out. Too hard to get up. It was all fun though. June 16 will be 22 years. And I didn’t spend one cent advertising the Chief banjo. I wanted them to sell themselves and they did. I didn’t want to be in the banjo building business, just make a professional quality banjo, reasonable price. I did that. Only a few banjo companies left…reason… folks started building they own…(they comes from Raymond Huffmaster.) That’s my opinion.

s

—–

Kirk and Kate Schaumannk wanted to know about Jim Mills’ Old Banjo Seminar. I’m sorry to say I don’t know that but I will try to get your interest known to Jimmy and perhaps he’ll follow through.

s

Ask Sonny Anything is a recurring feature where our readers pose questions to the great Sonny Osborne, one half of the iconic Osborne Brothers

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Challenge To California Law Giving Gig Workers Benefits Will Go Before Voters On November Ballot – CBS San Francisco

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SACRAMENTO (AP) — A ballot initiative backed by business giants Uber, Lyft and DoorDash is now set to go before California voters in November, a multimillion-dollar shot aimed at excluding the companies from a law that would make them give more benefits and wage protections to their drivers.

California approved the labor law last year, the strictest in the country around when employers can classify workers as independent contractors. It’s aimed at pushing businesses to put more freelancers and independent workers on payroll, ensuring access to benefits and minimum wages. Praised by labor groups, the sweeping law set off lawsuits from independent contractors like truck drivers and freelance writers who say it puts them out of work.

Titans of the so-called gig economy like Uber are mounting the fiercest resistance. Joined with ride-hailing rival Lyft and food-delivery service DoorDash, they want California voters in November to essentially exempt app-based drivers from the law’s restrictions. All three committed to spend at least $30 million each promoting the measure, surely making it one of California’s most expensive ballot fights.

California’s secretary of state announced late on Friday the measure became eligible for the ballot after collecting over 623,000 signatures.

If the companies are successful in California, it could set a national precedent.

The companies want the power to keep their workers independent, proposing as part of the ballot measure a new law that would give drivers who work at least 25 hours a week full health coverage and benefits if they are injured on the job. Drivers would be able to work across any app and earn a base of 120% of minimum wage plus more based on miles driven.

California upped the stakes over the fight when it sued Uber and Lyft in early May for allegedly misclassifying its drivers as independent contractors under the law. The coalition leading the ballot initiative, Protect App-Based Drivers & Services, claims to represent 60,000 drivers and said the lawsuit would lead to job losses during the pandemic-induced recession.

Labor organizations have vowed to fight the initiative since it began collecting signatures this year, but campaigning will be uncertain due to the coronavirus outbreak derailing traditional canvassing efforts. Campaigners said in late February they had already collected over a million signatures to qualify the initiative, much more than required.

“It’s a power grab by Uber and Lyft to essentially write a law that exempts them from basic worker protections,” said Steve Smith, a spokesman for the California Labor Federation, which plans to replace door knocking with more phone calls and texts to voters in opposition. “It’s going to be a bit of a battle royale.”

Stacey Wells, a spokeswoman for the ballot campaign, said the proposal is a “win-win for drivers.”

She said 80% of the million or so drivers in California work for apps for fewer than 20 hours a week. The new benefits will be a draw for drivers, she said, “versus a rigid employment model that’s going to prevent them from working on multiple apps with a set schedule.”

Critics also accuse the law of unfairly targeting some industries. Freelancer groups for journalists and photographers earlier this year unsuccessfully argued the law cannot exempt some writers from the its rules while it holds freelance news journalists to a stricter standard. They are appealing a federal judge’s dismissal of the case.

© Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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