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Jobs of desperation: How rideshare, food delivery workers lose in the gig economy

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click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY ZACH VAN ARSDALE/NEWS21

Illustration by Zach Van Arsdale/News21

Peter Young was napping between blood draws when his ringing phone woke him.

He was lying in a hospital bed in Los Angeles as part of a five-day clinical trial that required his blood to be drawn every two hours. It’s not a job most people sign up for eagerly, but for Young, 27, it seemed like a dream opportunity. His full-time job is delivering food for Postmates.

“This will pay a lot more for the time I am spending than rideshare,” Young said. “I’m in a hospital bed right now. That’s why I was napping – because I am physically beat up.”

Young has been a part of the gig economy, working for rideshare and food delivery apps, for about four years. He used to drive for Uber and Lyft, but since the pandemic, he only has been delivering food. Although Young relies on the income from Postmates to survive, he said the job’s unreliability is taking a toll on his financial and mental well-being.

“I can’t plan for the future. I can’t be confident in what income I will have in six months, and that is really stressful.”

Gig workers are considered independent contractors rather than traditional employees, so they don’t receive such benefits as health insurance and retirement programs. Many, like Young, are freelance delivery workers or drivers called to service through such apps as Lyft and DoorDash.

Gig work can give people flexibility and freedom, but some experts believe it also exposes them to inconsistent, low pay and the possibility of exploitation for the sake of customer convenience. The work became even riskier during COVID-19, which put thousands of people out of jobs.

In response, efforts to unionize gig drivers are underway in several major cities. Strikes are planned for July 21 in Boston, San Francisco and elsewhere – coming amid a shortage of Uber and Lyft drivers across the country.

“While they don’t have long-term security from a particular organization and also a lot of the benefits the organizations provide people with, they exchange that for being able to have greater control over what kind of work they do when they do it and how they do it,” said Brianna Caza, associate professor in the department of management at University of North Carolina Greensboro.

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A transition to food delivery in COVID-19

During the pandemic, many drivers for rideshare were unable to find work driving for Uber or Lyft because of the risks of getting COVID-19.

On a call with investors in May 2020, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi reported that COVID-19 had decreased business the previous month by 80%. However, Khosrowshahi said 40% of active rideshare drivers switched to the Uber Eats platform in April 2020.

Jesenia Rodriguez of New Haven, Connecticut, drove for Uber and Lyft but stopped in March. She switched to DoorDash.

“Due to the way they were paying, I was risking myself for two or three dollars,” she said.

Rodriguez applied for unemployment, but because she was still considered an employee of Uber and Lyft, her claim was declined.

“They knew I was an employee through Uber, so when I applied due to the pandemic due to the situation, no one responded with anything,” she said. “I haven’t gotten any unemployment at all.”

Rodriguez’s rent is subsidized through Section 8 housing, and she receives food stamps to feed herself and her son, but life has not been easy. She has determined that not working at all is a better option financially than returning to DoorDash.

“I had to pick up in Walmart, three different orders for only $3 each,” Rodriguez said. “I have to put gas in the car and if anything breaks down, I have to pay for it. Right now, I am not in that position.”

During the pandemic, Chance McNamara of Lexington, Kentucky, worked full time for DoorDash, which he said didn’t provide a livable income.

“You don’t really make enough to make a living out of it,” McNamara said. “You don’t really make enough to pay your rent to almost not even pay your utilities, because it’s going towards food, that’s going towards gas, that’s going toward car repairs.”

A spokesperson for DoorDash said 2 million delivery drivers joined the platform from March through September 2020.

Some college students or recent college graduates worked at DoorDash during the pandemic to make spare cash. Wills Rice, a recent college graduate from Scottsdale, said he enjoys the income from DoorDash, but it isn’t his only job and he has no dependents.

“There’s some days where I could make $130 in five hours, but there’s also times where I could make $60 in five hours,” Rice said. “And I think if you’re someone that’s relying on that to pay your bills, to feed your family, to do all that, I don’t think it’s reliable enough because it’s based on when people are ordering food”.

McNamara points to one delivery more than 45 miles from where he netted $15 – with no tip.

A spokesperson for DoorDash reported that 85% of “Dashers” are students or have a full or part-time job. Katie Wells, an Urban Studies Foundation postdoctoral research fellow at the Georgetown University Global Cities Initiative, said there is no independent data to support that. She and her colleagues studied how the lack of data from rideshare companies is allowing workers to be exploited.

“This is a story that these companies like to tell because that’s an easier sell as opposed to one to say that actually there’s no data showing this vast majority of rides are produced by part-timers,” said Wells, who studies Uber drivers in the Washington, D.C., area. “In fact, it’s the opposite. The majority of drivers are like those in our study that are full-time. They’re working really hard to support their families and can’t make a go of it.”

Who has ‘control’ in the gig economy?

Some rideshare and food delivery workers say the app companies have all the power.

“I don’t feel like I have control over anything,” Young said. “They control the flow of my day through an app. They can pay different amounts at different times a day. They can get me to work when they want me to work. And rather than having more control of my job, I feel like I have no control over my job.”

When he started driving for Uber and Lyft four years ago, the wages he earned were sustainable, Young said. He made about $130 in an eight-hour workday minus the price of gas, which was about $20 per day. That averages out at $13.75 an hour.

However, as time went on, the wages Young earned from Uber began to erode. Beth Griffith, executive director of the Boston Independent Drivers Guild, said the downward trend is industry-wide.

“They change the way they compensate us, and it was done under duress, so in order for us to continue working even with arbitrations and things like that, every time they decide they want to change the contract, you have to agree to it,” said Griffith, who drives for Uber and Lyft.

Griffith said she was making a decent amount of money driving for Uber and Lyft until the pay structure was updated and she was forced to agree to the new terms. Uber got rid of a payment model known as the “numeric multiplier” and Lyft got rid of its model, “prime time,” in 2016.

Under those models, Griffith would work the night shift, earning 1.5 or two times the daytime fare. Under the new plan, drivers were paid per mile and per minute, regardless of the hour.

Uber in 2017 dropped its pay rates per mile to $1.75 from $2.15, and in 2019 to 60 cents from 80, according to accounts from drivers. Uber and Lyft do not publicly report data. Griffith and Young were unsure of the exact amounts but their estimates lined up with the amounts reported by other drivers.

Lyft and Uber, which recently acquired Postmates, did not respond to requests for comment. In April, Uber released median earnings for drivers in six U.S. cities. In Los Angeles, Uber reported a median hourly wage of $26.85.

Wells, at Georgetown, said the math isn’t always that simple. She is following 40 drivers who worked for Uber and moved in and out of the industry over time, including during the pandemic.

“The vast majority of these jobs are extremely low paid and exploitative,” Wells said, “but it’s really, really hard to figure that out because the costs are so nebulous – like a spreadsheet of 20-some different factors to figure out, what do they get paid?

“One of our drivers sort of said very early on, ‘My God, this makes McDonald’s look like a simple job because at least you’re not going to lose anything at the end of your shift.’”

Gig workers demand rights

Rideshare and food delivery drivers in some of America’s largest cities plan to strike July 21 to raise awareness about the impact of the gig economy on workers.

“We know that the only way to guarantee that these companies pay a good living is if we have a legally binding contract that we collectively bargain with these companies,” said Nicole Moore, an organizer for Rideshare Drivers United in LA.

“The situation they have us in is not one that is sustainable for our own lives or for the communities we live in.”

Moore has been driving for Lyft for four years in Los Angeles to support her family on top of another job. She stopped driving when the pandemic was declared in March 2020 because of safety concerns and a lack of demand for Lyft rides, especially at the beginning of the pandemic.

She got involved with efforts to unionize rideshare drivers after becoming fed up with the declining pay.

“There’s very little trust between drivers and the apps anymore,” Moore said. “They always spin things to make us think that we’re about to get something great when it’s something when they cut the mileage rate.”

Moore and other drivers could see a pattern emerging, but realized they had no platform to negotiate or demand better rates. And, she said, some full-time drivers are frustrated because they receive no health benefits or paid time off.

“The companies are really trying all over the country to deceive the public and drivers about their sweetheart deals, like a guarantee of flexibility, which is not a guarantee at all,” Moore said. “Drivers in California will tell you that we’re not making more and we’re making less.”

Rodriguez said drivers in Connecticut also are fed up. She is an organizer with Connecticut Driver’s United.

“We literally need help,” Rodriguez said. “I am lucky because I have Section 8. Imagine the people who don’t have Section 8. This is the reason why Uber and Lyft need to come up with something better for us because they only think about making their money and their customers. They don’t think about us.”

Griffith is organizing the strike in Boston and hopes the movement will spread to other cities.

Moore said it’s no surprise drivers are reluctant to rush back after the pandemic.

“It’s not what America wants,” Moore said. “America wants good jobs. They want to know that when they get a car, that person has had enough sleep because they’re earning enough money that if they work eight hours a day, they can make a living.”

This story was produced in collaboration with the Walter Cronkite School-based Carnegie-Knight News21 “Unmasking America,” a national reporting project on the lingering toll of COVID-19 scheduled for publication in August. Check out the project’s blog here.

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‘Gig workers of all trades, unite!’ China’s state trade union calls for branches for gig economy workers

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China’s gig economy workers employed by online platforms, including deliverymen and ride hailing drivers, should be encouraged to form unions to boost their negotiating power with Big Tech, the country’s government-backed union said.

The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which answers to the Chinese Communist Party and is the only legal labour union in China, issued “opinions” this week calling for better protection of labour rights in China’s gig economy, which is estimated to provide around 200 million jobs in the country.

The state labour union made the call at a time when Beijing is turning up the heat on the country’s big technology platforms, including criticising them for exploiting workers. One recent opinion piece in an official newspaper affiliated with the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the country’s top political advisory body, even used concepts direct from Karl Marx to take a jab at China’s internet platforms.

Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.

On-demand services providers such as Meituan and Ele.me, and ride-hailing companies like Didi Chuxing, have employed millions of employees on a temporary basis. However, labour protections for those “employed in a flexible manner”, are often limited compared with full-time employees and the negotiating power of these workers is usually weak.

Grievances have been rising among these new types of workers, and Beijing has not hesitated to raise its concerns about the potential for social unrest with Big Tech. The Hong Kong-based NGO China Labour Bulletin (CLB) recorded 131 cases of food delivery worker protests between 2016 and 2021.

High profile cases of gig workers seeking better rights have hit the headlines recently, including the dramatic self-immolation of a delivery worker at Alibaba Group Holding-backed food delivery platform Ele.me in January. Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.

As Big Tech pushes for profit, labour conditions show little sign of improvement

“The state has praised the achievements of these big platform companies in the past, about how they have pushed the economy into a more hi-tech direction,” said Aidan Chau, researcher at CLB. “But in the meantime, the platforms have come to control a large amount of data generated by workers and consumers, often neglecting the lives of their workers as they conquer new industries.”

More than 95 per cent of food delivery workers work more than 8 hours a day, with 28 per cent clocking up more than 12 hours a day, according to a 2020 survey conducted by Beijing Yilian Labor Law Centre, a non-government organisation.

Beijing has recently upped the ante on tech firms, with eight government departments lecturing representatives of online ride-hailing providers over payment practices in May. The government has also been pushing tech platforms to provide basic welfare benefits to part-time employees.

At the same time though the Chinese government has maintained a strict ban on any kind of spontaneous labour union formation or strikes by gig economy workers. The Chinese authorities also arrested one of the most prominent gig worker activists, delivery worker Chen Guojiang, who had repeatedly called on fellow food deliverymen to take group action. He is currently awaiting trial on several charges, including credit card fraud and “provoking trouble”.

Why this flexible work platform is seeing a boom in sourcing riders for delivery giants

The state labour union submitted proposals on strengthening the protection of gig workers in March 2021 during the Two Sessions, the country’s most important political event. Despite the political pressure, not all analysts are convinced that the latest “opinions” will radically change the situation for gig workers.

“The union will not challenge the informal or flexible labour arrangement of these workers,” said CLB’s Chau. “Worker competition with each other will continue to be intense and their sense of insecurity will likely persist.”

This article ‘Gig workers of all trades, unite!’ China’s state trade union calls for branches for gig economy workers first appeared on South China Morning Post

For the latest news from the South China Morning Post download our mobile app. Copyright 2021.

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From the gig economy to working from home — these trends are changing the future of our jobs

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Working from home has become increasingly popular, necessary and in many cases compulsory due to the pandemic.

A recent study of corporate executives around the world found 19% said they expected employees to work three or more days remotely post-pandemic.

These results showing a shift towards working from home is mirrored in other studies from the US to Europe.

The tech that makes working from home possible

Adam McHale is the European Vice President of Cisco, a company that builds the technology that enables people to work from home. He told Euronews’ The Exchange that due to the pandemic, “broadband infrastructure became critical national infrastructure”. He added that internet traffic grew at a rate we would normally see in the space of 18 months in the space of a few days.

Cisco did a survey of 13,000 people across six different countries and 78% of them told the company that broadband connectivity “was absolutely critical to them”.

‘We can’t put everybody in the same box’

Estonia is a nation pushing the boundaries of remote and home working, often hailed as the most digitally advanced country. It is the nation that gave us Skype and made internet access a basic human right.

Its Minister for Health and Labour, Tanel Kiik, gave us his thoughts on how we should approach this new way of working.

He said that he thinks the changes to the way we work and the new forms of work are “only a positive thing”. “We can’t put everybody in the same box and say that this is your work contract and these are your working hours and this is your salary and be happy with that,” he added.

The Gig Economy

For a long time, this sector has been popping up on the news and not always for positive reasons, including cases of employment disputes and claims of infringement of workers’ rights.

But what exactly is the gig economy?

Dictionaries describe it as “a job market which consists of short-term or part-time work done by people who are self-employed or on temporary contracts”. However, this definition leaves out online platforms that many have started associating with it. In its simplest form, the gig economy can be described as flexible, temporary, or freelance jobs that often involve connecting clients or customers via apps and websites.

Its advocates say the new mode of work allows employees, businesses and consumers to adapt quickly to the needs of the moment. They also say it can also give workers more flexible hours to fit their lifestyles.

Kiik believes that the gig economy is something that is here to stay and is likely to grow in popularity. For that reason, he doesn’t see any point in fighting against it. “The world is changing constantly, the economy is changing and of course the work market and the jobs market are also changing”, he adds.

Online platforms and changing employment

Brands like Amazon and Alibaba have created profound changes to the way people live and work. Despite these billion-dollar success stories, people are still divided about the gig economy.

Qatari startup Snoonu, which offers a one-stop application that facilitates online shopping and deliveries, relies on the gig economy but is trying to remedy flaws in the mode of work’s fabric.

It has some 600 drivers poised to react to the ping of an order for thousands of locations around the country who are fully trained by the company. It also has over 250 young employees from 35 different countries whose jobs are constantly evolving thanks to digital innovation.

Entering the job market

The world of recruitment is also transforming to match new employee and employer needs. Juliet Eccleston is an employment expert and she told The Exchange that when people are straight out of college, it’s often “difficult to see the difference” on their CVs.

To her, and new employers like Snoonu, what makes people stand out are their vocational experience. “A lot of younger people have gone onto platforms and they’re actually micro-entrepreneurs behind the scenes, sharing things, renting things out and selling goods,” she explained. “Those kinds of skills are actually incredibly interesting for businesses”.

Whether employees are working from home, on a temporary contract, or on flexible hours, one thing is for sure; the future of work is changing.

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‘Gig economy can boost jobs for women’

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New Delhi: Alternative work arrangements in the gig economy can lead to the absorption of more women and increase their participation in the workforce with some re-skilling, according to a new study by the United Nations Development Programme in India (UNDP India) and industry federation Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci).

The rise of the gig economy following the coronavirus outbreak has the potential to boost women’s employment in formal jobs, said the study that collected data from 150 firms, of which one-third were from the manufacturing sector and the remaining were service firms.

“The adoption of new technologies could create better opportunities for women. However, re-skilling will be crucial to expand opportunities for women in the formal sector,” said the study that received support from the government of Japan.

The survey claimed that sectors such as health and pharmaceuticals, electrical and electronics, and fast-moving consumer goods are likely to see more female employment. At the same time, women’s employment in the finance and accounting divisions may moderately change because of the adoption of new technology.

“At least 57% of the heads of surveyed firms felt that the advent of the gig economy would boost women’s employment, while just 4% said that it would not. The remaining 39% of the heads of firms surveyed remained inconclusive,” according to the study titled Future of Work for Women in the Formal Sector in India.

Around 57% of the surveyed firms agree that the gig economy will itself expand and boost women’s job prospects because it is based on flexible, temporary or freelance jobs, often involving connecting with clients or customers through an online platform.

“This underscores that alternative work arrangements in the gig economy have the potential to absorb more women and increase their participation in the workforce,” the study said. However, it did not address the question that gig work is often not a primary assignment and there is no job security. A boost in the use of technology and increased acceptance of virtual working for sales and distribution jobs could open up opportunities for women in fields where interactions are managed via apps and phone calls, it said.

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