Commoditized Workers. Case Study Research on Labour Law Issues Arising from a Set of ‘On-Demand/Gig Economy’ Platforms
In the framework of the so-called “sharing economy”, the number of on-demand companies matching labour supply and demand is on the rise. These schemes may enlarge opportunities for people willing to find a job or to top up their salaries. Despite the upsides of creating new peer marketplaces, these platforms may also be used to circumvent employment regulation, by operating informally in traditionally regulated markets.
Literature showed how, by 2009, over 2 million worker accounts had been generated within these frameworks. Productivity may be fostered but, at the same time, a new version of Taylorism is disseminated (i.e. the fragmentation of labour into hyper-temporary jobs – they call them microtasks – on a virtual assembly line), strengthened by globalisation and computerisation. All these intermediaries recruit freelance or casual workers (these continue to be independent contractors even though many indicators seem to reveal a disguised employment relationship).
Uncertainty and insecurity are the price for extreme flexibility. A noteworthy volume of business risk is shifted to workers, and potential costs as benefits or unemployment insurance are avoided. Minimum wages are often far from being reached.
This paper will present a case study analysis of several “on-demand work” platforms, starting from the Amazon Mechanical Turk, one of the first schemes founded in 2005, which is arguably “employing humans-as-a-service”. It splits a single service in several micro “Human Intelligence Tasks” (such as tagging photographs, writing short descriptions, transcribing podcasts, processing raw data); “Turkers/Providers” (workers) are selected by “Requesters” to rapidly accomplish assignments online, are then rated according to an internal system and are finally paid (also in gaming credits) only if delivery is accepted. After having signed up and worked within some platforms, I comment upon TaskRabbit (thousands people on the service who bid to do simple manual tasks), Handy and Wonolo (personal assistance at a local level), oDesk and Freelancer (online staffing), Uber and Lyft (peer-to-peer ridesharing), Airbnb (hosting service), InnoCentive (engineering solutions), Axiom (legal research or service), BitWine (consultancy).
Finally I highlight downsides and upsides of work in these platforms by studying terms of service or participation agreements to which both parties have to agree. I look into several key features such as (i) means of exchange/commodities, (ii) systems of payment, (iii) demographics, (iv) legal issues concerning status and statutory protection of workers, indicators of subordination, treatment of sickness, benefits and overtime, potential dispute resolution, and deprived “moral valence of work” and I discuss potential strategies to address these issues.