Gig Work Around the World: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Have we shifted the Overton Window on the gig economy? Looking back at changes in law, labor markets, and attitudes toward tech in 2021, it’s possible that we did. A second year of pandemic-induced labor market shocks led to the Great Resignation, and — with the ongoing squeeze and lack of support for essential workers — continued organizing and a wave of strikes, demonstrations and protests all around the world. Something will have to give in 2022. Hopefully it will be the morally and literally bankrupt platform business model.

A roundup of what I covered in 2021: In January I started with reflections on the prior year and what a new US Administration could do to support labor rights for gig workers in Five Ways Biden Can Tame the Gig Economy. It remains true that the fundamental fix has nothing to do with technology. We need to finally enact living wages, in the US and around the world, so no one is compelled to moonlight in gig work to make ends meet.

At the same time, I argued that labor law is not enough and we need to start addressing data protection, going beyond privacy to ensure collective data rights. And with expose after expose of the dangerous effects of algorithms on everything from COVID disinformation to violent misogyny, to say nothing of Facebook’s ongoing role in undermining democracies, it was no surprise to find that gig workers deal with surreal challenges when they are managed by bots, as a brilliant new paper from Worker Info Exchange points out. Worker efforts to challenge algorithmic management led to critically important new victories in Europe that provide a basis for asserting greater digital rights and labor rights in other countries, too. I describe this in Gig Workers in the Driver’s Seat. These efforts build on the important victory in the UK that took place in February, described in this interview with James Farrar.

And speaking of labor protections, the pendulum continued to swing back and forth in what I call the Death Star for gig worker rights: California. But despite putting their muscle behind the most expensive ballot initiative in history, platform companies discovered in August that they Can’t Hack Labor Laws per my piece for Inequality.org. Importantly, as I wrote for Bot Populi in November, the creative organizing by gig workers is going to continue to change the game as we see new forms of Solidarity under Surveillance Capitalism.

And yet, companies are continuing and expanding their fight to undermine labor protections in California and elsewhere, and I couldn’t help noting how much their ad campaigns rely on some really terrible assumptions about unpaid care burdens around the world. Not only have essential workers continued to be insufficiently respected and protected in the continuing pandemic, we have absolutely failed to invest in the care infrastructure needed to even allow people, especially women, to continue in paid employment. This is no small part of the reason for the Great Resignation. We are in danger of losing all recent gains on gender equity in the world of work. I write about this in Bringing Precarity Home for Global Labour Column. The piece builds on earlier comments on how the much-heralded Generation Equality summit may have failed its promise in an increasingly patriarchal future of work. And linking back to algorithmic bias, I argue this trend may be exacerbated and accelerated by algorithms in a paper for IDRC, Bias In, Bias Out.

And finally, in December I had a chance to sum up many of my concerns of the past few years regarding excessive faith in technology to provide simple solutions to complex labor market problems. As I caution in a piece for the OECD’s annual Development Co-Operation Report, governments and donors need to gather better data on who wins and loses in digitized labor markets, support measures to enhance collective rights for gig workers, and hold platforms accountable to provide decent work for all.

What should we expect in 2022? I predict the wave of critical inquiry into the negative aspects of platforms and gig work will continue. The new guidance in Europe will inspire similar measures in other countries, though the US may continue to be the laggard unless we correct for corporate capture of public policy. And I’ve been talking to lots of researchers, organizers and workers in the space where the gig economy meets care work. I’ll shortly be releasing Season 2 of The Gig Podcast, and it’s titled Who Cares? Tune in for some further thoughts on the future of work for the world’s most precarious workers.

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Bama Athreya

Bama Athreya

Expert on labor, gender equity and workplace social inclusion, labor migration and trafficking. Interested in the intersection of tech and social movements.