It seems likely that casual, project-based work isn’t going to go away any time soon. The question labor advocates are now asking is how to make the gig economy work for workers, ensuring that the kind of no-benefits, below-minimum wage, independent contractor arrangements now so common don’t become the only option. “The economy of the future—whether that is house cleaning, content creation, pet care, or whatever—is going to include gigs. We have to make sure that it isn’t making itself profitable at the expense of the people doing the work,” says Kati Sipp with Hack the Union.
Part of the problem activists face is a concentration of power. Just a few platforms, from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to Uber, Airbnb, TaskRabbit, and a handful of others, dominate the on-demand economy. These companies are designed to maximize returns for investors; often, that means shortchanging those who are doing the actual work of coding, driving, or standing in line. And those same companies are hiring legions of lawyers to remake policy and laws in their favor while also facing challenges in the courts. Right now, deep pockets and wide-ranging networks—Uber, the poster child of the on-demand economy, is a global operation valued at more than $60 billion—make it hard to envision a challenge to their dominance.
But advocates see another way to influence the future of the on-demand economy: with technology. Specifically, by challenging today’s closed, corporate-controlled platforms with alternatives that are worker-owned, open source, and transparently operated. The vision is of a cooperative platform that’s part open-source foundation, part nonprofit, and part traditional co-op; it would remove the cutthroat profit motive that drives down wages while providing workers a voice in their own employment.
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