Is there a Moral Problem with the Gig Economy?

by Roger Crisp

Nearly all of us have been involved with the so-called ‘gig economy’ in some way or other, whether by calling an Uber or by ordering a pizza via Deliveroo. Indeed my elder daughter was a ‘Roo’ for a while (not long, I’m glad to say), so I have had some insight, albeit vicarious, into what gig work is really like. But of course the gig economy has come under a lot of moral scrutiny in recent years – hence Dan Halliday’s fascinating and well attended New St Cross Special Ethics Seminar on Thursday 28 February.

First, then, what is the gig economy? Dan began with the plausible suggestion that gig work is labour performed ‘to order’ by freelance workers. The digital platforms involved are really just more sophisticated successors to newspaper ads and ‘phone directories, putting workers and consumers in touch with one another. In that sense, then, the gig economy as a whole isn’t exactly the ‘revolution’ journalists and others sometimes say it is. The new digital platforms are best viewed as a new variation on what might actually be the oldest kind of paid work though of course their emergence has made a big difference to people’s lives (as did ‘phone directories, presumably).

The first potential moral objection to the gig economy Dan considered is that it is exploitative, since its workers receive less remuneration for their work than they should. The platforms tend to involve lower barriers than usual for entry (Uber drivers, for example, don’t need some special licence), and their effectiveness increases competition between workers. Now exploitation might be thought to involve a wage that is just too low for the job, which a worker accepts only because they’re desperate. But it’s very hard to say exactly which wage is right for any job, and sometimes those in the gig economy aren’t driven by desperation or a lack of alternative options (e.g. some rich person who works as an Uber driver just because they like driving).

The second objection Dan discussed is one of alleged misclassification. Gig workers for some platforms are really employees of a company, it is claimed, while the companies in question treat them as freelance workers. What lies behind this distinction between employees and freelance workers? One idea Dan discussed is that the distinction captures two different ways in which a worker might balance reward and risk. As an employee, I sacrifice some freedom (I have to show up for work) for sake of some guarantees (e.g. a monthly wage), whereas if I’m freelance I have greater liberty, but also face greater risk.

Freelancers can set their own prices. My plumber, for example, can offer to visit my home at whatever price she likes – and of course it’s up to me whether to accept her offer. But often those in the gig economy lack this freedom: the company sets the charge, using an algorithm, which may – or may not (it doesn’t really matter) – represent market prices. Those platforms, like Airbnb, which enable asset-sharing without setting prices, Dan noted, run into less moral opposition. They might advise me to rent my house out at some price or other, but it’s up to me whether to take that advice.

Freelancers can also decide how much capital to invest in their business. It’s up to my plumber whether she buys the latest gizmo to fix my pipes, while as I know from my daughter’s experience ‘Roos’ have to wear branded clothing, and indeed pay a hefty ‘deposit’ for it when they start — £150 in her case. And Uber puts pressure on its drivers to make water and mints available to customers. Freelancers also of course have a right to continue trading, whereas the platforms can ban workers from using their platform.

The platform companies may say that ordinary employers can require their workers to work, whereas they do not. (As it happens, I know this wasn’t true in the case of Deliveroo, who told my daughter she had to be available for a certain number of hours every fortnight.) Dan offered two responses to this: first, there’s nothing stopping the platform companies offering standard contracts; and, second, it’s not implausible to say that workers are working whenever they are available (my daughter would spend hours hanging around in the middle of Oxford, waiting for a job).

What seems to have gone wrong, Dan suggested, is that the balance has tipped too far in the direction of the companies. There are some advantages in freedom in the gig economy, but if the companies are going to treat gig workers like traditional employees then something needs to be given in return.

Dan went on to note that gig workers have had some success in unionization, and that elements of the gig economy are entering other areas, including higher education, where casualization of employment is increasing. One practical possibility might be for the state to enforce greater competition, to avoid monopolization by a platform company of a certain area.

Is there then a moral objection to the gig economy in itself? I was left thinking that mere misclassification can’t be morally objectionable in itself, so what matters must be the effects of that misclassification on the workers. And that takes us back to exploitation. I rather agree with Dan that there’s no obviously correct philosophical theory of exploitation. But that situation isn’t terribly unusual in philosophy, to put it mildly, and I think most people would agree that there are some undeniable cases of exploitation in the world at present (e.g. the Bangladeshi garment workers paid 35 pence per hour to produce Girl Power T-shirts). The misclassification of workers by the platform companies, then, is the result of their taking advantage of the weak position of those workers in the market – that is, exploiting them. The solution – as in the case of child chimney sweeps in the nineteenth century — must be a legislative response to public opinion, but in the meantime (as also happened with the sweeps) boycotts can also be effective. Try to avoid using Uber or Deliveroo, and, if you have to, at least pay a decent tip!

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