What’s it like to be “your own boss” in the global gig economy?
Much like being rats in a maze, according to The Gig Is Up, an engaging documentary about the driver behind your Lyft ride, the Uber Eats kid who delivered dinner and the TaskRabbit guy doing your yard work.
The people who are the invisible machinery behind all this ‘convenience’ are the focus of director Shannon Walsh’s film, a picture one hopes will shame the Ubers and Amazons of the world.
But that doesn’t seem likely.
The gig economy represents about $5 trillion annually and, according to the film, over the next four years will involve more than 540 million people seeking work via online platforms.
Walsh travels to several countries to meet the people doing this work first-hand — drivers, delivery persons, odd-job experts and those who toil behind the scenes.
Early on, the film spells out the ‘independent spirit’ idea that inspires gig workers — you’re physically active, you can set your own hours, you work when you want to, you’re not confined to an office and the work transcends race, education and gender.
That’s the myth.
(Mind you, it works for Jason Edwards, an interesting character with gold teeth and a police record, things that make regular employment unlikely. Edwards lives with his mom in a Florida backwater and ekes out a living gaming on-line surveys for a few bucks here and there.)
For most, the reality is that working for an algorithm is hellish, and once a company has any sort of monopoly, they change the rules as they see fit.
In Paris, a woman named Leila Ouadad talks about the exigencies of delivering for Uber Eats; things get even darker after a co-worker is badly hurt in a bike accident.
Annette Rivero left a good job to drive for Uber, lured away by the idea of being her own boss. Now her income has been cut in half, and she and all the other drivers have to toe the line or be de-activated, the tech equivalent of being fired.
Rivero weeps on camera while describing her current employment circumstances.
American anthropologist Mary L. Gray (author of Ghost Work) is one of the experts who turns up in the film to talk about technology and labour; she explains the start of Mechanical Turk and how human computation is part of A.I.
We then meet Mitchell Amewieye, who spends what looks like every waking hour online doing A.I. gig work — something that pays pennies and looks a lot like the 21st century equivalent of piece work in a garment factory.
And he gets paid in Amazon dollars. Pick your jaw up off the floor.
The median hourly wage on Mechanical Turk is $2 and what’s involved are half a million workers from 190 countries.
A new American from Yemen talks about working for Uber and what has happened to his income. He describes the fear and loathing the drivers have over being deactivated, even as they are hyper vigilant to attend to every request and never miss a work opportunity.
An advocate and former driver named Jerome Pimot explains why the drivers are increasingly people with no other work options because they are immigrants or minors or undocumented workers or people with criminal records.
In China, a photographer discusses the rise of consumerism and takes the stunned viewer to a secret bike graveyard where hundreds of thousands of bicycles have been discarded. Some 70 companies were competing for ride-share dominance, he explains, and that led to oversaturation. Quelle understatement.
Not surprisingly, many of the gig workers are becoming activists, asking for better working conditions and pay.
And courts are ordering gig work platforms to treat workers as employees, but Uber, Lyft and all the other big guns continue to fight those judgments.
The workers are expendable.
There’s a sense of deja vu about The Gig Is Up and the plight of all these workers — didn’t we already do this a century ago?
Do we have to repeat the Homestead Strike or the Ludlow Massacre?
“What is our new social contract in a world where the majority of us are serving each other?” asks Dr. Gray.
The Gig Is Up wants answers to those questions.