How the Gig Economy is Undermining Workers

April 4, 2018

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Education has traditionally been seen as a way to protect oneself from the risks of unemployment. However, in order to adapt to the transforming and competitive post-industrial labour market, today’s youth are having to spend increasing amounts of time in the education system in order to secure their professional and economic future. The rise of automation and the predicted likelihood of unprecedented future job losses and obsolescence has transformed the role of contemporary education to one of an ongoing process, rather than merely a means to an end. With studies predicting as many as half of the total jobs in the Western world will be vulnerable to automation and displacement by 2030 (with the large percentage of these jobs coming from low-skill work), the need to become ‘career adaptable’ is becoming an essential component of modern life.  

 

This growing need for tertiary qualifications has led many young students and workers to take on both insecure casual or part time roles while they complete their studies or attempt to transition into full-time work. While precarious work (part time, casual, or contractual work arrangements) in itself is not a new concept, the growth of precarious work since the ‘70s is seen as a problematic trend, with the consequence of precarious work and the financial and emotional insecurity in necessitates having a far-reaching social effect.

 

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Nonetheless, we have been taught to view casual or part-time work, as a blessing, giving individuals the ability willing chose what, when, where, and how often work. While the gig economy may present itself as a more flexible and freeing alternative to full-time employment, the long-term health effects of long-term precarious work have been shown to be both physically and emotionally detrimental; a University of New South Wales study found that professionals in insecure or precarious jobs, are four times more likely to suffer from depression and other health problems.

 

With Union membership at historically low levels, the federal Coalition Government continues to attack the scarce entitlements of Australia’s precarious workers (and other vulnerable Australians) that lack any real political weight, under the absurd pretence that business owners will opt to roster on more staff, rather than reap the additional profit themselves. Other coalition MPs have downplayed suggestions that penalty rate cuts will have any serious impact on the livelihood of those impacted, claiming that part-time or casual work is merely temporary, and therefore not a serious concern or threat to the financial livelihood of workers. This is in spite of findings that precarious work is increasingly following workers from youth into adulthood.

 

The exclusion or reduction of entitlements has a profound impact on the life choices of young workers – particularly young women, who occupy a large proportion of the precarious workforce. Unlike their full-time counterparts, precarious workers are typically excluded from entitlements such as compulsory super contributions and parental leave entitlements – all of which drastically undermine the future prospects of young workers. This particular exclusion often leaves many young women financially incapable of having children. This is reflected by the number of women actively delaying childbearing until they obtain full-time work, despite expressing their desire to have children.

 

This withering of the welfare state is the inevitable consequence of decades of neoliberal economic policies that has not only undermined the job, social, and economic security of workers, but eroded the very notion of society. This is perfectly embodied by conservative former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s famous remark that “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”

 

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The increasing individualisation of late modernity has resulted in individuals coming to accept the burden and responsibility of employment opportunities themselves, despite having little control over the job market in which they seek employment. Job opportunities, uncertainty, and risks have become internalised as erroneous notions of meritocracy are used to justify growing inequality and exploitation across the globe.  

 

Systemic economic crises that inevitably require national and multi-national action and regulation are instead now being framed as an issue of individual will and entrepreneurial tact. We are taught to admire the determination of individuals to push through extreme obstacles, rather than question infrastructural or financial regulatory inadequacies of an economic system that necessitates a man ploughing 33 km through the snow daily in order to get to work, because he lacks sufficient income to purchase a car, or the public transport system to commute.

 

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The gig economy has given rise to new social demands, whereby financial constraints are being placed on individuals under the guise of personal freedom. This became glaringly evident with the recent legal case involving the multinational ride-sharing company, Uber, in which the company argued, and won, a case to classify their drivers as contractors, not employees, to avoid paying employees a minimum wage or any other worker entitlements. In order to ensure and protect our economic future, we must first acknowledge the limitations and threats the gig economy, and its so-called liberating workplace arrangements, pose to the welfare of all workers and demand new forms of worker rights and laws that adequately cater for the rapidly changing 'Uberfication' of global markets, and to prevent and protect against the potential rise of the 'Useless Class'.

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MACSS is a society for students at the University of Melbourne, situated on Wurundjeri land. We are proudly affiliated with the University of Melbourne Student Union. For enquiries, membership, or sponsorships, please contact us at media.comm.society@gmail.com.

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