The Silicon Valley Gig Economy Is A Nightmare

Duane Townsend

New Republic - January 16, 2020

"Many of those new low- and middle-income earners appear to be gig workers. Projections from the state Employment Development Departmentfoundthat the fastest-growing occupations in San Francisco were taxi drivers, chauffeurs, couriers, messengers, and personal care aides. Exact numbers are hard to come by, because gig workers are often considered self-employed—and that very opacity plays into the hands of tech companies that aren’t particularly keen to shine a light on whether these new jobs meet fair labor practices."

Vanessa Bain was less than a year into her gig as an Instacart shopper when the company announced it would no longer allow tipping on its app. Instacart instead began imposing a 10 percent “service fee” that replaced the previous default tip of 10 percent. The change had no impact on customers, who could be forgiven for assuming that the new fee would still go to the workers who shopped for their groceries and delivered them to their homes. “It was deceptive to customers,” Bain said. “They thought they were still tipping us, when instead it went to the company. It wasn’t being passed to us at all.”

When Bain, who lives in Palo Alto, California, became a shopper in 2016, she believed that gig work would provide her with both financial stability and schedule flexibility to take care of her young daughter. However, as independent contractors, Bain and her husband, a fellow shopper, don’t receive sick leave or holidays. And in practice, the “be your own boss” promise of the gig economy instantly vanishes the moment you take on a gig job: It is, instead, a system that relentlessly dictates your schedule. “We are controlled. We are treated like employees but without the perks,” Jennifer Cotten, a Los Angeles area–based shopper, told me. “We’re told what order to deliver in and when to go.”

The indignities of the gig economy are well established at this point, as the laissez-faire labor practices of companies like Uber, Instacart, Door Dash, and Lyft draw more critical scrutiny. Bain, Cotton, and their fellow shoppers are among the millions of precariously employed workers who rely on part-time jobs or side gigs to scrape together a living, all without the safety net of employer-based insurance.  

But what is less widely acknowledged is how the gig economy interacts with other trends in California and forces unleashed by Silicon Valley—rising housing costs, choked infrastructure—to make life hell for those who live at or near the epicenter of America’s technology industry. Together, they constitute a nightmare vision of what the world would look like if it were run by our digital overlords, as they sit atop a growing underclass that does their shopping and drives their cars—all while barely able to make ends meet.

By most official measures, California’s economy is humming. Its unemployment rate, at 3.9 percent, is at a record low. It is home to some of the world’s most valuable companies: Google, Apple, Facebook. As The New York Timesnoted in December, “Its median household income has grown about 17 percent since 2011, compared with about 10 percent nationally, adjusted for inflation.”

But the state’s affluence is spread unevenly, resulting in an increasingly bifurcated economy that privileges the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. This is particularly apparent in cities like San Francisco and San Diego, where the gig economy is most prevalent. Costs of living there are higher than elsewhere in the country, exacerbated by a housing market that, thanks to an influx of cash from the tech sector, has become prohibitively expensive for many people (and has also helped drive a spike in homelessness). ...
Read full report at New Republic

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