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The Gig Economy – The Latest Innovation in Exploitation

Written by: Duncan B. on 24 September 2021


The working class is no stranger to precarious employment. From the earliest days workers often lived with being employed day by day or even hour by hour. Workers could be hired and fired at the whim of the capitalist. Older workers remember having to line up outside wharves or railway yards hoping to get a day’s work. 

Workers have for many years faced casual employment in hospitality, retail, transport and warehousing. They often do the same job for the same employer working full-time hours, but are still classed as “casual.”

In recent years a new form of precarious employment has come into existence—the “gig” economy. The gig economy involves workers in short term work arrangements doing flexible, temporary or freelance jobs. The workers and employers are often connected through on-line platforms.

The gig economy covers many sectors of the economy including rideshare, food delivery, parcel delivery, personal care, performing tasks in people’s homes and freelancing jobs in areas such as information technology. Renting out spare capacity in accommodation, cars or caravans is another example.

Australians will be familiar with companies such as Uber, Deliveroo, Airtasker, and Air B&B. World-wide there are hundreds of companies covering various areas of the gig economy. About 7% of Australians participate in the gig economy. (Queensland University of Technology study, 2019.)

 Many people participate in the gig economy to earn extra income, but for many it is their only source of income. They juggle several ride share-driving or food delivery gigs with low paid casual jobs such as retail work or as cleaners or security guards to try to make ends meet.

The majority of the companies behind the gig economy are based in the US, although Airtasker, Menulog and Mable are Australian companies. Rideshare company DiDi is based in China and Deliveroo is a British company.

Exploitation is rife in the gig economy. For example, Amazon Flex pays people $108 to use their own cars to deliver 30-40 parcels in a four hour “block.” Drivers face being cut off from work for alleged “violations” without explanation. Food deliverers have been injured or killed on bicycles or motor bikes while delivering food. Ride share drivers have been assaulted and robbed during their shifts. Support workers complain of difficulty getting paid by on-line agencies.
The gig economy companies try to treat their workers as independent contractors, leaving them with minimum pay and none of the benefits or protection such as sick pay and workers’ compensation enjoyed by workers classed as employees.  

Gig workers are starting to organise in defence of their rights with the help of unions such as the Transport Workers’ Union. Recent court cases in Australia and the UK have gone in favour of gig workers being treated as employees. However in California, ride share companies Uber and Lyft are appealing against a court ruling which will make them treat their workers as employees rather than independent contractors.

No worker is safe! The wholesale closure of many manufacturing companies in Australia has led to the destruction of some of the most unionised and militant sections of the working class. Many skilled workers who enjoyed well paid jobs were forced into early retirement, unemployment or low paying jobs in the service sector. This is what happened when Alcoa closed its smelter in Geelong (Vic) in 2014. Workers were offered retraining as prison guards or aged-care workers. No doubt some had to go into the gig economy to survive.  

The changes to the workforce stemming from deindustrialisation and the rise of the gig economy pose challenges to working class organisations. They need to find new ways of organising and connecting with workers who today are more dispersed with the closure of the large factories and workshops which were the traditional places where organisation and recruitment once took place.



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