Recently, I received an email invitation from the University of NSW Young Alumni to attend “networking drinks” with the co-founders of Airtasker. The event, “What it means to ‘live like a boss’” featured a talk from the co-founders about how they started with an idea in 2011 and now have more than one million members and $75 million worth of jobs processed through the platform.
For ordinary workers, the “sharing” economy can seem attractive as an opportunity to make extra cash during your spare time, or to make money out of things you already own, especially amidst increasing unemployment. The business model lures workers to become entrepreneurs, to “be your own boss” and be free of your 9-to-5 job.
However, the reality is much grimmer for food delivery workers in the sharing economy. As reported by Asher Wolf in “Meet the food delivery workers in the decentralised Dickensian online gig economy”, they are mostly foreign workers risking life and limb to deliver food to your door: “Every night for months I walked past them, their exhausted bodies in biking gear and fingerless gloves sprawled out on a public seat in south-eastern suburban Melbourne, food delivery bags dumped at their feet.” A selection of the workers’ statements confirms the harsh reality of their experiences:
“Every day, every second is a risk. No one cares, no superannuation. Everything is a risk. Nothing. Nothing. And still we pay tax.”
“There’s no union. We haven’t seen union down here. We don’t have connections, we don’t have protection. We are our own companies: our jackets, bikes and bags. The office just gives us the delivery jobs, but they’re not our employers.”
“Every year the job is getting worse.”
“They have too many riders now. We don’t get enough jobs.”
The value of Australia’s sharing economy is $15.1 billion and is predicted to grow to $55 billion over the next five years. At this rate, we can only assume a corresponding increase in the level of exploitation of the working class, particularly for foreign workers, but also for ordinary people finding it harder to secure a job in the current economic climate.
Governments at state and federal level have focused mainly on the productivity benefits and increased consumer choice resulting from the gig economy and the wider sharing economy to which it is related.
A recent Sydney Morning Herald article stated that the growing use of services such as Uber and Airbnb has led to a billion dollar increase in the sharing economy over the past year, to $2.6 billion in NSW alone.
However, governments have failed to regulate the sharing economy, resulting in the exploitation, not just of food delivery workers, but many other workers.
A New York Times article described how Uber and other companies use tactics developed by the video gaming industry to keep drivers on the road even when they prefer to finish for the day, to raise company revenue while lowering their drivers’ hourly earnings.
In general, workers in the sharing economy are not “employees” but contractors, which allows companies to keep them off their payroll and deny them any employee benefits like sick leave, annual leave, superannuation or workers’ compensation.
For the capitalist class, the rise of the sharing economy is an instrument for further casualisation and exploitation of the working class to increase profits at the expense of working people.
The challenge for us is to build up a strong resistance against exploitation of workers as a result of the growth of the sharing economy. This resistance should include strategies for organising workers and building union strength in this area.
With the revenue from this industry set to grow in the future, these companies need to be taxed vigorously and ultimately nationalised for the benefit of society and elimination of their profit motive, which is the root cause of worker exploitation.
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