In a recent newspaper column, John Stossel explained ride-sharing, an internet service that matches drivers with riders. Those advertising the need for a ride are matched with those offering the same, they do a private deal, money is exchanged. Sound good? Cars aren’t inspected, drivers aren’t licensed as taxi drivers are; there may be risk for drivers and passengers. Ride-sharing may be bad news for taxi services, limo operators, and bus companies which have fixed costs, pay wages, and comply with regulations. For Stossel, ride-sharing is a great example of laissez-faire: participation is voluntary, payment is negotiated freely, government is not involved.
In another column, Stossel explained meal sharing, an internet service that matches home cooks with diners. Those advertising interest in a meal are matched with those offering the same, they do a private deal, money is exchanged. Sound good? Kitchens aren’t inspected or licensed as restaurants or even bed and breakfasts are; there may be risk for hosts and guests. Don’t worry, Stossel says, if you get sick you won’t go back. Meal sharing may be bad news for restaurants and bed and breakfasts which must comply with regulations. For Stossel, meal sharing is a great example of laissez-faire: participation is voluntary, payment is negotiated freely, government is not involved. For restaurant owners, meal sharing may seem like unfair competition.
Then I read an article in the February 24th issue of The Nation, “The Wages of Crowdwork,” by Moshe Z Marvit. Marvit explains crowdwork also known as turking. Turkers sign up as independent contractors to do minor tasks using the internet. Work is offered by the requestor, the job is taken by a responder, the responder hope to be paid at the low hourly rate offered. Turking allows one to work at home or while working another job. It is unregulated: no minimum wage, no vacation, unlimited hours, no overtime, no benefits, no recourse if the requester fails to pay. John Stossel must love it–no office expenses, no commitment, a free market for low wage labor.
Crowdwork is the white-collar equivalent of day labor. Many crowdwork tasks pay very poorly, better ones are highly sought after. Turkers compete ravenously for scraps of work which they will perform for whatever they can get. If the requester fails to pay the responder has no recourse. Responders are rated; a bad mark negates a hundred good ones. The requester has no obligation to give a reason for a bad mark. It’s like the life depicted in “Slumdog Millionaire.”
So is the internet economy what the future holds? Will we find meals, rides, employment competing with others minute by minute in an unregulated economy? Will we be better off without the protection that society normally offers working class citizens?
In California, crowdworkers have filed a class action suit in Federal court. Plaintiffs, filing on behalf of what may be the worlds largest workforce, allege that crowdworkers are not contractors but employees of the crowdworking company. If the plaintiffs prevail, they may be entitled to benefits and protections that employees receive including minimum wage, overtime, protection from discrimination, right to organize, unemployment compensation, workers compensation, and possibly others. Some crowdworkers are worried: will the lawsuit end their chance to make even a pittance working on the internet?
© William Hungerford – February 2014