A dream becomes a nightmare

    LABOUR / On the front lines of the visible – and invisible – global platform economy.

    Their very ubiquity makes them invisible – the Uber drivers, the Deliveroo riders, the Lyft chauffeurs. They are everywhere, on the streets of every city and community in virtually every country in the world.

    But others truly deserve the term «ghost workers» in the global platform economy – now worth an astonishing $5 trillion. Those are the workers who do tasks mediated by the giants of social media that are performed in cyberspace, not physical space. They work for peanuts per job on such platforms at Amazon Mechanical Turk, which promises clients can «access a global, on-demand, 24X7 workforce» without going to the trouble of «hiring a large temporary workforce, which is time-consuming, expensive and difficult to scale, or have gone undone.»

    The Gig is Up, a film by Shannon Walsh
    The Gig is Up, a film by Shannon Walsh

    Micro-tasks for micropayments

    Leaving aside in quite what universe that tortuous phrase «have gone undone» (presumably it means, dispense with) emerged – the Meta Universe, perhaps – M.Turk (named after a late 18th-century fake mechanical chess-playing machine that concealed a human chess grandmaster beneath the board) – uses the human labour to do the tasks that computerised AI – Augmented Intelligence – is not very good at, such as proof-reading texts, evaluating dating site photos and text, or filling out surveys.

    M.Turk offers online developers the opportunity to outsource millions of «micro-tasks» – for micropayments: in Nigeria, one M.Turk contractor appraises online personals for 10 cents a job; if he earns $.250 or more in a day, he considers himself fortunate.

    But it is not only those struggling to make ends meet in developing countries that find themselves at the mercy of the algorithms that drive this uniquely 21st-century type of work, The Gig Is Up, Shannon Walsh’s engaging and disturbing films shows.

    it is not only those struggling to make ends meet in developing countries that find themselves at the mercy of the algorithms that drive this uniquely 21st-century type of work

    The gig economy

    From China to France and the USA, millions of people are engaged in the gig economy. By 2025 it is estimated that 540 million worldwide will be making their living via platform work, many drawn by the benefits – flexibility, working for yourself, no office hours, access regardless of most formal qualifications. But those very advantages are also disadvantaging when the true nature of the gig economy is exposed.

    Drawing on expert comment from writers and researchers into the online world of platforms, Shannon draws back a veil on how companies such as Uber (which despite consistently losing money still attracted $8 billion when it made its IPO in 2019, valuing the company at $75 billion) initially attracted workers by offering customers big discounts and drivers good rates.

    San Francisco Uber driver, Annette Rivero, quit her comfortably paid job, drawn by the opportunity to earn $2,000 a week. Within a year or so, she was struggling to make $1,000 a week and, in one heart-wrenching scene, is seen in tears as she explains she can no longer afford casual treats for her kids, such as a day at the beach.

    Another driver, Al Aloudi, a Yemeni-immigrant who becomes an activist at the centre of Californian Uber drivers’ campaign to be declared employees, not contractors, describes how initially he made $1.95 a mile before it dropped to just 66 cents.

    Experts interviewed by Shannon describe how this is all part of the model – pull in the customers and workforce and then cut back on wages to maintain the effective subsidy paid to support the habits of what one of them calls «upper-middle-class millennials» who use multiple platform services a day.

    It is a strange new form of capitalism where work is allocated by algorithm, and a couple of bad customer reviews can result in instant account blockage for a worker – i.e. being fired.

    The Gig is Up, a film by Shannon Walsh
    The Gig is Up, a film by Shannon Walsh

    21st-century mightmare

    For many, platform work becomes a tortuous round of chasing job offers (some workers for M.Turk explain how they will wake up before dawn just to access job offers that come in overnight before anyone else) and ratings. A Deliveroo rider in Paris explains how the faster and more frequently you take a job, the lower the rate paid – meaning that those riders who are more discriminating make more per journey but eventually get crowded out by the most hungry to work, often literally half-starving undocumented refugees working on the quiet on a friend’s account.

    M.Turk workers outside of the US and India are paid in Amazon Gift vouchers – a modern take on the old system of company shops where workers were paid in tokens only redeemable at the company shop, where goods were overpriced.

    Some of the workers stick up for the platforms – Jason Edwards, living in semi-rural Florida, still at home with his mother at 36 (he had a spell in prison and has never managed to create anything resembling a normal CV) – sticks up for the micro-tasks that means he can «earn $20 or $30 before Mom is even up in the morning.» An engaging character with a mouthful of gold teeth and tattoos that he claims makes normal employment impossible, he is clearly intelligent and maintains a 99.5% approval rating on a system he says sometimes needs to be gamed, «I am one of the few African American Republicans on this platform,» he quips.

    But as French Uber Eats and Deliveroo rider Leila Ouadad – grieving the loss of her friend Mourad, fatally injured when he came off his bike while riding down a steep lane – explains, with no social protection or other forms of normal employment support, platforms may eventually fall victim to the growing negative publicity they attract as more and more of those who work for them protest against being exploited: a 21st-century dream of capitalism become a nightmare.

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    Nick Holdsworth
    Nick Holdsworth
    Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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