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A Pandemic Is No Time for Precarious Work

There's never an excuse to send people to work in dangerous conditions with no safety nets and benefits. It's especially horrendous in the midst of coronavirus.

Workers hold signs demanding paid sick leave

The executive class, safe in their bunkers, are considering how they can best take further advantage of a precarious workforce.  (Photo: United Workers / flickr / cc)

Last week, the Trump administration and many of its wealthiest allies recklessly floated an end to social distancing, endangering public health to allegedly help “the economy.” I don’t usually take the trouble of responding to right-wing opinions, but the gleeful celebration of the gig economy during a pandemic is further evidence of an empathy deficit among their ranks.

The executive class, safe in their bunkers, are considering how they can best take further advantage of a precarious workforce. Need to go out and don’t want to face public transportation? Just order car service from Uber or Lyft. Want to avoid crowded grocery stores? Instacart has you covered! Can’t go to your favorite restaurant? There’s an app for that, too – and a vulnerable worker risking their health and safety to bring everything you need right to your door. But don’t worry, you don’t need to see the worker face to face – your end of the transaction is safely online.

The Wall Street Journal predicts this “flexible” economy will absorb workers laid off from airlines, hotels and other jobs with benefits. They do not mention that this gig work does not come with those benefits, all the more crucial during a pandemic. There are no sick days, no health care, and no real “flexibility” to choose working hours.

That works well for the wealthy, who would love it if the precarious workforce could get back to serving them as soon as possible. Former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein is among those who took to Twitter this week to suggest that “lower risk” workers return to their jobs. Will any of the executive class deem themselves low-risk at this time?

While investors may like to think of the U.S. gig economy as shiny and new, it’s really just the same precarious economy that makes up the majority of economic activity in most parts of the world. As middle-class jobs with benefits have eroded, so too has an economy that largely catered to middle-class preferences and needs. Now, those at the top end are celebrating the rise of an economy reliant on precarious work that serves their interests, both as investors and consumers.

Let’s look at India – a country where extreme wealth coexists with an underclass of “working poor.” The wealthy could always get services brought right to their door, by the vegetable wallah or the laundry wallah or the office tiffin wallah delivering lunch to your desk. These services have long existed, but now they’re comissioned through apps.

Precarious workers with no safety nets, no paid leave and no other benefits exist throughout the world’s so-called “emerging” economies. Elites in the US are celebrating the fact that – finally –  the United States has also reached this destination, only now as a submerging economy.

The antidote? The rest of us need to build a solidarity-based economy with one another – starting by supporting the demands of those currently working in the gig economy.

Workers themselves are pushing back. A few days ago, an Amazon worker in a New York warehouse tested positive for coronavirus, and, as of this writing, more cases are being reported. Yet Amazon refused to provide sick leave to employees. A campaign launched by Amazon workers snowballed, and within less than a week succeeded in pushing the company to provide paid time off. Without equally powerful campaigns, it’s unlikely that DoorDash, Instacart and the rest will do more than the bare minimum.

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It doesn’t have to be this way. Our best hope for ensuring our resilience in the face of coronavirus is to reject the calls of crony capitalists to send everyone back to precarious work, and instead support one another.

Many small businesses are already leading the way. In my community, local farmers’ market vendors have quickly adapted their business to provide delivery and allow for social distancing. This helps those in our community, and it also helps them. Chef Jose Andres has been a bright light as a business leader who understands the value of a sharing economy. He’s suggested a brilliant plan to mobilize restaurant workers to respond to rising food insecurity – a plan with widespread benefits that also keeps people employed.

When some of the digital giants got their start, they claimed to be enabling a new “sharing” economy. Rather than allowing them to co-opt community-oriented language to support an economy rigged for the rich, we should hold them accountable in this very moment.

This doesn’t mean turning back the clock on the digital economy. Ensuring the most vulnerable to illness can have food and medicine delivered to their doors is vitally important. So too are the local and small businesses who have modified their online and delivery services to keep serving local residents while shuttering their stores and restaurants. And for those who work in the gig economy, we absolutely do need you – but we need to build and then give our business to companies that do the right thing by all of you.

Another digital economy is possible. Well Paid Maids provides full employment benefits to all its cleaners. Juno set itself up as an ethical alternative to Uber, offering employment and better pay to drivers (it has since been acquired by Gett). Fairbnb is starting to challenge the Airbnb model in some European cities, and CoopCycle is doing the same in the delivery service sector. A growing network of worker-owned apps are edging their way into our economy. We need more of these alternatives, and they need all of us as clients.

As we face the current crisis, let’s think about all the ways to share and support each other. This includes doing everything we can to act in solidarity with workers at companies like Amazon and DoorDash as they counteract the influence of the executives. It also includes seeking out local and ethical aternatives where we can.

A true sharing economy could emerge at the other end of the crisis if we collectively shift profits from Amazon, Uber and other digital behemoths to ethical alternatives that cater to all of us while uplifting their workers. This kind of sharing economy will enable the majority of us to be safer, healthier and more prosperous.

To find out more about what you can do to support precarious workers at this time, visit https://www.coworker.org/categories/coronavirus

To look for ways to quit Amazon and patronize ethical businesses, visit https://greenamerica.org/consume-less-live-more/why-we-should-quit-amazon

Bama Athreya

Bama Athreya

Bama Athreya is an Economic Inequality Fellow with the Open Society Foundations.

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