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Bama Athreya

‘The gig economy is really just pushing people into precarious work’

Originally published: FAIR (April 9, 2020)   | 

Janine Jackson interviewed Open Society’s Bama Athreya about the gig economy and Covid-19 for the April 3, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: As millions of Americans shelter-in-place as a result of Covid-19, and those who go out avoid public transportation, the reliance on food deliverers and car services is unavoidably clear. For some, that’s cause for celebration—so convenient, so helpful—but it ought to be raising questions.

What does it mean to rely on but not recognize the precarious workforce: workers with low wages, low or no benefits, and no security? How can people be “essential” and “expendable” at the same time?

As with so much of what’s happening right now, the question is, what’s being learned from these workers’ rare moment in the media sun? What, if anything, will change because of it? Because it turns out, having elite media call you a “hero” doesn’t pay the rent.

Our next guest works on this set of issues. Bama Athreya is an economic inequality fellow with the Open Society Foundations. She joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin,Bama Athreya.

Bama Athreya: Thank you so much for having me on.

JJ: While some are calling for concern or empathy for frontline workers, others see this moment as evidence of the success of the so-called “gig economy.” You wrote a piece recently—I saw it on Common Dreams—that you say was spurred by “the gleeful celebration of the gig economy” that you were seeing in some quarters. Before we talk about what’s the matter with that, what are these folks actually celebrating? What is the vision that’s being promoted here?

BA: I think I can explain that best by explaining that I have spent most of my career working on labor rights with workers in other countries, and not the United States. And one of the interesting things about this year, and the work I’m doing with Open Society Foundations, is I’m looking at what’s happening in the U.S. economy for the first time. But the fact is, the kind of economy that’s being celebrated by the 1% is, frankly, the same economy that’s existed in a lot of other countries for a long time.

It’s the economy where, if you are wealthy, you can find somebody to do anything you need doing: go pick up your food, or bring it to your door, drive you around, clean your house. Whatever service you need, you can get it, you can get it cheaply, because people are in what we call precarious work. And most people are in precarious work. They don’t have formal, full-time jobs with benefits. They don’t have regular wages.

So this celebration of the “gig economy” here, most of it is really just, what we’re really witnessing, is pushing people into this kind of precarious work in the US.

JJ: You say that some folks are even imagining that folks who are laid off from waged work or salaried work, like in the airline industry, that somehow the gig economy is going to absorb these people.

BA: The gig economy here, if you look at the positive spin on it that you hear in many quarters, it’s celebrated as being flexible. The reality is—and I’m certainly not the first person who’s pointed this out—you saw the rise of some of these app-based companies, like Uber and Instacart and the like, in the wake of the 2009 economic crisis and downturn. And at that time, you started to see these kinds of arguments of, “Oh, well, it’s OK because people may be losing regular jobs, but this new gig economy will absorb everybody. You can always take your car, you can take your apartment, you can take whatever assets you have, and get on a platform or an app, and make some money out of it.”

That was the first time I started noticing and saying, well, this is what people do everywhere else in the world, right? So why is this a great thing when you see it start to happen in the U.S. economy?

And now if you look at the kinds of reporting—one of the pieces I called out was the Wall Street Journal. I feel like if you want to know what that 1% wants to have happen, post this pandemic, in the recovery, just read the Wall Street Journal editorial pages; they put it right out there. And one of the things that they’ve been celebrating, to that audience, is the fact that more and more people will be in precarious work in the gig economy, and won’t that be great for investors?

JJ: I just wanted to pick up on that. There was a study that came out in January from a workers’ rights group in Washington State that found that contract delivery drivers for DoorDash, the food delivery service, were making $1.45 an hour, on average, after their expenses were accounted for.

And the company is promoting these jobs, as you’ve just said, as, “Be your own boss, enjoy the flexibility of choosing when, where and how much you earn.” There’s this pay model that makes it look on paper like workers are getting a decent wage, when in reality, some are making right around zero. But investors love it. There’s a huge disconnect there. it seems like.

BA: I don’t know if this is a disconnect. I will say, I’ve seen the work that’s been done in Washington State, the activists there are fantastic. I’ve done more of my interviews with people who are driving for Uber and Lyft and other app-based ride-hailing companies. I think this is the business model, and I don’t think it’s new.

One of the things that we’ve seen, in terms of how the financialization of various sectors has operated over the past couple of decades, is that the markets, such as they are, reward companies that undermine formal wage employment with benefits, right? The more you can put people on short-term work and contract work, and just-in-time, and the more you can fracture regular full-time paid employment, the better your returns, right? And so just seeing that come into the transportation sector, that is the business model, or the delivery sector. That is the business model.

JJ: Yeah, the disconnect is only in the forward face of it. And I guess it’s more just kind of, deception might be a better word.

Well, so much of media is from a consumer point of view. So if you hear that precarious workers are suffering, it’s as though, “Well, that’s the fault of the people who use Lyft, because the bus doesn’t go by their house,” or “that’s the fault of you for ordering a pizza in your home.”

You don’t have to reject the whole idea of a digital economy in order to think that it could be done more fairly and more humanely, right?

BA: I have to say, this week has been quite a week. And I hope you are talking to some of the folks that are organizing the strikes of gig workers in different parts of the country that have been going on all week. It’s been amazing to see. So that I think the thing we all need to be doing, is paying attention to those calls for action, and supporting them wherever you can. Like, don’t order from Instacart this week, don’t order from Amazon this week, respect the fact that those workers are on strike, sign petitions to the companies to give them the protective equipment and the benefits and the sick pay that they need.

And I would  refer people to the Athena for All coalition. I would refer people to Coworker.org, to Gig Workers Rising. There’s a lot of information being put out there right now about what we all can do to support these workers, who are striking for just the right to be safe, and not be at risk of losing their lives to this terrible disease.

JJ: Absolutely. Well, let’s talk about a related set of ideas. You had a piece on Medium called “A Feminist Stimulus” that addresses the care work, as it’s called, that is also being foregrounded right now, and the failure to address that work as we talk about economic recovery. What are you getting at in this piece about care work, and how it can be acknowledged?

BA: Sure. Thanks for asking about that. As we are looking at these large packages that are intended to shore up the economy at this time, I do think we need to predict what’s going to happen when the crisis is over, as eventually it will be, and we need to go into a long-term recovery, because our economy is going to take a hit, and global economies are going to take a hit for a long time. And I think we need to get ahead of some of the proposals that are being put out there, and make sure this turns into a people’s recovery, that’s good for people and not just good for markets in the abstract.

So some people have been talking about a universal basic income. That’s fine. I think it’s healthy to have those debates out there. But one of the things that’s frustrated me for a long time of following the proposals around UBI, which is the shorthand for universal basic income, is that they’re largely written by men, and they’re largely gender blind.

And that was very frustrating, because I literally kept seeing things in writings by people who are well-respected leaders in this field, talking about how UBI was good for women, because it meant that women could stay home and do care work and get paid for it. And that just ignores the obvious fallacy, which is that no one’s paying women to do care work, right? I mean, care work is unpaid, virtually; undervalued brutally where it is paid. And that needs to get corrected, and UBI is not going to do that. If we don’t take some measures to stop that from happening, it will end up just reinforcing the notion that women should be doing unpaid care work.

And I’ll give you one example of that. There was actually a referendum in Switzerland a couple of years ago, to provide UBI to every citizen; that went for a vote, it failed. But I read through some of the arguments that the proponents of that referendum had made at the time, and it was really interesting, because the proponents that were out there, trying to sell this UBI proposal to the Swiss population, were precisely making the argument that it would enable women to stay home and take care of kids.

And that belied the reality that the men, or the people, who stayed in wage employment, were still going to be getting that same UBI, because it’s a UBI, it’s universal, right? So everybody gets it, whether you work or not. So the women who are going to stay home, were not going to get paid for care work. They were just going to get the stipend that everybody that was in the working world, the paid-wage labor world, was getting.

And this seems to be the fallacy that comes up over and over and over again, and I just want us to put an end to that, and to say that if we are now recognizing that we will have many, many people in this society, coming out of this coronavirus crisis, that are sick, that are vulnerable, we will have communities ati need, we will have poor children at need. We will need more care workers than ever.

So we had better figure out how to start properly valuing and paying for care work. Because, otherwise, there’s going to be this huge, huge, huge enormous unpaid care burden, and guess who it’s going to fall on?

What we need to do, again, is quantify the value of the unpaid care work that’s going on in our economy now, and then predict how much more is going to be needed during the recovery period. And let’s figure out how to get the money into the economy to pay the people to do the care work that we’re really going to need done.

JJ: Media promote a fiction, usually tacitly, that economic fortunes are natural; some work is just worth more than other work. Folks say, “Gosh, teachers work so hard, it really stinks that they don’t get paid a lot.” But it’s as though nature wants it that way, or something. Teachers just take a vow of poverty, God bless ’em.

There’s a notion of the naturalness of obtaining economic conditions that has to be resisted, but it’s really not that easy to do that.

BA: I think even when you see good data from progressive economists, you also see a lot of sort of bad faith arguments out there about what will stimulate the economy. And I think it helps to just pull ourselves back to a central question. And that is, whose economy? It is not an abstract thing, right?

And so when you see the kinds of talking heads that you very often see called up for news programs, etc., and they are wealthy individuals. They are corporate CEOs. They are people who are doing very well. They are talking about the economy that benefits them.

We need to start thinking about, and talking about, what an economy looks like that benefits your average childcare worker. And if that is the starting point and the premise, and you’re interviewing those people, and asking them what they think a fair economy looks like, you do have to have—I think you were pointing this out—a change in the very way in which we conceptualize the economy.

JJ: Let me just ask you for any final thoughts you have. Obviously, this is going to be the fodder in the news that we’re going to be seeing for weeks and months now. Are there questions you would be encouraging reporters to pursue, or, on the other hand, things you’d like them to not do, things to avoid doing?

BA: I would just encourage, interview the people who are on the frontlines of this as much as possible. I super appreciate that you’ve reached out to me, I hope you’re also interviewing people who are actually having to deliver groceries, or deliver takeout food, and getting their perspectives on what it’s like to be looking at the realities of the healthcare that they’re offered, the realities of the wages and the types of safety nets around them, and I think that’s where journalists really can play an amazing role.

And I wish, I actually wish we had more local journalists—one of our challenges now is that you need people who are also paid to go and interview people in the local communities about what’s happening to them.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Bama Athreya. You can find her piece, “A Feminist Stimulus,” on Medium.com, and “A Pandemic Is No Time for Precarious Work” on Inequality.org, as well as Common Dreams. Thank you very much, Bama Athreya, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

BA: It’s been great. Thank you so much, Janine.

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