It’s not ‘the gig economy’, it’s Sweatshop 2.0

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The fatuousness of Dominic Raab’s argument in the Newsnight item that I talked about in my last blog was at least matched by the disingenuity of Mervyn King, retired Governor of the Bank of England, later in the same item when he said that he was now ‘part of the gig economy’.

Yeah, right, Merv. You’re right down with the Uber drivers, Deliveroo bikers and Hermes couriers when you totter off to your highly-paid consultancy, speaking engagements and board meetings. I bet everytime they spot you they hail you with a “Hey, Merv, Bro’! Solidarity, right?” and you swap clench fist salutes.

Oh, no, they don’t because the limo sent to get you has tinted windows. Well, I’m sure they would if they COULD see you.

This startling lack of self-awareness and complete blindness to the disparity of circumstances facing a jobbing central banker looking to top up his holiday fund and the swathes of people working all hours doing hard, difficult physical work just to get the rent together (and often failing because of the Orwellian rules of their employer, er, sorry, the customer for their services) caused me to have a minor explosion (this may have involved shouting at the telly with advice about sex and travel). However, it does start to explain his period of tenure at the BoE, where he oversaw the evolution of the conditions that caused this gross inequality to come about.

My outrage was fuelled by the fact that I had just listened to a podcast interview with James Bloodworth, who worked undercover as an Uber driver, Amazon warehouse picker and care home worker. His book ‘Hired’ talks about his experiences in ‘the gig economy’ — the real one, not Merv’s fantasy one — and throws a light on the lived experience of people at the bottom end of the labour market. (It’s on Bruce Daisley’s excellent ‘Eat Sleep Work Repeat’ podcast)

James lays it out clearly — this is exploitation, plain and simple. The conceit that these workers are either temporary or ‘independent contractors’ does not stand up to analysis but has come about because power has been so heavily stacked in favour of employers. Not only do they use this power to avoid labour laws and sidestep their responsibilities to their employees and society generally, they outsource the costs of the consequences to you and I, the taxpayers. We are the ones who step in when people inevitably get into difficulty and have to fall back on the benefit systems, social services, the health service or all three.

These firms, especially the tech titans and would-be ‘unicorns’, are not just practicing a conceit on their hapless workers, they are deceiving all of us by eliding the experience of the users with that of the workers. The apps give us freedom and choice that the companies also project onto their workers, claiming they have the freedom to work when they want and choice as to what jobs they do (they euphemistically called these ‘autonomy and flexibility’). However, this is a completely fake picture of the reality of these workers, who have no choice or freedom, their activities highly proscribed by the companies who’s services they deliver.

They have given it this cool and funky name, ‘the gig economy’, to make it sound like everyone is a rock star who lies in until lunchtime before deciding to do a few hours of work, if they feel like it, without unduly interrupting their debauched and hedonistic life style.

And we’ve swallowed it hook, line and sinker. This type of work is growing as more and more people are falling into this precarious world of unstable, unpredictable hours, variable income on the very margins of society and yet there’s barely any discussion about whether this is a good thing or not, or whether we can or should reverse this trend. It is presented as a fait accompli, the inevitable outcome of technological disruption and globalisation — you know, progress, right? But progress for whom?

The gleam of that nice shiny tech and those sexy apps that make our lives so easy cast a deep, deep shadow that hides the exploitation of our fellow citizens and the picking of our pockets as taxpayers, all in order to inflate the profits of these companies that are leeching the life out of us and our society.

So as James urges, let’s stop using the name that they have artfully devised for it, let’s stop falling for their hype. It’s not ‘the gig economy’ (sorry Merv, you’ve lost your new-found cool — you’ll have to go back to being a boring old consultant and console yourself with earning in an afternoon what an Uber driver might make in a year).

This isn’t cool. It’s not sexy. It’s not about freedom and choice for workers.

It’s about exploitation.

So let’s give it a new name. One every ‘bro’ in silicon valley will understand.

Let’s call it ‘ Sweatshop 2.0’.

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