The Gig is Up

On to the next gig.

(2021) Documentary (Gravitas) Al Aloudi, Annette Rivero, Nick Srnicek, Ying Lu, Rui Ma, Derek Thompson, Leila Ouadad, Jason Edwards, Mary L. Gray, Mitchell Amewieye, Prayag Narula, Jerome Pimot, Sidiki, Wu Guoyong, Ali. Directed by Shannon Walsh

 

The nature of employment is changing. More and more adults are being employed through the so-called gig economy, working for such tech giants as Uber, Deliveroo and TaskRabbit. They are by-products of convenience and technology, as we rely more and more on our smart phones to provide us with products and services. Whenever you order a burger on Uber Eats, you are employing a gig worker to pick up and deliver the food to your door. When you summon somebody to put together your Ikea desk on TaskRabbit, you’re hiring a gig worker. When you call Lyft to get a ride to the airport, you’re being driven by a gig worker.

While some take these jobs out of necessity – perhaps they are undocumented workers like Algerian Ali in France, or maybe they are unable to secure traditional employment like Floridian Jason Edwards, a convicted felon with a mouth full of gold teeth, both of which are essential job offer killers – many take these jobs voluntarily, seeing these jobs as a means of escaping the tyranny of the cubicle. You set your own hours, and can make much more in tips than you would make at a traditional wage. Hearing promises like that, people tend to jump at the chance, particularly those in the more vulnerable echelons of society. You don’t need an education or social standing to get these jobs; you don’t need a great resume to acquire them. In that sense, the gig economy is truly egalitarian; in theory, it pays you on results.

But as entrepreneur Prayag Narula eloquently puts it, we’re trading the tyranny of a boss for the tyranny of an algorithm and that is much, much worse. The reality of gig work, as Canadian documentarian Shannon Walsh shows in her timely film, is that you are lured by the promise of good pay and employment autonomy but find yourself trapped as your wages are determined by your employer, who charges the consumer less than the work costs. The difference is made up by the gig worker, who must pay for their own fuel and maintenance out of their own pockets. The employer always – always – gets paid, whether through fees or in the case of food delivery, by upcharging the amount of food ordered by the customer compared to what the restaurant charges and pocketing the difference. The driver sees none of that; they exist on tips, and many customers choose not to tip them.

They also exist on ratings. One bad rating from a customer can severely impact their employment; a complaint from a customer can be devastating. Also, gig workers are tracked by numbers besides ratings; how long it takes them to deliver, how many deliveries they accept. If those numbers are below the curve, the worker is “deactivated,” tech-speak for fired.

Also, because these employees are classified as “independent contractors,” they are often not paid wages or salaries, and of course get no benefits whatsoever, including sick time. If they don’t work, they don’t get paid, and an on-the-job injury isn’t covered; the worker must pay their medical expenses on their own. We see further heartlessness when Leila Ouadad tries to get her employer to pay back wages to a fellow food deliverer in France who has been severely injured when riding his bicycle with someone’s dinner and being hit by a truck.

The movie also examines ghost workers, those online workers who do the kind of support that requires human eyes, like cleaning up data, transcribing audio and taking surveys. The largest provider of ghost jobs is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (or M-Turk) with over 500,000 registered workers (including Edwards). Many of these jobs pay pennies and are performed by people in Third World countries, who are paid not in cash (only workers in the United States and India get cash) but in Amazon gift cards, a reminder of a time when coal workers were paid in company scrip which was accepted only at company stores.

The movie is eye-opening. While some of the workers profiled, like Jason Edwards, are pretty clear-eyed and even have a sense of humor about their situation (some of the film’s sweeter moments occur when Edwards’ mother interrupts the interviews, much to the annoyance of her son), many seem caught in the grip of despair and exhaustion. Narula warns that if we don’t take action soon, these employers are going to make the Middle Ages look like paradise. While some gig workers, like the activist Al Aloudi, a San Francisco Uber driver, are beginning to fight back, many gig workers feel dehumanized, reduced to replaceable numbers in a vast, uncaring machine.

If this is progress, I don’t think the term is being properly used. This is more like regress. The one issue I have with the film is that it doesn’t hold Big Tech’s feet to the fire; we like to think of Big Tech as progressive and benevolent, but they are showing themselves to be the new Robber Barons. Everyone who uses an app for some kind of delivery service should be required to watch this.

REASONS TO SEE: A timely and necessary film. Explores the pros and cons of gig work. Shows the global impact of gig work.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a bit too polite.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The median income for people using Mechanical Turk is $2 per hour.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sorry We Missed You
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Hell Hath No Fury

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