Free Agents: Will Micro-Labor Shrink Workplace Rights?

Michelle Chen

The universe of the Web-based marketplace allows you to sell just about anything online today — so why not your labor? The help wanted” page has now upgraded itself for an Information Age economic crisis, with a new crop of services that link odd jobs to people looking to make a buck.

Some websites offer a vast pool of local jobbers who do tasks ranging from driving a delivery truck to fishing keys from a sewer. While this may seem like a killer-app version of a traditional hiring hall, the market for micro-labor” raises questions about the privatization and personalization of work today.

The Wall Street Journal featured one rapid-fire online job marketplace based in San Francisco, awash in venture capital:

After launching six months ago, Zaarly is processing more than 1,000 transactions a week for jobs that cost around $50 a pop. Chief Executive and cofounder Bo Fishback, 33, says about half the requests involve tangible goods, and the rest involve some sort of service. One of his favorites: a person who hired someone to buy a Michael Jackson-themed dog costume for a puppy.

This may be a rebranding of a time-honored tradition for cash-strapped Americans: hustling to get by however you can — selling newspapers, dog walking, standing on a corner in a crowd of day laborers. Yet the central ethical dilemmas carry over into the digital realm. There’s the danger that micro-jobs might replace regular workers who’d otherwise get salaries and benefits. There’s the social opportunity cost of skilled but chronically unemployed workers turning to underpaid random tasks to survive.

Like any job, employment through Web-based agencies involves a contract between worker and boss. But micro-labor reflects a macro-economic trend of job markets moving toward the model of the auction block. Why wouldn’t employers be tempted to go from hiring people casually on the side, to large-scale Web-based outsourcing, in order to evade labor regulations and union rights?

ABC News recently profiled one runner” for the service networking” website TaskRabbit, who, after losing his job in construction, started trying out odd jobs and acting as his own boss”: If I didn’t have an income like TaskRabbit, I’d probably, well, be collecting cans or something crazy.”

There are crazier ways to earn a living, but that hungry pack of task gophers seems to be forming a physically and conceptually atomized workforce of people who, in some cases, could be less able to gauge the fair value of their labor, or to discern whether they’re being indirectly cheated or discriminated against. And if they were, collective bargaining may be impossible for workers fanned out across a data cloud, or employed just one day at a time.

This could signify a global shift toward casual, unregulated (and perhaps desperate) work. But if more of the workforce becomes enmeshed in Internet-based labor markets, are institutions that traditionally regulate labor eroded in the process? When the race to fill an advertised job opening involves frantically underbidding the competition, eBay style, are there safeguards to ensure that standards don’t fall to exploitative depths? Is it easier to hire underage workers, arbitrarily withhold wages, or pressure people to take on extra hours or tasks they never bargained for at the outset?

These hyper-specialized job markets may offer unprecedented flexibility” at the cost of federal and state standards. Catherine Ruckelshaus, legal co-director of the National Employment Law Project told In These Times, The primary question is: Are these workers performing labor or services to an employer,’ in which case they must be paid at least the minimum wage for each hour worked [$7.25] and overtime if they work over 40 hours a week for that employer under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.” Plus, they could be subject to more stringent state labor laws.

Though some odd jobs, like picking up puppy attire, may fall outside the realm of regular employment, others fall into a gray area between real work — legally entitled to commensurate pay and fair working conditions — and the nebulous category of freelancer” or contractor”—labels that have often been abused by corporations seeking to drive down labor costs.

According to Ruckelshaus, workers who are truly running their own business” should be considered independent contractors. Does the independent contractor” label apply to the guy you hired from a website to clean your backyard for an afternoon? What about every weekend?

Ruckelshaus pointed to the use of online hires to produce text for lifestyle websites, which would be considered regular employment because the written product is an integral part of the company’s product, which is to provide beauty or health advice online to readers.” Noting the underlying incentive to keep costs low by outsourcing, she speculated, I think some of these companies are surely displacing regular employees.”

Could these content producers, ad hoc delivery people, and other lackeys-for-hire become the 21st-century analog to the home-based piecework sweatshop of yesteryear? Micro-journeymen may soon start to realize that labor flexibility” could give bosses maximum leeway to bend the rules. Although a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work isn’t an outdated concept yet, the emerging online market for manpower appears more aimed at pumping up quantity, rather than quality, of jobs in the precarious new economy.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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