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TaskRabbit, Uber, Airbnb and Kitchen Surfing

Hustle and Gig. Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy
PLATFORMS / The so-called sharing economy promises freedom to organize one's own working life. Sociologist Alexandrea J. Ravenelle examines the survival conditions of platform workers.


"Do you want to help your neighbor?" was on a flyer in Rema 1000 in Fårevejle a few years ago, when «sharing economy» was new and exciting. On closer reading, Rema 1000's initiative was not about sharing or helping, but about capitalizing on a social practice – facilitated by the app Vigo, which still exists and which still brands on neighbor help with shipping. The old lady, who cannot go out shopping herself, has now been joined on the Vigo website by those who are "too busy" for such profane chores as dragging their purchases home themselves.

Vigo is just a small animal in the now sprawling forest of platform-organized services aimed at individuals. It is about delegating primarily the work that people do not want to do themselves, and secondarily the work that people cannot do themselves.

In Alexandrea J. Ravenelle's new book, 3Hustle and Gig #. Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy, she analyzes working methods and conditions on four major platforms in the so-called sharing economy: Taskrabbit, Uber, AirBnb og Kitchen surfing.

The app services have pushed for a development where concrete skills – acquired through formal education or practice – are downgraded. And where work is masked as anything but that.

At TaskRabbit, «Taskers» are booked to perform everything from repairing electrical installations over heavy moving tasks to cleaning tasks using toxic substances. Often without the Bags actually having any idea what they are doing, and always without proper safety precautions.

Some have chosen to platform work as a replacement for or supplement to so-called typical employment, and some use app-facilitated task solution to create a life with better finances and greater freedom. But many have chosen this form of work for lack of other or better alternatives, and struggle daily for their survival.

photo: pixabay

To smoke down the algorithm

TaskRabbit requires people to be on duty at four-hour intervals, answer bookings within half an hour, and accept 85 percent of the assignments. Well notice without financial compensation for the time Taskere is available without being booked, and without regard to the nature of the assignments being offered.

If a Tasker rejects too many tasks, they fall into the algorithm, get fewer assignments offered, and risk staying «disabled», which are called layoffs in the platform universe. It goes without saying that it makes people accept tasks they are either not qualified for or do not feel comfortable with.

Technology has made it possible to hire 10.000 workers in 10 minutes, and then
they disappear like dew to the sun.

TaskRabbit does not take responsibility for work injuries, nor bad reviews as a result of some idiot booking a Tasker to repair an electric door, instead of calling an electrician. As one of the interviewees in Hustle and Gig explains why she did not go her way when it dawned on her that she was booked to clean what was probably a drug den:

“I had no control over what tasks I would get or when. So I more or less accepted everything that came in. […] One always thinks, 'hmmm, in five months I might be sleeping on a bench somewhere.'

To maintain algorithm-driven requirements

Quite a few of Ravenelle's interviewees were indebted when they hooked up on app gigs, and quite a few will be along the way. For example, when it turns out that they will have to invest in equipment and insurance because all the responsibility is transferred to the worker.

Or when the platform suddenly changes the working conditions (it is not called that, of course) from one day to the next, so that the income and form of work that one had been offered does not materialize. As Ravenelle writes about the platform workers who sit most in the scissors – those who can see no other means of earning an income:

«The independence they expected – work whenever you want and with what you want – has been robbed the need to maintain algorithm-driven task-solving requirements […]. Rather than economic freedom, these workers find themselves on the losing side in an outsourcing equation […]. The promise of a modern, app-driven #entrepreneurial life proved to cover a return to gloomy working and living conditions from the time of early industrialization.»

Platform and sharing economy

Of course, not all workers in the 'sharing economy' feel the brunt of this. But whether you end up as a "hustler", "striving" or "success story" – none of which are stable categories, and the decline can be quite abrupt – depends on what resources you have in the first place. It is about the degree of «skills, capital and options».

Unlike many other books on platform and sharing economy, Ravenelle puts the phenomenon in context: of centuries of struggle between organized workers and (anti-union) capitalists, of half a century of real wage declines not least in the West, of a historically high income inequality, of galloping in recent decades private debt crisis. It is a useful framework to understand the concrete (work) life stories in.

To benefit each other

Hustle and Gig also raises the question of what it is for a society that is created through a boundless service economy, where the employer (the platform) will not call itself an employer, and where the customer has neither responsibility nor relation to the person performing the work. Not infrequently, one is amazed at how small things someone thinks others should do for them. Other times over how grotesque things are.

It is neither new that work can be degrading, nor that employers shirk responsibility for the workforce. What is new is that we as individuals are encouraged to benefit each other. Technology has made it possible – as a platform director poetically puts it in the book – to hire 10.000 workers in 10 minutes, and then they disappear like dew to the sun.

Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen
Trige Andersen is a freelance journalist and historian.

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