“Flexible Work, Rigid Systems: The Rise of the Gig Economy”
The World Order and Globalization Hub welcomed a delegation of seven international experts on the gig economy to Washington, DC and Boston, MA. The goal of the study tour was to foster a more global understanding on the gig economy, namely the type of jobs it includes, who participates in gig work, and the opportunities provided by the sharing economy to promote flexibility while still maintaining equitable working conditions. Throughout the week, the delegation met with a number of prominent actors in the gig economy space from the public, private, academic and NGO sectors, sharing their own expertise and regional perspective on the gig economy around the world.
Throughout the week, several major discussion themes emerged:
1) The gig economy is a vast term that encompasses both on- and off-platform work. Although much of the gig debate centers on app-based technology, gig work has always been an integral part of the world economy, as both freelancing and “informal” work more broadly. Therefore when discussing regulation of the gig economy, it is key to distinguish between on- and off-platform work, as the supporting factors vary greatly.
2) Gig work is not created equal—just as there is a distinction between on- and off-platform work, there are also major differences in the industries that fall under the gig spectrum. A driver working for Uber and a freelance programmer on Fiverr are both on-platform workers, but when discussing working conditions and compensation that is where the comparison ends. Meaningful legislation and/or legislation on the gig economy must therefore be narrowly defined and industry specific in order to have impact.
3) The consideration of responsibility that gig companies should have towards those working in the gig sphere may vary based on the social safety net in each country. In the United States, many of the discussion partners advocating for more comprehensive rights for gig workers felt that the gig companies should offer benefits such as healthcare and paid sick leave. However, the majority of participants came from countries where healthcare is not tied to employment, and therefore did not see these benefits as the obligation of gig companies, but rather government. This led to different interpretations of the role of gig companies in society, including whether gig workers should be classified as freelancers or employees.
4) Rather than a stopgap between “regular” employment, gig work should be seen as a viable solution to abate unemployment by encouraging entrepreneurship, particularly among youth. In countries where youth unemployment is high, as is the case for many of the participants, the independence and flexibility of gig work can foster a skillset that encourages self-employment in the long term and therefore better insulates individuals from economic volatility.
In discussions with both the U.S.-based meeting partners and among the delegation, participants utilized the opportunity to engage with global experts in the gig economy and exchange best practices. Their varied perspectives complemented one another and created a more holistic view of the gig economy, encouraging greater understanding.