Giggers of the World Unite?

Sarah Kessler
I'm a bit late to the party on this, but in "Pixel And Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In The Gig Economy," Sarah Kessler details the near impossibility of making an above-minimum wage living on gig sites and apps like Fiverr and TaskRabbit.

Despite the make-your-own hours, be your-own-boss promises, Kessler quickly finds that bidding for jobs online is a fast race to the bottom. "Because of the way TaskRabbit works," she explains, "job posters can easily find the people willing to work for the least amount of money."

This race to the bottom combined with the time spent searching for gigs makes eking out a real living though these sites a pipe-dream. Sure, every site has it's success story, but these seem much more like the lucky few. The gig economy quickly resembles the winners-and-losers economy Jaron Lanier lays out in "Who Owns the Future."

What's most interesting to me is the race-to-the-bottom aspect of the employment market here. Why is it that even in semi- to highly skilled jobs, it seems that there's an overwhelming amount of potential freelancers out there willing to compete over each gig, thereby driving down the price? When Kessler posts editing and proofreading services on Fiverr, for instance, she gets no takers because "there are 4,786 results with similar titles."

On the one hand, the exploitational gig experience Kessler portrays provides a solid argument for organized labor. If all of these would-be freelancers banded together and agreed not to take less than $20 for a proofreading gig, you'd have to think it would be in their shared interest. But as long as any one is willing to do the work for less, it will drive the price down.

So then the big question is "Why is someone willing to do the work for less?"

At first glance, this would seem to be an obvious problem of supply and demand. As Kessler's example illustrates, there are clearly more proofreaders out there than there is a need for proofreaders. On a larger scale, current unemployment numbers would also argue that there are more workers out there than the need for workers.

A shift in this supply and demand paradigm, some would argue, would be far more effective than large scale freelance organization. I get that, but it's also true that even in an economy where workers are scarce, there will always be someone willing to do the work for cheaper. It may be a young freelancer trying to build a resume or an overseas freelancer who needs less pay. The problem is that the more global and virtual the economy is, the easier it is to find those willing to work for less.

Of course, there's always a cost to hiring the winner of the race to the bottom, and this provides some corrective as well. If the cheap labor doesn't do the work as well as the more expensive labor, an employer will be more likely to go with the more expensive labor. But this seems much more likely with full-time employment than one-off gigs. And with the bottom-line competing more and more fiercely with quality in every arena, the pattern of quality work winning in the end doesn't always play out.

And that's why Kessler's article leaves me thinking that this is an area that should be reconsidered given the way technology has tweaked the freelancing experience. From her experiences as well as others she spoke with, it seems that there is clear exploitation going on in the gig economy. Though these sites and apps offer freelancers the opportunity to "take control of their futures," the balance of power seems to be steeply tipped in the other direction.

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