The empty promise of the gig economy

Illustration of gig cars and drivers being moved like puppets in an Uber-branded puppet theatre.
Jason Yen/Staff

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Gig companies in the United States have built an economy around the promise of freedom and shared prosperity. But recently, it appears these promises belong only to wealthy companies who are profiting off a vulnerable, unemployed and often low-wage, immigrant workforce. Since the passage of Proposition 22 in California, gig companies such as Uber and Lyft gained combined valuation bumps of $13 billion — even as this legislation is poised to strip app-based workers of their basic rights.

While some gig companies claim to be losing money, it seems they have only become more powerful over the past four years under President Donald Trump’s administration.

Gig economy giants including Uber, Lyft and DoorDash jointly funded the most expensive ballot race in California’s history, ultimately landing Prop. 22 on the ballot in November. These companies spent more than $200 million to help pass the proposition, which will exempt gig companies from classifying gig workers as employees with benefits.

Prop. 22 is a crucial step in gig companies’ fight to protect their business models and create a category of workers without rights. After defeating labor rights groups in California, these companies are looking to use the labor structure under Prop. 22 as an innovative model for the rest of the nation to adopt.

It is alarming how these companies are selling false promises and writing their own rules. The new legal framework surrounding Prop. 22 is set to rapidly erase decades of hard-won labor protections, which were designed to protect workers against the worst abuses of our century. It’s becoming clear that gig companies intend to rewrite state and federal labor laws at any cost, in order to thrive in an unregulated gig economy.

The rapid growth of gig companies has already changed the future of workers and has begun to reshape many aspects of the U.S. economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 34% of workers in the United States are gig workers, a percentage projected to rise to 43% this year alone.

With this proposition, a large proportion of employee-employer relationships in the United States have been disrupted to their core. The promise of freedom and prosperity in the gig economy is vanishing quickly as workers feel increasingly trapped and powerless.

William Canel, 31, a delivery worker who used to work full time for a restaurant, now finds himself tied to DoorDash as an essential worker without workplace rights.

“We have no choice but to work through these apps that put our health at risk for less than $2 per hour while denying us access to bathrooms, a dignified space to wait for work and basic labor protections,” Canel told me.

Gig workers are becoming victims of ruthless exploitation that puts their lives at risk with no guarantee of payment in the case of death or serious injury, and no protections against unsafe working conditions. When a gig worker such as Canel gets injured while making a delivery, they are responsible for paying their medical bills and are left alone to survive without a safety net.

The conditions of app-based food delivery workers have become even more precarious during the pandemic. According to Gustavo Ajche, a DoorDash worker and member of the Worker’s Justice Project, or WJP, these companies put profit before safety and the government has become complicit in these crimes.

As major cities continue to stay closed due to the pandemic, workers such as Ajche, Canel and many others continue to put their lives on the line without workplace safety precautions.

The gig economy is not delivering prosperity and freedom as promised, but new worker-led organizing movements will.

In New York City, app-based food delivery workers are rising up to defend their rights. Just last month, leaders at WJP led a march in Times Square to demand justice, safety and health for all food delivery workers.

As the country gets ready to transition to a new administration, President-elect Joe Biden will have the opportunity to create federal policies that ensure gig workers are given federal labor protections, such as minimum wage, safety and health laws — and the right to organize.

In the meantime, we must take the necessary steps to protect gig workers and prevent these tech companies from expanding their power across the country, from California to New York.

First, there should be strong safety protocols set in place for responding to public violence and electric bike theft against food delivery workers. Workers are required to purchase their equipment, which can be quite costly, so it’s imperative that these crimes are recognized and those affected receive adequate compensation.

In terms of health and safety, local governments must pass legislation mandating gig companies provide personal protective equipment and safety training to all their workers. Another seemingly trivial but important problem often faced by gig workers is a lack of bathroom access. Local and state governments should mandate that restaurants using app-based food delivery workers give them access to the facilities’ restrooms.

For New York City, where WJP is based, and other places that experience harsh winters, food delivery workers should be given access to lunch break facilities that will keep them warm and protected during the winter season.

Lastly, New York City can follow Seattle’s lead in passing ordinances requiring gig companies to give workers paid sick leave to help protect essential workers during the pandemic.

Workers serve a crucial, irreplaceable role in the economy — without them, the system falls apart. We must protect workers from corporate greed and power.


Ligia Guallpa is a labor rights leader and co-founder of Worker’s Justice Project, a New York-based organization fighting for better working conditions for low-wage, immigrant workers. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Nation, New York Daily News and Univision.