The Gig Is Up

In recent years, many workers have been attracted to the gig or sharing economy because of the freedom it offers: Work as much or as little as you want. Be your own boss. Earn what you deserve.
Consider yourself an entrepreneur, even.
Graduate Center Ph.D. in sociology student Alexandria J. RavenelleThe reality? According to research by Ph.D. candidate Alexandrea J. Ravenelle (Sociology), most gig workers feel, at best, like part-time employees who get to set their own schedules. And many are struggling with problems that range from a lack of security to feeling pressured to behave in ways that violate their own ethical codes — or even the law.
“The more I looked into the sharing economy, the more I realized there was exploitation,” said Ravenelle. “You find workers in questionable situations, and who feel like they don’t have choices, or that their choices are very limited.”
As part of her dissertation research — which is also the basis for a book she is writing for the University of California Press — Ravenelle conducted 78 qualitative interviews with individuals who worked for Airbnb, Uber, Taskrabbit, and Kitchensurfing. (Kitchensurfing, a chef-on-demand service, closed last year.) Although these companies “market the sharing economy as bringing the romance of entrepreneurship to the masses,” she said, the individuals she spoke to overwhelmingly saw themselves as workers, not as bosses or entrepreneurs.

Workers fell into three categories, Ravenelle found: success stories, strivers, and strugglers. The success stories are the relatively rare few who have found a way to make the sharing economy work. They might be Airbnb hosts who own multiple apartments throughout New York City, and have become de facto hoteliers. Or they might have been successful Kitchensurfing chefs who essentially started a catering company.
Strivers — the majority — are those who manage to make a little money through their gig work. Possibly, they are able to pay for a vacation or even add to a savings account. But that is where the financial rewards often end.
And the strugglers? These workers are likely to be undocumented, unemployed, or desperate, she found.
Yet workers in all of the categories face challenging experiences, Ravenelle said. “There’s also sexual harassment in the sharing economy,” she said. “In many cases they’re going into people’s homes, and that changes the calculus about behavior.”
In some instances, workers she spoke to found themselves involved in potentially criminal activities. She cited the example of one worker who was hired to pick up a prescription from a drugstore. The prescription turned out to be for amphetamines, and the woman who hired the worker later asked him to mail it to her in China, without declaring the contents.
“The choice for many workers is: I can leave this bad situation, but if I do, I don’t get paid” — a realization that often comes after the worker has put in time, effort, and even money of their own, Ravenelle said. “They also risk deactivation.”
Deactivation — sometimes termed “removal from the community” — is one of the greatest threat to gig workers. “People will work on a platform, have a profile, get reviews,” she said. “But if they get deactivated, they lose access to everything.”
Ravenelle, who will graduate this spring, recently published a paper on her findings in the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society. She chose her dissertation topic after considering several others, including one that led her to gig workers. Her advisor, Professor Barbara Katz Rothman (Sociology), suggested focusing on the shared economy: a fortuitous choice, given its timeliness. “I was very lucky to have my dissertation end up in contract before it was defended,” said Ravenelle, who is hard at work finishing that book, currently titled Hustle: Working in the Gig Economy.

Submitted on: DEC 12, 2017

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