Unions and the Gig-Economy: The Case of AirBnB

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin .... No. 1508 .... November 7, 2017
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Unions and the Gig-Economy: The Case of AirBnB

Steven Tufts

The so-called gig-economy is celebrated, maligned, fetishized, and qualified by analysts. Whether it is called the collaborative, platform, crowd-sourcing, or sharing-economy, the rise of peer-to-peer exchanges does raise important questions for workers. Do emerging ‘sharing-economy’ platforms such as Uber and Airbnb mark a significant shift in production and distribution systems? Are they emancipatory or exploitive? How can they be regulated across multiple jurisdictions and multiple platforms (e.g., Airbnb, Homestay, Uber, Lyft)? These and other questions have been raised by those emphasizing the platforms as a growing source of employment for contingent workers and their power to transform waged work into different relationships such as dependent contracts. Kim Moody recently offered that these platforms are simply... advanced ways for workers to ‘moonlight’ in an age characterized by depressed wage growth and the majority of new employment being in low wage, precarious jobs. Despite the success of these services with consumers, there are contradictions for the future of work and implications for organized labour that unions are only starting to address -- albeit in contradictory ways.

In mid-July 2016, the interim report on Ontario’s Changing Workplaces Review was released. The 300 plus page report said very little specifically about the gig-economy with the exception of a few sparse mentions on the role technology plays in changing employment relations. The Review is interested in how to extend workplace protection to workers using platforms such as Uber, TaskRabbit and Airbnb to supplement their incomes. Indeed, much of the report focusses on the general challenges of misclassification of workers as contractors. Here, the options presented to deal with gig-economy work are to either: maintain the status quo and exclude many of these workers as independent contractors; recognize these workers as ‘dependent contractors’ (e.g. Uber drivers) and extend employment standards to them; or develop new regulations and standards that are specific to dependent contractors with exemptions for some sectors and workers.

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