‘What are the options?’: a new film on the toll of the gig economy

In the new documentary The Gig Is Up, film-maker Shannon Walsh travels around the world to uncover the human cost of the new way many of us work

Last modified on Tue 28 Sep 2021 02.12 EDT

Jason Edwards would find it a struggle to pass a job interview with his prominent gold teeth and criminal record. But he has something more powerful than a suit, shirt, tie, clean shave and polished shoes. He has a laptop and guile.

Edwards works from home by filling in online surveys. It is not typically lucrative work, paying just a few cents. But Edwards, who is white, figured out that by posing as an African American Republican, his opinions would be much sought after. He reckons he has earned more than $30,000.

“If you didn’t cheat the system the way I do, you’re not going to make a respectable amount of money,” he observes from a modest house in Mims, Florida, where he cares for an ailing mother who loves smoking and lottery scratchcards.

This is just one bittersweet story told in The Gig Is Up, a new documentary that shines a light on the human side of the gig economy, now worth more than $5tn a year globally and spurred further by the coronavirus pandemic. It includes, of course, the now familiar hustle of driving or delivering for companies such as Uber, Amazon and Deliveroo.

But there is also a bigger and more mysterious army of “ghost workers”: millions of people around the world who provide the elusive human factor in artificial intelligence, from completing surveys to transcribing audio recordings or tagging images and other data. While they gain work-from-home flexibility, they earn a pittance, must provide their own computer, broadband and power and have to cope without a safety net, trade union or the consolation of office banter.

“There is a Big Brother aspect to that, where there’s no one to call,” says the director, Shannon Walsh, by phone from Vancouver, Canada. “That was one of the big things we heard around the world, that sense that you were at the peril of a machine. Get a bad rating, if someone’s in a bad mood one day, and you lose your job and your livelihood. It’s a next level of precarity.”

The Gig Is Up is the fifth feature film for Walsh, 45, a Canadian who has had spells living in South Africa and Hong Kong and always had an interest in uncovering stories that are most neglected. She was intrigued by the way gig work offers the illusion of technological utopia on slick phone apps but hides an entire underclass of workers.

“In the early 2000s we used to talk about globalisation and the outsourcing of jobs into parts of the world where you could find cheap labour,” she says. “With the advent of the platform economy, we really see this flattening of the global workforce. The haves and have nots each exist in each country.

“Someone doing a job in rural Florida is actually doing the exact same job as someone in Lagos or someone in Mumbai. I found it fascinating how that shift has happened with the growth of multinational corporations. What we saw in those early days has really transformed into something else.”

Within the US, Walsh found that gig work throws a lifeline to people shut out of the formal economy for reasons such as disability, caring for an elderly parent or children, or having undocumented immigrant status or a criminal record that would show up on a background check. In some cases, they are desperate.

“It’s not the idea of a student making pizza money: that is what the companies want us to believe. It’s folks who need this kind of work and don’t have a lot of other options in many cases and who are working for multiple platforms to try and scrape together a living.”

A delivery driver knows that a single spilled drink or spoiled meal can result in career-ending complaint from a customer. On the flip side some “independent contractors”, as they are euphemistically known, relish the autonomy and flexibility of not being tied to the 9-to-5 commute, freeing them to attend their child’s school concert or sports game or explore their own creativity

Walsh’s travels for the film included Nigeria, where gig work is both liberating and crushing. Some perform menial online tasks for Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, sometimes for just a few cents, and are paid in Amazon gift cards.

One Nigerian interviewee, a trained architect, does 3D design work for architecture firms in the US along with far more soulless work. Walsh says: “You’ve got this paradox where you’ve got folks like him working for Amazon gift cards in one breath and then also having this incredible untapped amount of human creativity and expertise.”

She extrapolates: “This new kind of evolution of platform-based work can’t be painted with one brush. There’s this incredible sense of human creativity connected like we’ve never had before and yet at the same time, it’s a race to the bottom in terms of not taking into account what that means for the transformation of labour and the future of work.

“If we’re going to ask people to be available and ask them to bring their creativity and human intelligence to the table, how does that shape the way we have to think about what we need around labour? In the US, the idea of having a base of support and security that is not reliant on the companies doing that is going to be ground zero in the conversation.”

Many of the film’s subjects speak wearily about the isolating effects of gig work, especially since the apps are actively designed to prevent workers meeting each other and organising. But Walsh observes: “What’s always amazing is that, like the grass that grows through the cracks in the pavement, people find ways to find each other.

“We heard great stories in India about folks doing platform based work on computers who would find each other on Reddit forums, call each other and just leave the phone off the hook while they worked because that sense of community around work is essential. People will find a way to be in community.”

The process of how society, and notoriously tech-illiterate governments, get to grips with gig work, regulates it and forges a new social contract is only just beginning. Last week elected officials in New York City passed legislation for gig economy and food delivery workers, setting minimum pay, allowing workers to keep more of their tips and limiting how far workers can be asked to travel for deliveries.

But there is a long way to go to curb the power of corporations that have found in gig work a way an army of labour that not even 19th-century coal barons and factory bosses could have dreamed of.

Walsh comments: “The big names are problematic on so many levels. They’re trying to bend the rules for their benefit and governments by and large for a long time have been letting them do that. It’s also that question of policy not quite being where tech is. It’s so often the case that stuff’s already happened by the time governments catch up to understanding what is happening.”

Back in Mims, Florida, Jason Edwards cannot bear to watch The Gig Is Up because his mother died just after it was made. But he still has the gig economy. Walsh reflects: “I really felt a lot for him through the process. What are the options in a place like where he lives?

“And this is true for a lot of the US, unfortunately. What are the work options that are available to you? A lot of them are not good. Like he said when I first interviewed him, ‘Well, before this, I was dealing drugs.’ What else is he going to do?”

The Gig Is Up is out in the US on 8 October with a UK date to be announced

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