Large companies have long sought to boost profits by converting their employees into “independent contractors,” allowing them to avoid paying benefits. The rise of the “gig economy” – exemplified by digital platforms such as Uber and Airbnb – has only accelerated this trend. Business leaders like to celebrate the free agent, free market economy as liberating -- the apex of American individualism and entrepreneurialism. But the self-employed are more likely to experience a big loss of income, security and collegiality. There is a reason that this cohort is called “the precariat.”
A new report by Co-operatives UK called “Not Alone: Trade Union and Co-operative Solutions for Self-Employed Workers” offers a thoughtful, rigorous overview of this neglected sector of the economy. Although it focuses on the UK, its findings easily apply internationally, particularly for co-operative and union-based solutions.
The author of the report, Pat Conaty, notes that “self-employment is at a record level” in the UK – some 15% of the workforce – and rising. While some self-employed workers choose this status, a huge number are forced into through layoffs and job restructuring, with all the downward mobility and loss of security implied by them.
Few politicians or economists are honestly addressing the implications. They assume that technological innovation will simply create a new wave of jobs to replace the ones being eliminated, same as it ever was.
The sad truth is that investors and companies benefit greatly from degrading full-time jobs into piecemeal, task-based projects tackled by a growing pool of precarious workers. This situation is only going to become more desperate as artificial intelligence, automation, driverless vehicles and platform economics offshore and de-skill conventional jobs if they don't permanently destroy them.