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Russell Wangersky: Gig economy puts workers on shaky ground

A young man delivers a food order as part of the gig economy. —
A young man delivers a food order as part of the gig economy. — 123RF Stock Photo

It sounds like so much fun: make your own hours, be in control of your life, work when you want to work.

Except the “gig economy” isn’t really as advertised.

The concept is a simple one, and is gaining momentum: instead of hiring workers and keeping them on staff, employers simply pick up freelance help when they need it, and ditch the workers when they don’t.

Here’s a look at how the idea’s growing, from a 2017 piece in the Globe and Mail: “According to staffing company Randstad Canada, if you add up all the contingent workers, freelancers, independent contractors and consultants, you are talking about 20 to 30 per cent of the Canadian workforce being ‘non-traditional workers’ already. That percentage is only going higher. Eighty-five per cent of the companies surveyed by Randstad figure that they will increasingly move to an ‘agile workforce’ over the next few years.”

“Agile workforce”? That sure sounds like putting lipstick on a pig.

It’s more than a sweet deal for employers. They don’t have to keep staff during slow periods, and can ramp their workforce up and down depending on how much work they have.

Then, there’s this, from Forbes earlier this year, writing about the United States: “It remains to be seen whether the gig economy is a good thing or a bad thing for economic development overall, but for millennials, it’s certainly both. For cash-strapped young workers striving to find a good full-time job, the gig economy can be frustrating, but for more established millennials, or those who want a diversity of experiences, the gig economy is the perfect opportunity to achieve those goals.”

In the U.S., the number of gig workers (though hard to fully quantify) is estimated to represent around 34 per cent of the American workforce. By 2020, that number’s expected to reach 43 per cent.

There certainly are benefits for gig workers — your day can be more flexible, you can take advantage (sometimes) of things as simple as good weather. Heck, for some jobs, you can work in your bathrobe.

But you also do your own payroll, manage your own taxes (remember to pay those instalments), and try not to turn down a job — because the employer can just go to someone else and never come back. (That’s the biggest fiction, the argument that you can sit back and say, “No, I don’t feel like it today.”)

It’s more than a sweet deal for employers. They don’t have to keep staff during slow periods, and can ramp their workforce up and down depending on how much work they have.

Your employer doesn’t have to worry about calculating the number of vacation days you have left — you don’t have any. The employer doesn’t have to worry about health plans or severance, about union negotiations or wrongful dismissal suits. Employers can assign unreasonable workloads, and shorten lead-times. Sometimes for the unfortunate gig employee — actually, often — work flows in from a number of clients simultaneously.

And they don’t ever have to fire you.

They can just stop calling. It’s that precarious.

The “agility” of the workforce is just another thing being demanded of workers — workers who, by the way, aren’t necessarily paid extra for that agility.

Try it; I’ve done a variety of part-time gig work for years. There are many pitfalls, and those pitfalls are far worse if you’re depending on it for your entire paycheque.

You’re on call always. It’s frequently feast or famine. All your plans can go out the window to keep a client.

In the last week, I worked about 20 hours on gig work, four hours of it on Labour Day.

My wife, who works full time in the gig economy, worked 10 and a half hours on Labour Day alone, because there was work that simply had to be done for core clients.

Gig workers may be able to wrestle some work/life balance out of the whole thing that full-time employees do not. But it’s a whole new level of stress, wondering where the next job is coming from.

The benefits for employers are a lot clearer.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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