Diverting Class War Into Generational War, Again

This Spring Trump swore to fix the “gig economy” when in fact everything Trump has done thus far would indicate that he has barely scratched the surface of what will be a pension crisis for millions in the US and across the planet where freelancers are becoming more the rule than the exception.

It is estimated that by 2020 that half of the workforce will be freelance. Add to this the fact that automation is threatening 800m jobs internationally, making the first drastic shift towards on the workforce in completely parallel to what occurred in the between 1820 and 1840 during the Industrial Revolution when agricultural societies had to adapt to the new machinery of the work force. Sounds good? Or scary?

Well, to most people it is both and here’s why. First, the notion that jobs are lost to AI is not a conspiracy theory, but something well-rooted in much research. Recently a two-year study from McKinsey Global Institute was published that suggests that by 2030, intelligent agents and robots could eliminate as much as 30 percent of the world’s human labor force. According to McKinsey suggests that this automation revolution could rival the move away from agricultural labor during which began in the 1820s and perpetuated throughout the early 1900s in the United States and Europe. More recently, the explosion of the Chinese labor economy and consumer market has given rise to an explosion of the AI labor force abroad and McKinsey estimates that globally automation will displace between 400 and 800 million jobs by 2030 whose fallout will necessitate that about 375 million people completely switch job categories.

Other reports claim that AI will create as many jobs as it removes and the most generous of studies are concluding that AI will be the net job creator in countries like the US. While all these theories are still yet to be tested through reality, only time will tell which theory will be proven in practice. In the UK, it is estimated that AI will replace more than 250,000 government jobs alone which reduce that work force by 18 percent. And when you read reports about the many fields of labor that have been already taken over by robots, it is easy to understand why so many people are concerned about both the job market and their economic security. One thing is certain: at various speeds from country to country, AI and robotic labor is replacing human labour making the reality of freelancing more, not less inevitable.

The upside to AI is that so many tasks we had to do within our jobs have been completely automated and according to some critics, AI will not ever replace our jobs completely but merely replace some of the more mundane tasks we never really enjoyed in the first place. Such items are: automation of parcel pickups and deliveries, online orders, process automation, data transfers, document reading and extraction, banking fraud detection, cognitive insights from machine learning and mileage tracking. The possibilities with AI are exponentially growing and enabling individual freelancers the ability to carry on business as a single person, but with the capacity of endless tasks for which the formation of a small company would have been otherwise necessary.

Still, the gig economy is being fueled by exploitation as we have seen this year with the death of a British DPD courier, Don Lane, who had been charged £150 by the company for attending a specialist renal appointment. In order to avoid being fined again, the driver skipped his remaining appointments and died as a result. Similarly, bicycle courrier, Pablo Avendano, was killed by and SUV in Philadelphia this past May while working for Cavior, a food delivery platform which incentivizes driver to work longer hours, more deliveries. Since Avendano’s death, his community organized themselves into a group called The Friends and Comrades of Pablo Avendano and have made a demand for the unionization of all Caviar couriers. Their demands? A minimum wage beginning at $20 per hour, benefits which include hazard pay and bicycle maintenance pay, and most importantly, for Caviar to reclassify these couriers as W-2 employees, not independent contractors. Uber drivers in the US and the UK are facing similar battles for more human working rights with quite distinct legal decisions having recently been rendered.

The realities of the labour market are growing quite time for employees who often find themselves suddenly rendered redundant and from that perspective those who are already freelancers have a foot in that market which can take time to develop and create a client base. But the reality of potential sickness and disability is not covered by any sort of freelance protections written into law. And as humans are retiring later and later, the reality is that such inevitabilities ought to be foreseen rather than postponed. The right to labor rights should not be limited to those in full-time employee contractual positions but needs to be expanded into law where sick, bereavement and maternity leaves are written into legislation such that all workers have equal rights today.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com