STORY INLINE POST
It was a hot June afternoon the day Esteban, who was making a food delivery on his bike in Mexico City, was hit from behind by a truck. His leg was shattered but he was alive. Fueled by adrenaline and fear, Esteban placed a call – but it wasn’t a call for emergency services, or even to his family. His first call, as the pain set in, was to a fellow delivery person. Esteban asked a friend to please complete the gig and explain why the food was late so that Esteban’s rating did not get negatively impacted from the accident.
Esteban was more concerned about preserving his rating in the delivery app, thus preserving his ability to continue working on that app when he recovered, than for his own well-being. And before you chalk this up to one man’s tale of misplaced priorities and work obsession, let me tell you that at this point I have heard hundreds of these stories.
Gig workers consistently feel unfairly treated by the platforms they work on. Just look at the gig worker strikes popping up all over the world. From California to Colombia to Italy and Singapore, gig workers are demanding better protections and compensation.
Esteban was fortunate, though. He has grown roots in the gig worker community in Mexico City. His call for help went out to dozens of gig workers in the area who were able to drop what they were doing to come and assist him. He made it to the hospital and has recovered enough to resume his life as a courier.
The pandemic pushed millions of people worldwide into the gig economy as individuals lost their jobs or were forced to balance family life, children’s education and work pressures all without the normal systems they rely on, such as school, childcare or even the support of friends and family.
Gig work provided the flexibility and opportunity many people required to get through the lockdowns and the uncertainty that has rocked life as we know it the last two years. The ability to squeeze work in around other obligations is a powerful draw for the gig economy. One that many of the gig workers I speak to say they will never give up.
Yet, that independence is simultaneously leaving people feeling disenfranchised, especially those workers who feel like they have put their health and safety on the line during the pandemic. Gig worker demands are not unique. They want what everyone wants: fair compensation, worker protections, transparency and a seat at the table. They want to be seen and respected.
What is unique is the push and pull between worker protections and the freedom and flexibility gig workers desire.
We see time and time again how regulation lags behind innovation. As innovation helps us seek new and better ways to live, regulation seeks to give us protections. Both are necessary and important. It seems that the gig economy may be reaching its awkward adolescence, full of growing pains and disillusionment.
No matter how this dance plays out, we can all agree that gig work is here to stay. There are an estimated 1.1 billion gig workers today worldwide and they are severely underserved.
The lack of formal services for gig workers has created a unique environment in which gig workers have self-organized, and it’s impressive: from Facebook groups where gig workers can ask questions and get guidance, to unofficial meetups in the airport lines, to Zello and Whatsapp groups to help gigsters stay connected.
They warn each other of scams and thefts. They help each other figure out the best times and locations to work. They even get together for in-person gatherings to celebrate birthdays, play soccer matches, or provide emergency medical support when someone has an accident.
Gig worker ingenuity should be admired by everyone. Even when they receive very little support from companies and governments, they have created their own ways to support one another.
What I find so encouraging, however, is how the private sector is stepping up with innovative solutions designed specifically for gig workers. From insurance products, to banking services, to bookkeeping and tax support, there are dozens of companies taking on the unique challenges of this population.
This, too, is a sign of the maturity of the gig economy, where new industry is popping up to serve the needs of new markets.
For gig workers, this includes things like rental services where you can rent a car in a peer-to-peer exchange for gig workers without the means to own their own car. Or by-the-hour insurance options to cover workers while they are actively driving or couriering goods. There are services like Bankuish that help underbanked gig workers turn their data into a credit score they can use to access affordable financial services. And digital banks help workers categorize expenses and manage invoices. There are garages and houses built for workers to rest between gigs, and so much more.
The question of benefits and protections for gig workers does not have to be win-lose. By partnering with the private sector, we can offer all these services through the open market. We can make sure that the Estebans of the world are treated with the dignity they deserve.