Instaserfs: Precarious Employment in the New – and Old – Economy

(This summer, I’m going to publish some of my work on FOLD, the beautiful platform my student Alexis Hope is building. There’s a graphically enhanced version of this story there.)

Benjamen Walker makes some of the best radio around. (Okay, it’s mostly digitally-delivered audio storytelling these days, but who’s counting?) His finest work tends to come out in series of podcasts, exploring a complex issue through interviews and stories that unfold over two or more sequential weekly episodes.

The most recently concluded series is called “Instaserfs” and it focuses on the “sharing economy”, aka “the 1099” economy, the “gig economy” or as Ben offers, “the demand economy” or “the exploitation economy”. Struck by the ability to outsource virtually any task, Benjamen hires San Francisco native Andrew Callaway to make three episodes of his podcast as an “Instapodder”. The working method? Andrew’s task is to take on as many sharing economy jobs as he can and to report Benjamen about the experience, and whether he can pay his San Francisco rent with the money he earns. (Spoiler alert: he can’t.)

There’s no shortage of articles out there with titles like “I spent a week as a Lyft driver/ Taskrabbit/ Instacart shopper“, so this experiment is hardly original. But following along as a listener as Andrew goes through the process of deciding where to work, becoming a contractor, trying out the work arrangement and hearing the frustrations and small joys makes for some excellent listening. We get a taste of the horribly repetitive onboarding sessions, where the main point is to ensure the contractor knows that the company absolutely, positively won’t be responsible for anything bad that happens. We learn about the unpredictability of earning on the platforms, the radical difference between a good day and a bad day as a Lyft driver. We get a sense that some of these platforms treat their workers well – Taskrabbit and Wash.io are ones Andrew expresses particular fondness for – though even good platforms change the rules of the game, and these changes always make things harder for the contractor. We learn that an alarming number of San Franciscans pay a sharp premium to have Chipotle burritos delivered to them.

Ben and Andrew identify the ways that these services create a conceptual gap between the haves and have nots, those who can afford a $9 delivery charge for a burrito, and those who wait in line to earn their share of the delivery fee. Losing that collective experience of waiting in line, the leveling effect of shared inconvenience, Andrew speculates, is making the wealthy into nastier people… and the behavior of some of the oafish tech bros he encounters as a Lyft driver makes the case that these services are somehow unhealthy for society as a whole.

There’s utility in this insight, and in the shame that Andrew sees in the wash.io users, who seem embarrassed that they’re paying people to do their laundry. Outsourcing your routine tasks to a poorly-paid contractor is good for efficiency, but likely bad for something else. And some of the services Andrew works for seem designed to create class warfare. In the third episode, Andrew begins working for ManServants, a company whose core premise is so uncomfortable, I spent an enjoyable hour trying to determine whether the company is real or a splendid art piece. (Yes, it’s a service to let women rent well-dressed men, at $125 per hour, to act as “personal photographer, bartender, bodyguard, and butler all in one.” Yes, it appears to be real – Lane Moore tried it out and wrote about it for Cosmo – and doesn’t appear to be stripper rental in disguise.) But the main point of Instaserfs, for me at least, was not that rising inequity is turning America into Downton Abbey, but how badly the service economy is stacked against its participants.

Near the end of the second episode, as Andrew settles into his new lifestyle, he begins interviewing other 1099 workers. Andrew confesses to a driver for Luxe, a company that provides valet parking services, that he’s terrified to try working for the company out of fear of damaging a client’s car. The Luxe driver tells him that he’s right to be worried – he dinged a client’s truck the other day and is now on the hook for the damages. Luxe insures customer’s vehicles, but contractors are liable to pay the $500 deductible if they damage the car. The Luxe contractor explains that the company will deduct the deductible from his paycheck automatically and break it up over the course of months, if need be.

Given the modest amounts these jobs pay, a $500 payment is a major, potentially crippling, setback (something that wouldn’t have been clear to me, had I not listened to two episodes of Andrew figuring out whether his jobs had paid enough to cover gasoline for his car.) This practice of limiting liability and transferring it to the “contractor” is routine for this emerging industry, and seems like the core sin of this business model. Yes, the work and pay are unpredictable, the workplace rules arbitrary and sometimes demeaning. But a job where it’s common to end up owing the employer more than when you started working sounds like something out of the days of the company store.

Benjamen and Andrew have fun exploring this question of capital and of risk. Andrew can’t get a job as an Uber driver because of a dent in his bumper, which will cost thousands to fix, and Benjamen is unwilling (and probably unable as a podcast producer) to invest that capital in Andrew’s “business”. Later, ManServants cuts Andrew off until he can upgrade his shoes, which don’t meet their high standards – in this case, Benjamen is willing to dip into his own funds in the hopes of obtaining tape of Andrew on the job. Benjamen interviewed Mansur Nurullah, a San Francisco grad student and cabbie, who became an Uber driver when the startup disrupted the taxi business to the point where he could no longer profitably drive a cab. Nurallah needed a car to become an Uber driver, but balked when the company steered him towards a 27% interest auto loan. (Uber’s lending partner, Santander, is under investigation for predatory lending. And Uber loans explicitly prohibit the vehicles purchased this way from being used for personal use… or for a competing service.)

The capital’s all yours to provide, and the risk is all yours to assume. Benjamen and Andrew never discuss whether the podcast will pay legal fees if Andrew’s arrested for solicitation while working his Manservants gig. But the rules within the 1099 economy are well established: if you park illegally while making a delivery for Postmates, the fine is yours to pay. Andrew shares a great exchange he has with his Postmates dispatcher as they try to calculate the smallest parking ticket he could risk to make an order. (Dispatch suggests he park in a driveway, because it will take longer for the homeowner to call the police or a tow truck, but makes clear that he can’t offer advice, as it’s the driver’s problem, not the company’s.)

Contractors provide the capital and assume the risk, while the companies collect the profits and the investments. But that’s not the core insight of Instaserfs – it’s that this blatantly unfair arrangement isn’t news to most working people.

Andrew interviews Brooklyn, a Taskrabbit worker and advocate for the sharing economy, who tells him she left a six figure job to have more control, freedom and flexibility. He’s hired Brooklyn to help him make a viral video protesting the 1099 economy. Instead, she sets him straight. As they talk, Andrew realizes, “What I find horrible about the sharing economy is what most Americans have been dealing with in the workplace for decades.” And Brooklyn replies, “Welcome to life. As a black, gay female, I have been dealing with this since I was born.”

Uncertain work hours, unpredictable income, onerous workplace rules, no benefits and zero job security? That’s a reality of the American workplace that Barbara Ehrenreich documented in Nickeled and Dimed, which Benjamen evokes in Instaserfs, hoping to extend her critiques to this proposed future. But if the working conditions and uncertainty of the 1099 economy aren’t new, the aspirational tone is. For the most part, low wage jobs don’t ask you to consider yourself an entrepreneur. They have their own ways of transferring cost and risk to you, but at least they don’t transfer blame. When you fail as a low wage worker, you fail because you’re living in a country that doesn’t mandate a living wage, and until recently, didn’t provide basic universal healthcare. Slowly, all too slowly, Americans are waking up to the reality that the deck is stacked against the working poor, that paying rent would require 80-120 hours a week of minimum wage work in most states.

But in the 1099 economy, you’re an entrepreneur. Your success or failure depends on your skill, your hustle and your drive. That company offering predatory loans and flooding the streets with drivers competing for your passengers is valued at $50 billion (larger than 80% of the top 500 S&P companies) and will be the hottest IPO in years when it inevitably goes public.

Instaserfs is the tale of two well-educated white guys discovering what people with fewer advantages have knows for decades: the game is rigged. Fortunately, Andrew is not going to be a Wash.io delivery man for much longer – he’s a talented video producer whose skills should lead him to a less precarious freelance existence. The question is whether listeners to this excellent series will see the connections between the new exploitation economy and the old exploitation economy, and work towards a future of work where fewer people can rent manservants at $125 an hour, and fewer people need new shoes to work those servant jobs.

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3 Responses to Instaserfs: Precarious Employment in the New – and Old – Economy

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