In early March, 28-year-old Michael Perez received an alarming email from one of his co-workers at Buyk, the Russian-funded, New York City-based ultra-fast grocery app. Because of the severe sanctions against Russia, the letter announced, the company had lost access to its investors and was forced to furlough 98 percent of its workforce. For Perez, the letter was just one more disappointment in a long string he had experienced working for the company. “I was at a loss of words, to be honest,” said Perez, who worked as a delivery person. “I try to make the best with the company, but I just kept getting disappointed.” Prior to its abrupt closure, Buyk was one of the largest and most rapidly growing ultrafast grocery delivery apps in New York City, promising its customers deliveries in 15 minutes or less.
After the end of World War II, two generations of workers in the United States were blessed with a period of unprecedented prosperity. Wages for the working class were high. Jobs were stable and came with benefits and health insurance. Unions protected workers from abuse by the business elites. Taxes on the wealthiest individuals and corporations was as high as 91%. The public school system provided a quality education to the poor and the rich. The nation’s infrastructure and technology were cutting edge and unrivaled. But by the 1970s, it all began to go south. Wages stagnated. Income inequality grew, until by 2008, the top wealthiest 10% of Americans received 87% of the economic growth, compared with 29% from 1933 to 1973. The good industrial jobs vanished. In their place rose the temp or gig economy, one where wages were low, the jobs were not secure and did not provide benefits, unions were emasculated, and the nation’s great democratic institutions, along with its infrastructure, crumbled into decay.
A slate of city laws for delivery workers is set to kick in the new year and will roll out in stages, commencing in January with more oversight of the delivery apps and increased transparency for the more than 65,000 delivery workers in New York City. Starting next month, delivery apps must be licensed by the city to operate in the five boroughs. By January 24th, licensed apps that take customer orders directly will be required to notify delivery workers how much each customer tips for each delivery, and the total pay and tips for the previous day. The city will now require that restaurants provide the delivery workers with better access to restrooms.
Sometimes change comes from the most unlikely of places. The European Commission—the unelected body of technocrats that designs European Union legislation—isn’t exactly known as a friend of the worker. EU commissioners and their staff are more likely to be found having coffee with corporate lobbyists than rubbing shoulders with the working class. Yet, last week, the EU Commission proposed what some are hailing as the most pro-worker reform to come out of the EU in years—a directive to regulate platform work. Often unfairly treated as self-employed, platform workers are now to be considered employees and thus entitled to the labor rights that are standard for most workers in Europe.
The tech industry buzzword “gig” has distracted society from important questions about the gig economy that are surprisingly traditional: whether a business has employees or contractors, and how it can avoid payroll taxes and legal liability. Countless Silicon Valley business models have been built under the guise of gigs, Uber and Lyft two of the best known cases, which is ironic considering that for all of their high-tech pretensions, at the core both are taxi and food delivery services.