What it Means to Have a Chance

I was asked about the unintended consequences for a worker of the sharing economy, such as a driver for Uber. That question stumped me and I still don’t think I have the answer. The most recent debates of whether an Uber driver is an employee or a contractor have me remain undecided on either side.

On one hand, I understand that more regulations would lower the potential wages of the workers, or worse still, nip the young sharing economy in the bud. But on the other hand, we are a society that frowns on exploitation of the weak and the vulnerable, and our rules and regulations must reflect this.

In the extreme, this is not so very different than the argument for a Bangladeshi factory worker, working for one of the cheap fashion houses. The opportunity to earn an income is valued against the horrid conditions of working many hours everyday in a cramped and unsafe environment.

I have never experienced being in a desperate position of a Bangladeshi worker, nor have I driven for Uber. But I do know what it’s like to be grateful for an opportunity that otherwise would not have been available to me.

Investors are conditioned to think of the future in terms of the present value through discounting the future value. To have an opportunity that can change the trajectory of this earning potential not only for myself, but also for my future descendants is something that is difficult to value. When you are on ‘the other side’, it is very easy to wag fingers and insist on the protection of the workers. But this comes at a cost. In order to reduce the cost of adhering to regulations, companies will reduce the potential income of the workers or limit the number of ‘opportunity seekers’ they take on.

Has there been a poll taken from the ‘opportunity seekers’ of what rights and remedies they should have access to? And if shown the cost benefit analysis of such protection, which would they choose to keep and which would they discard?

What about the prevention of exploitation by the companies? Perhaps by receiving so many applications they can impose onerous requirements before a worker is accepted. Should the law play an active role to ensure that no such exploitations take place? And if so, are the precedents from the current employment laws adequate enough to provide the seedlings for new laws in the sharing economy?

What of the perks? How do we value the facilitation of paid leave and other amenities that are taken as norm in a typical employment?

Those are the issues that weigh on one side of the balance. On the other side, we should look at the considerations received by the workers. Firstly, how stringent is the requirement for a worker to participate in a sharing economy? I will assume much less so (at the moment). An Uber driver for example, is not required to go through rigorous tests as a black cab driver in London has to. The absence of outset prejudice and requirements for the workers to fit certain criteria means anyone has a chance to participate.

Secondly, as oft mentioned, the flexibility in the work contract has in itself a huge value to those who would otherwise be prevented from working by other obligations, the time schedule, including a variety of unique personal circumstances and difficulties. The sharing economy does away with many of these obstacles and that again, opens up the door for many who would have been locked out of the chance to earn an income.

There is however, one weight that may rest on either side of the balance, and that is dignity. For an otherwise unemployed, the chance to earn an income, or greater income through your own sweat and skills gives the person a sense of dignity. On the other hand, society may expect that the companies in the sharing economy that employ these individuals to have a regard for their dignity as human beings, whether or not they are labelled as employees or contract workers.

A suggestion I would make is for there to be more scrutiny of the contracts between companies and the workers of the sharing economy. There should be an assumption of the workers being in a more vulnerable and less informed position, and therefore, the contracts must be drawn as simply as possible, with a duty to explain the many possible scenarios and risks to those interested in signing up.

On the flip side, the environment has to be done right for the sharing economy to thrive. Then perhaps, there will not be one or two incumbent companies, but several, each competing for labour that they themselves will have to provide attractive incentives for workers to utilise their platform instead of their competitors.

The question boils down to this one practical matter: do we want the sharing economy to exist or not? If the answer is yes, then we must look at it with fresh eyes. We must be wary of overcomplicating the procedure as to diminish the cost advantage of the sharing economy and thereby inadvertently taking away the chances that many in the society, especially in the lower rank of the economy would be grateful to have.

15_El_Aguador_de_Sevilla_(Wellington_Museum,_Apsley_House,_Londres,_1623)

The Water-Seller of Seville, Velazquez (c1620)

The vendor’s face is downcast, expecting nothing, not looking at the boy to whom he gives water in a clean, fine glass with a black fig to freshen the taste. In the shadows another customer drinks. The water-seller seems unaware of either; as if in deference to his sorrow, the boy looks down. He respects the poverty and age of the street-seller, as does Velazquez, who gives the man an immense dignity.

The water-seller’s body is as monumental as the round container on which he places his left hand. His robe is torn like a saint’s, his face lined with experience, the scarred, creased antithesis of the boy’s white, smooth features. This is the face of a man who has spent a lot of time in the sun, standing on dusty street corners.

This painting crackles with Seville’s scorching heat. The water-seller’s robe has a flaky, crisp texture. His face, around his mouth, is marked by deep canyons like dried-up river beds. His beard is desert grass, his hair shaved short, in contrast to the boy’s lively locks. He touches the water jar, on the surface of which three drops of water glisten, shining globules of life.

From The Guardian.

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