There seems to be a wilful blindness on behalf of neoliberal policy makers and the media when it comes to complexities of precarious work (the “gig economy”). These politicians are using new technological changes that consumers want as cover to push through anti-worker and “market above all” types of deregulation. The result is more and more workers being exploited in precarious jobs. However, there are essential differences between Uber, Airbnb, and the new internet application-based food delivery services. These differences are important when it comes to the type of regulation that will protect these workers.
Uber, as a company, uses private equity funding to aggressively attack regulation to forward its own profit making. They win when their employees undercut workers currently in the regulated system. This is a direct undermining of a system full of hard-won regulation brought in to stop the exact kind of unsustainable race to the bottom Uber is pushing.
Airbnb is not, as a company, aggressively attacking regulatory mechanisms to undermine a highly regulated house-sharing market (since that regulation does not exist in most places). Those who use Airbnb are not employees of the company (arguably like taxi drivers and Uber) and are thus not directly undermining a regulated class of worker.
While there are those who are operating in a way that is unlawful and this needs to be address, that was the case before Airbnb.
The main concern for hotel workers is that there are some large-scale property owners acting as hotels and undercutting wages for cleaners by using contracted companies. The answer is hotel-style regulation and enforcement of municipal hotel licensing for larger operators and sector-style agreements for cleaners.
The main issues with Airbnb are compliance with current regulations on grey-market income, standards, and liability insurance. For a solution, we can look to Cuba which has had an Airbnb-style rent-an-extra-room system since the start of its revolution. It solved the exploitative aspects of their Casa Particulares system through effective regulation and enforcement.
Airbnb will not likely replace high and medium-end, unionized hotels. However, it might drive competition at the low-end, non-union low regulatory compliance hotels. This level of competition will not be new for most small operators.
The final example is the contract food delivery, which has always existed as hyper exploitative employment. If anything, the centralization (through an internet company) of the distribution of these contracts may make it easier to identify the specific nature of the exploitation. This would make either organizing the workers or demands sector standards easier. Bike messengers in Toronto and other cities have been experimenting with ways to build solidarity and increase standards in their sector for years.
Making the distinctions between these types of companies are important for organizing, demanding progressive change, and writing regulations that will actually help instead of hinder access to stable employment. Identifying who the workers are, how they are being exploited, and by whom is also essential for tilting the scales back in favour of workers.