So what’s going on? To learn more, I interviewed 30 gig workers in Melbourne who worked as drivers, food deliverers or for task-based platforms like Airtasker.
I also spoke with 30 customers using such services, and with 20 industry stakeholders. My colleague, Elizabeth Straughan of the University of Melbourne, conducted a further ten interviews with gig workers after the outbreak of the pandemic to find out how they had been affected.
Our five years Research reveals an industry facing backlash from both employees and customers. Many employees we spoke to were trying to get out of the gig economy.
Customers, meanwhile, often have complicated feelings — including guilt and shame — about using rideshare or food delivery services that rely on employees in the gig economy. Many have already stopped.
‘It just felt very right and selfish’
One of our customers interviewed, “Mel” (all names are pseudonyms), reported feeling uneasy about food delivery:
It just felt really right and selfish and greedy and ashamed. So I wouldn’t want people to see me do it and then I’d close the door and it’d be my secret thing inside […] the packaging made me feel like I want to cry because there was so much of it […] so much guilt.
Mel was also concerned that she was depriving herself of skills such as food preparation or interacting with real people when ordering and collecting food:
It teaches me helplessness.
Others complained about poor service. Khalid said:
It’s kinda lost the sense of quality and customer service they used to have, which I really enjoyed […] it got to the point where let’s say I ordered twice in one week both orders would come and they would be cold. Basically inedible. The drivers would literally have no idea where they are going.
His household has since vowed not to use food delivery services.
Another customer, Li, found that she was overspending on food delivery:
There are times when I used it for breakfast, lunch and dinner and I spent almost A$200 a day on it […] I stopped and now started cooking for myself.
She has also cut back on ordering rideshares, saying:
It’s so much better to walk because so many things happen that you miss from a car.
Workers looking for the exit
Many employees we interviewed said they wanted to get out of the gig economy.
James does ride-along and delivery, but admits he’s ashamed of it:
I don’t actually share with too many people that I participate. To most people I just say ‘I just stopped working’.
Lui delivers food on the bike most evenings. It is punishing, low paid and he only drinks one glass of water so he doesn’t have to go home to go to the toilet. He told us:
In the future I still need to get a full time permanent job because this delivery job is not enough for me.
Lui said he will keep this work off his resume.
Vijay, who has experienced racial abuse as a car-sharing driver, says he is also looking to get out:
There is no more money in Uber […] I’m desperate for work, to throw myself into something else.
Recommendations for policy makers, customers, platforms and handymen
The gig economy faces dual challenges: Cost of living pressures are forcing customers to cut costs, while the COVID-induced migration slowdown has reduced the pool of gig workers to replace those leaving the industry.
Platform companies are constantly To adjust the way they operate, but as our research shows, many employees and customers are getting tired of the gig economy.
Our report made several recommendations to different stakeholders.
Our recommendations for policymakers include:
- improve the supervision and regulation of platform companies by ensuring that these employees are recognized as employees
- investing in ways to help people working in displaced industries
through platform-based DIY work to transition to new training and employment opportunities
- continue to invest in public transport, an essential public good for the future of cities; rideshare is not a sustainable or socially just replacement for public transport
- provide adequate facilities in urban centers for food deliverers and drivers who want to wait between performances
- raising public awareness of the hardships many gig workers face
- apply stricter penalties for abusive behavior towards gig workers.
Platform companies must:
- provide fairer and more consistent rewards
- paid training for employees on how to better deal with challenging interpersonal situations
- better help employees who have been abused by customers or involved in accidents
- organize social events to connect employees and make them feel part of a valued community.
- always treat gig workers with courtesy and respect – even small gestures of kindness
can significantly improve their well-being
- consider how the use of work platforms for gigs can reduce the viability of comparable incumbent services
- tip gig workers, until regulation improves their pay
- opt for more socially progressive options, such as platform co-ops, where they exist.
We recommended gig workers:
- recognize the transferable “soft skills” they have developed during their performances
- connecting with other employees to foster a sense of collective effort and belonging
- work together to bring about positive change in the regulation of DIY work.