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F*ck the Gig Economy, by H. C. Gildfind

On the uberisation of everything

Published: 7 Sep 2019

My partner and I own a tiny, purpose-built holiday-accommodation business that has been run independently for thirty years. We took it over about six years ago, and after five years of steady traffic to our website, achieved by word of mouth and customers’ Google searches, we suddenly had no traffic at all. We realised that this was because people were going directly to Airbnb. Airbnb indeed declares that it’s ‘now the most searched-for accommodations [sic] brand’. We thus knew that if we didn’t go on Airbnb too we’d have no business. To clarify, this essay is not a gripe about our personal situation. Rather, it’s about the insights our ‘business problem’ has given us into the multiple impacts that the unregulated growth of multinational tech-based companies such as Airbnb can have.

Airbnb is built on a web platform that allows it to act as a broker that connects buyers and sellers. (Airbnb flatly denies that it’s a broker—which conveniently absolves it from the attendant legal responsibilities. An adviser to the European Court of Justice recently helped it along by arguing that it was merely ‘a digital service provider’ and ‘an information society service’.) Airbnb’s brilliant use of technology and aggressive marketing give ordinary people the means to turn their spaces and services into businesses that customers can access ‘seamlessly’ through their smartphones. Airbnb also says it offers insurance to hosts and customers, though it remains a mystery how such money is ever extracted, as accounts on Airbnbhell and Domain suggest. Most customers thus won’t realise that the accommodation they buy might not be adequately insured, might not be regulated by council (for health and safety), and probably doesn’t pay the rates and taxes that equivalent businesses are obliged to pay. This is fine—for hosts and customers alike—until something goes wrong. In return for enabling this scenario, Airbnb charges fees.

Airbnb isn’t what it used to be. It began as a cheap way to travel by renting strangers’ spare bedrooms. As the company has spread and professionalised, so have its listings. The platform is now commonly used to rent out entire homes (not ‘share’ them), is increasingly used by pre-existing commercial holiday businesses (like us), and is no longer ‘cheap’ (its new ‘Luxe’ listings offer ‘five-star everything’). While the company ostensibly takes a reasonable 3 per cent from sellers, it can take more than 10 per cent from buyers. Hosts, however, can end up wearing ‘sharing’ some of their customers’ ‘service fees’ by having to lower their rates so that the final ‘checkout’ price is competitive. Airbnb is also trying to get a stranglehold on the rest of the tourism industry. It has begun selling ‘Experiences’ where hosts are charged a flat 20 per cent, and it has just hired the founding CEO of Virgin America, Fred Reid, to help turn it into an end-to-end travel platform via partnerships with transport companies. It has also recently purchased the booking site HotelTonight: a rather cynical move, seeing as Airbnb originated as an alternative to the traditional hotel market. HotelTonight’s co-founder and CEO, Sam Shank, said the merger would bring guests ‘more choices’. This notion of ‘choice’ is what the gig sharing slave economy is apparently founded upon.

In order to have a ‘choice’ one must have the power to choose, and options to choose from. Being forced to use one platform (as a buyer or seller) that requires you to use specific monetary systems and technologies (which can ‘discipline’ or even ‘delete’ you) has nothing to do with consumer empowerment. Airbnb claims that its merger with HotelTonight proves it’s ‘Delivering on Commitment to Bring Magical Travel to Everyone’. That future will have to be ‘magical’ if its propagated values of ‘sharing’ and ‘choice’ are to coexist with its obvious attempt to establish a monopoly. Perhaps, in the ‘magical’ future it envisages, a ‘sharing monopoly’ won’t seem so oxymoronic.

It’s worth pausing here to note the role that language is playing in these global economic shifts. Euphemism is a powerful weapon in any war, as proven by the existence of terms such as ‘friendly fire’, ‘collateral damage’ and ‘enhanced interrogation’. Consciously or not, we all perpetuate such distortions when we evade discomfiting things—and we do this in economic wars, too, as when we refer to the ‘gig economy’ (so cute!) or the ‘sharing economy’ (so wholesome!) or to ‘independent contractors’ (so entrepreneurial! so liberating!). CNBC provides an excellent example of euphemism when it describes Airbnb’s pursuit of monopoly as an ‘expansion narrative’. Wikipedia also notes how the gig sharing slave economy’s profiteers weaponise language:

Uberisation or uberization is a neo-euphemism for a property of a highly tele-networked business to hit peak efficiencies in operations, providing highly economical and efficient services. The idea is then projected into the area of economic systems to speak of vehicles and drivers (in the Uber example) as under-utilised capacity of existing assets or human resources…

Neo-Scary, much?

While Airbnb pursues its monopoly, the growth of the ‘holiday-let gig economy’ has seriously disrupted destroyed the lives of many ordinary people. For instance, there are thousands of permanent residents, globally, who now have a relentless stream of strangers turning up next door. Locally and abroad, thieves have reportedly used Airbnb to access otherwise secure buildings. Meanwhile, wild ‘Airbnb parties’ have been reported in the media endless times, including one where a young woman was killed. Numerous reports reveal horror stories for customers, too, such as having their accounts deleted without good reason, hosts cancelling at the last minute, or hosts using illegal cameras. In one of these latter cases, an ex-policeman uploaded images of thirty-four showering women onto a porn site—a ‘choice’ that makes the ‘sharing economy’ seem a very dark thing indeed.

Many people see the unregulated rise of Airbnb-type rentals as contributing to the global housing crisis. In Hobart, Airbnb listings surged from 2874 to 4459 in the twelve months to February 2018. There, an increasing number of working people can’t find a home, with long-term tenants being evicted by landlords who specifically want to convert their properties to Airbnbs. The University of Tasmania even bought a hotel to house its students due to the shrinking market in long-term rentals. Related to these housing issues, Airbnb’s rise has resulted in people all over the world protesting against ‘invasion’ and ‘touristification’, which leave their cities ‘hollowed out’ and like ‘ghost towns’.

Of course, Airbnb is not single-handedly responsible for any of this: many complex factors contribute to such issues. What I worry about most, though, is the impact that the gig sharing slave economy is having on our perception of such problems—and of ourselves.

Recently, I was in the car listening to Triple J’s ‘Hack’ special on the housing crisis. A young interviewee, Holly from Hobart, drew my attention when she pointed out that housing should be seen as infrastructure. She explained how, though she has a stable job, she could only afford to buy a mouldy boat (with no running water or bathroom) to live in. After recounting her story, Holly declared herself ‘incredibly lucky and incredibly privileged to have been able to buy myself out of homelessness’. I nearly crashed when she said this—first from a whack of disorienting disbelief (‘lucky’?), and then from seeing red.

Holly’s words reminded me of Joanna Horton’s Overland article, ‘Against Apologies’, which dissects the current fashion of people ‘apologising’ for their ‘privileges’. Horton argues:

…the apology conceals a fundamentally reactionary stance: at its heart is the belief that blame and culpability are individual problems, rather than structural ones. It silences radical critiques of our material conditions, and it divorces us from the forms of engagement necessary to advance these critiques. In fact, the apology drives us away from the kind of politics we desperately need to embrace: a politics that frames freedom, comfort and stability as universal rights, not unequal privileges. [emphasis added]

While Airbnb may or may not be a contributing factor to Holly’s situation, I believe that the gig sharing slave business model that Airbnb represents significantly contributes to the twisted political and moral culture that Horton identifies—and that Holly unwittingly expresses when she declares herself ‘grateful’ she isn’t ‘homeless’ even though she clearly is homeless.

As the gig sharing slave economy comes to be seen as normal, so does the individuation, atomisation and ‘virtualisation’ of our workforce and our society at large. This can only perpetuate the practice of individuals’ self-blaming for the increasingly invisible and thus insidious structural inequalities that the gig sharing slave economy is creating and exploiting. How does someone radically critique their ‘material conditions’ when their livelihood is dictated by an algorithm controlled by unidentifiable, inaccessible people? Why wouldn’t we be ‘divorced’ from the ‘forms of engagement’ necessary to advance radical critiques when our interactions with our workplaces, our service providers and the world at large are increasingly reduced to swipes on a phone? Multinationals such as Airbnb institute an economic and cultural smash-divide-and-conquer approach to entire industries, and technology has everything to do with their success—not only because it enables the covert manipulation of markets or enables the digital coercion of users but because the technological medium itself dematerialises flesh-and-blood individuals into gamified, rateable avatars on smartphones. (Isn’t it interesting how such ‘coerce-to-review’ strategies keep us criticising each other instead of the powers that be? And who says China’s ‘social credit’ ‘surveil and punish’ system is so unusual or extreme?)

It’s totally right to blame governments for their abysmal failure to keep up with the effects of the disruption destruction enabled by companies like Airbnb—but lawmaking and law enforcement are incredibly slow, resource ravenous and expensive. The identification of illegal Airbnb operations literally takes footwork, as illustrated by the ‘Airbnb detectives’ of Berlin who chase up tip-offs and sniff out clues of dodgy rentals. New York tenants are helping councils identify illegal rentals. Meanwhile, a number of European cities are amending laws to force thousands of homes back into the long-term rental market. In Australia, Victoria is putting in place ‘party house’ laws, while New South Wales is imposing (laughable) limits on how often a property can be rented out each year.

So, yes, multiple governments are trying to regulate the impact of short-term rentals, but it’s not a ‘fair game’. This doesn’t absolve governments of their responsibilities, but only a fool would argue that multinationals don’t know they can outrun and outgun governments—and thus they plough ahead doing what they can, for as long as they can, because they can. Airbnb states that it wants to ‘create a world where anyone can belong anywhere’. This sounds about as sincere as Mr I’m-Sorry-Again Zuckerberg’s declaration that Facebook is on a mission to build a civically minded and inclusive ‘global community’. What is the difference between ‘anyone’ belonging ‘anywhere’ and ‘everyone’ belonging ‘nowhere’? And will our ‘inclusive’ future still enable white supremacists to organise and live stream their hate crimes, as it does today? Whose interests, exactly, will this future serve?

Of course, it’s not just Airbnb that uses tech to disrupt destroy industries. Maurice Blackburn is representing more than 6000 Australian taxi and hire-car drivers whose lives were disrupted destroyed by the appearance of Uber. Maurice Blackburn senior associate Elizabeth O’Shea says:

Uber sells a notion that it’s just here to do things differently, but in reality…different has meant operating unlawfully and that has caused extensive loss and damage to law-abiding taxi and hire car operators and licence holders across the country… [Uber] came in and exploited people by operating outside of regulations.

Nick Andrianakis, who is the action’s lead plaintiff, puts it rather more directly: ‘…Uber came to our shores illegally, like pirates’.

Few would deny that, pre-Uber, the taxi industry was a corrupt cartel, but just because something needs to be changed doesn’t mean that a multinational has the right to smash it to pieces and decide how it will be rebuilt. Within one year, as their licences became worthless, seven Melbourne drivers died by suicide, as did the wife of another. (In New York a comparable number of taxi drivers died by suicide within a similar time frame.) Such suicides show the extreme suffering experienced by this predominantly migrant workforce. This latter point is deemed relevant by the drivers themselves: they link the government’s and community’s indifference to their plight to racism. It’s certainly hard to believe that our community would have been so unsympathetic if so-called ‘Aussie white battlers’ were suffering in such a way.

All this disruption destruction for what? So Uber drivers can get shafted, too—effectively ‘subsidising billionaires’ by earning ‘about half the statutory minimum wage for transport workers’? As the secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Sally McManus, recently said, if the ‘Uberisation’ of the economy continues, ‘Australian workers will lose all their rights’. Incredibly, and unlike in the United Kingdom and California, Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman has just ruled that Uber’s ‘driver partners’ are not employees. The director of the Centre for Future Work, Jim Stanford, warns that the ‘enormous loophole’ created by this decision will enable employers to ‘ignore minimum wage laws and other basic standards’. Uber drives, who currently earn an average of $14.62 per hour, will thus not be entitled to the minimum wage of $19.40 per hour.

What about food-delivery riders? I’m sure I’m not the only one who cringes when they see a kid with a huge, boxy bag strapped to their back, navigating traffic in the dark and often in terrible weather. Who’s responsible if that kid gets hurt? The Transport Workers’ Union says that almost 50 per cent of food-delivery riders have been injured or know someone who’s been injured on the job. Three have been killed. More than 70 per cent of food-delivery riders in Australia are international students, and many others are migrants. Such people often have limited employment options. Again, the question of racism is entirely relevant to the economic status of—and general indifference to—this growing labour class. How can such workers assert themselves to Uber? By yelling at the app on their phone? How can they confront a faceless multinational that simply declares them self-employed, even though they work ‘under the thumb of the company’?

Governments worldwide are beginning to tackle the ‘high degree of fiction’ in Uber’s ‘independent contractor’ agreements, but in the meantime the naming of these workers’ plight as a ‘horrific hunger games’ seems more than apt (pun intended). Such workers—like governments—are trying to stand up for themselves: global protests against Uber’s pay and conditions occurred in May 2019. But again, what chance do they have? When workers stood up to Foodora it expressed its contempt for them by simply shutting up shop in Australia, despite owing riders $8 million in unpaid wages and superannuation. (Though it went into administration in Australia, Foodora still trades in more than a dozen other countries.) Foodora’s message was clear: we’ll take what we can, while we can—but if we can’t exploit you, we don’t want you.

Of course, it’s not enough to ‘blame’ all this disruption destruction on big companies, or the (relatively tiny?) governments who fail to regulate them. The third crucial contributor to this new economy is us: buyers, sellers, abusers. These companies simply cannot exist without us. So, what are we going to do about it? Boycott? Strike? Protest? Adapt—or die?

In the digital jungle the Darwinian truth just might be ‘Submit to live’, and there really is no ‘clear and correct’ action for people to take when confronting the Goliath of the gig sharing slave economy. Coerced by forces much bigger than ourselves, we end up in the hypocritical position of being something like a complicit victim. Well, that’s capitalism for you!

After writing this article, I feel I should go back into battle with my partner about listing our business on Airbnb, though I know what he’ll say: ‘Fine! Take the moral high ground. Do the ‘right’ thing—whatever that is—and then watch our business die’. And I’ll yell back, ‘F*ck you!’, though what I should be yelling is, ‘F*ck the gig sharing slave economy!’

Postscript

Yes, we’re on Airbnb now. Already the site is telling me I should halve (yes, halve) my rate to attract customers, stop charging for extra guests, and allow unknowns to ‘autobook’. We suspect we’re being disciplined by the algorithm for not complying: our place often doesn’t even appear on the map, and it’s very hard to find in the listings. If we do as Airbnb is coercing us to do, we’ll end up working for nothing, while putting our business and property at risk from un-sussed-out customers. What does Airbnb care? Either way, it’ll get its bloody cut.

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