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What Are Employers' Ethical Obligations to Gig Workers?

Remember, the platform for finding gig workers is not more important than the workers themselves

Two women working on computers in an office.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—The gig economy may have created new opportunities for people in search of nontraditional employment, but it arguably also has resulted in a devaluation of the human worker. Two speakers at EmTech Next 2019, a conference focused on the future of work, would like to see that change and think employers need to lead the way.

Gig work typically involves matching a person to a service request. Initially, this took the form of a college student driving for DoorDash or a retired carpenter offering help on TaskRabbit. Increasingly, however, knowledge workers have been jumping into the gig economy. An editor might do so to build up a freelance business, or a midcareer computer scientist might pursue project-based remote work to achieve a better work/life balance.

People engaged in gig work are actually performing what Mary Gray calls "ghost work." The senior researcher at Microsoft Research defined ghost work as task-based, contract-driven work that can be sourced, scheduled, managed, shipped and billed on demand through the Internet.

"It's not a specific kind of work," she explained. "It's the work conditions." Essentially, "it's any job where you see the human contribution effectively being erased or devalued" in favor of the platform or the technology that makes the arrangement possible.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Employing Independent Contractors]

Prayag Narula, founder and president of LeadGenius, saw this devaluation of human workers firsthand when he was getting the company off the ground. When he described how LeadGenius would use a combination of machine learning and gig workers to provide businesses with marketing leads, investors were more interested in hearing about the technology that would be used than the people who would be doing the work. Similarly, valuation of startups is often tied to the perceived viability of the technology as opposed to the quality of the workforce, he noted.

In Ghost Work (Houghton Mifflin, 2019), Gray and co-author Siddharth Suri describe their research into this "invisible human labor force" and make recommendations for how to better structure a new employment model. Our society has built an economy around contract work, Gray said, and we need to support the people who are making valuable contributions to it.

Labor laws have failed to provide much direction in this area—or even simply to keep up—partially because lawmakers don't have the expertise needed to update them, she said. That means it's up to employers to establish policies that support and value gig workers.

LeadGenius is trying to do its part. As "a software company with the heart of a social enterprise," its mission is to provide fairly paid, safe, respectable, career-oriented remote work opportunities around the world, Narula said. To that end, it has three core values that inform its policies:

Pay a local living wage. The company sets a minimum wage for its contract workers that is tied to the cost of living in the countries where they reside. Since 2011, LeadGenius has paid $10 million in wages to 2,000 people in 35 countries.

Build a community. Gig work is typically competition-based, Narula said, but LeadGenius has found that fostering cooperation and building a sense of community among its gig workers has been effective in engaging the workforce.

Provide growth opportunities. The company has tiers for its gig workers. For example, someone might start as a researcher and move up to manager. Some may even work toward more traditional employment: About 20 percent to 25 percent of LeadGenius' full-time employees have risen through the ranks. "If gig work is going to be the future, people have to build their careers," Narula said.

It's important to note, he added, that new labor laws historically have followed existing workplace standards. So employers have a responsibility to recognize and reward the contributions of gig workers. "The policies that we believe in today will become the laws of tomorrow," he said.

[Visit SHRM's resource page on independent contractors.]



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