Book Review | Humans As a Service: The Promise and Perils of Work in the Gig Economy

When discussing the future of work, technology always comes up as the main element or facilitator, humans coming in as an afterthought. What the gig economy has done for our current work landscape, so far, is normalise cheap labour on demand and the work precarity that comes with it.

Lawyers of course are no strangers to the gig economy, with cheap labour platforms offering unregulated legal services from freelance lawyers. And both a lawyers and as members of wider society, it is our duty to question any situation that worsens workers’ rights. At Obelisk Support, we believe in “Human First” and a new book, Humans As A Service: The Promise and Perils of Work in the Gig Economy, made us reflect in the gig economy’s impact on innovation and employment in the modern age. In the book and during a chat with The Attic, Jeremias Prassl analyses the gig economy with a focus on the workers who actually labour in the gig workforce.

Disruptive Innovation

An Eversheds survey which focused on young lawyers and their views on the legal sector highlighted that these up-and-coming professionals are looking for a better work-life balance and concluded that they feel the traditional career path in law is now out of step with the 21st century.

Proponents of the sharing economy argue that society reaps major benefits from growth driven by platform’s innovative disruption of existing business models. Instead of boring 9-to-5 lives, gig workers enjoy the exhilarating challenges and vast financial rewards of entrepreneurship.

That may be true but the danger lies in platforms denying workers’ employment status even if their gig lawyers aren’t de facto independent. Jeremias agrees: ” A level playing field in employment massively supports innovation, they inherently go hand in hand. A world where there is no protection for employees stifles innovation. And this is where historical examples come into play – there is the fascinating example of Yorkshire mill owners in the 19th century who were complaining to the House of Lords that they could not get a return on investment on new spinning technology, because competitors were still using children in home for cheap labour. There actually needs to be a level playing level playing field for industries to move forward and innovation to thrive.”

Autonomy

In explaining how gig economy enterprises work, Jeremias Prassl shows that the companies running the platforms do retain control, often in a subtle manner. What is presented as the business of matching is in fact, a unilateral subjective view of a curated platform in the interest of the company.

“Gig-economy operators accurately shape the entire transaction by means of close control over their workforce, from setting terms and conditions and checking relevant qualifications, to insuring proper performance and payment… User ratings also provide quality control and feedback, and digital payment systems render the entire transaction cashless.”

The anonymous rating system ensures tight control over every aspect of work and service delivery, as well as algorithms disclosing only part of the job descriptions, hence distorting the pretence of true entrepreneurship. If you don’t know what you are signing up for, how can you be independent? That’s where the problems we have started to see in terms of the gig economy and flexible working lie, says Jeremias. “We should recognise that flexibility can be extremely useful for life and being able to choose when and how much we work, but also bear in mind that flexibility in some circumstances can be very one sided. Where flexibility is one sided, and people don’t have the choice of the work they want, that becomes insecurity. A successful plumber growing their independent business will have a very different experience to someone signed up to a platform who is struggling to put together a living.”

Why It Matters

Cheap work and using idle assets should be in everybody’s interests but as seen before, it also creates a peculiar precarity that makes workers work longer hours for less money, therefore making them shoulder the economic risk of a multilateral task.

Is this fair?

No.

Is this bad?

Not necessarily.

It all depends on the regulatory framework. What are the challenges of applying regulation to such a global and heterogenic employment model? “The long term challenges that exist are in social security systems of different countries, and in general legal protections that are still designed round stable permanent employment relationships”, says Jeremias. “That will need to be rethought. Just as important are tax laws and consumer protection care and liability: all these things are designed around employment relationships that we are moving away from, and that will be a challenge for different regulatory models.”

Sustainable Gig Working Solutions

Everybody should have the right to work differently, at unconventional hours or from non-office places. That’s the very definition of flexible work, one of a few directions the gig economy could take if done right.

To become a sustainable work model for society, the gig economy would also benefit from legislations recognising employment rights for gig workers, even in odd situations with multiple employers. Assuming that this status is recognised, gig workers would still have to contend with non-transparent rating algorithms from the platforms they work with. In his book, Prassl suggests a concept of “portable ratings” that would “empower workers to follow up on grievances and negotiate for better conditions -or to move on to a different platform.”

Last but not least, without collective representation, gig workers cannot attain the level of bargaining power they are due, and cannot negotiate their work conditions. Effectively, the lack of a united voice weakens their position.

Consumer Protection

While most of Prassl’s book discusses the fate of gig workers, consumers are not left out either. The rights of clients are not protected in cases of grievances as platforms often treat customers no differently from their workers, “refusing to step in and take responsibility.”

Regulating the gig economy by granting employment status to workers would work in favour of clients as they would be covered by the responsibility an employer incurs for the actions of its employees in the course of business.

Is the Gig Economy the Way Forward?

Based on the book’s premises, one wouldn’t quickly assume that Prassl agrees with the very concept of gig economy and platforms. However at the end of the day, Jeremias Prassl is a socially-minded liberal. “Ensuring the full application of employment law is crucial if we want to make the gig economy work for all,” he writes.

Touted as a great innovation for workers, the gig economy has enriched platforms and spread precarious work to a population that doesn’t have much choice. If indeed the gig economy is a transitional phase before these jobs are automated or taken over by AI, including legal discovery and due diligence in the legal world, the gig economy should benefit to all involved until then.

“We are certainly seeing [the gig economy] becoming a larger part of industries like transport, healthcare, and law” says Jeremias. “I think it is and will continue to be an important component in employment but to what extent it is the way of the future, for now I can’t say.”

The Case of Freelance Lawyers

As providers of legal services at Obelisk Support, we only work with freelance lawyers. Are they part of the gig economy? No, as experienced professionals, they carry out complex tasks independently for our clients and choose to work as freelance lawyers for personal reasons. Rare are the lawyers who, once they’ve carved out a successful freelance lawyering career, want to go back to a traditional 9-to-5. In that respect, what we bring to the industry is real positive change in the way these lawyers work.

Much positive change still needs to happen in the legal profession but if one thing is sure, it’s that the gig economy, as described in Humans as a Service… is not a concern. Irreversibly, legal tech has already changed the legal landscape for low-skilled legal tasks. All we need to do – and it’s a big ask – is to learn how to work with technology while growing our economy and protecting rights and liberties. This is a wider discussion on the ethics of artificial intelligence that we welcome with open minds.

 

Whether you are an employment lawyer interested in the legal context, if you are or are thinking of taking on flexible gig employment, or are someone who is simply fascinated by the future of work, there is plenty of insight in Humans As A Service to pique your interest. Print copies of the book are available from Oxford University Press.