The invisible workers of the gig economy

Photo by Shannon Walsh

The economic mammoth that is the global gig economy is the subject of director and UBC film professor Shannon Walsh’s film The Gig is Up. From the experiences of Parisian drivers sustaining the most popular delivery and taxiing apps, to the trials of Nigerian “crowd workers” who make a living sorting algorithms and search engine queries, the film offers a critical international and multi-faceted perspective on the challenges and the successes of workers in the world’s gig economy.

“It really fascinated me, this idea that a kind of techno-utopianism has taken hold of us, because I’ve been looking at how that is such an illusion for a number of years now. And I really wanted to get the inside story from the people who were actually working on these jobs, who you almost never hear from,” explains Walsh.

Ideal vs. reality

Being approached to direct The Gig is Up was the perfect opportunity for Walsh to showcase the reality of one of the fastest-growing socio-technological services of the past decade.

“I think the first step is starting to understand what conditions of work on the apps that you’re using and holding governments and companies accountable. I think there’s a lot of room [for change], but it needs to be a bigger societal conversation that we haven’t really started to have,” says Walsh who has a passion for understanding how capitalism and technology intersect with each other and influence our lives.

As far as working for the gig economy, one of the biggest parts of the techno-utopian illusion for Walsh is the often-touted promise of “flexibility” in one’s schedule. While this may be a reality for some, Walsh says that for most workers this ideal of flexibility is more fantasy than reality.

“It’s not true for the most part with anybody I met, whether that means you’re sitting with your app on for 24 hours a day or having to work for multiple apps just to make a full day’s work,” adds Walsh. “It’s the ‘always on’ part of the platform-based gig economy. What we’re paying for is the ability to get something at any time as consumers.”

The human in the loop

Despite the similarities in different kinds of gig-based work, it can be difficult to generalize experiences across such a huge workforce and economy. Perhaps the greatest divide the film reveals is an economy whose workers are likely invisible to most people. They are often referred to as crowdworkers, people whose work we interact with every day, multiple times a day, but who are sometimes paid only pennies for their work.

The greatest divide The Gig is Up reveals, may be an economy made up of workers who are likely invisible to most people.| Photo by Shannon Walsh

“We’re all familiar with delivery drivers and Uber drivers, but it’s the shadow economy of online gig workers which are the majority of people doing platform-based gig work. I think that’s where you really see a difference,” says Walsh. “Everything from training AI and [sorting] images to filling in Google searches and being ‘the human in the loop’ as they call it in computational language, which is needed for almost every piece of technology that we use. All of those people are so written out of the discussion.”

But Walsh’s film also hopes to show the resilience, pushback, and worker organization taking place among both groups of workers. Whether it’s meeting up and discussing organization at major pickup hubs or finding Whatsapp and Reddit groups online to ensure that computational gigs are paying at consistent rates, workers have some success that Walsh feels could continue as long as the discussion remains in the fore.

“I’m inspired by how workers are fighting for the rights that they have, but there’s a huge push back to crush the worker organizing. But people have the power. The economy works because people work. That’s why it matters that workers are organizing because it takes people to make any of this stuff work. “I feel optimistic that things can definitely get better from here if we start talking about it. I don’t think I would’ve made a film if I didn’t feel that.”

The Gig is Up premieres online from May 6–16 for the DOXA festival and has a special socially distanced Drive-In screening at the PNE Amphitheatre on May 13.

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