Task Labor: Every Worker a Small Business

Fifty pounds of grass-fed beef sat thawing, forty miles away

Some friends and I had ordered a quarter of a cow and it was delivered to their house on a Friday afternoon. “You’d better come pick up this meat,” my friend said, “it won’t fit in our freezer.” Driving for hours was not how I’d planned to spend Friday night.

TaskRabbit to the rescue.

A TaskRabbiter named Sean drove to San Jose, picked up the meat, and drove it back to my house in Walnut Creek. It took him over 3 hours. I paid him $35.

Task-labor is one of the most convenient and concerning new developments in modern living. Every couple of days a new on-demand labor service launches: On-demand dog walkers with Swifto, mobile massages with Zeelon demand dry-cleaning with Dashlocker. There are services for on-demand mechanicshouse cleanerstutors, doctorssnow plows, and many more

In one sense, I’m excited about the convenience that these services offer. I was thrilled that it was Sean driving for three hours to pick up the meat, and not me. That said, I think my arrangement with Sean represents one of the fundamental problems with task-labor: no protection for the workers. To work as a laborer in many of these services, you are an independent contractor and not an employee. That means:

  • Labor-side profit risk—Unless Sean batched several deliveries, my task was a financial loss for him (but not for TaskRabbit).
  • No recompense—When Sean discovered that the delivery would be unprofitable, he still had to complete the task (for no extra money) or risk getting kicked off the platform.
  • No guarantee of work—There is no job security in task-labor. In a typical corporation, the company holds reserves to smooth over the dips in demand. In task-labor, workers directly feel the ebb and flow of demand. [1] Actually, they probably feel the ebb more than the flow: in times of high demand, 1. there are only so many tasks a single worker can complete in a day, and 2. service providers hire more laborers to reduce wait time for their customers.
  • No insurance protection—Sean drove his own car and, beyond that, he was directly liable for any damages that may have occurred as a result of his services.
  • No benefits—Task-laborers must purchase their own health insurance. Individually-acquired pre-Obamacare health insurance for a family of four is $1700 a month in the Bay Area. I.e. it’s unaffordable to almost all task-laborers.

The service platforms are very careful in the way that they pitch to laborers. You get to be your own boss. You’re a small business owner. You’re venturing out as a “micro-entrepreneur.” But hidden beneath these labels is simply the fact that costs normally covered by an employer are shifted to labor.

An employee is offered predictable income, health insurance, and employees suffer no personal loss if the company fails to turn a profit. But in a task-labor system, you are not guaranteed a profitable (much less livable) wage.
Task-labor is the realization of a capitalist ideal: own the means of production and let labor fend for themselves.

Certainly, it is not a new phenomenon for people to provide short-term labor for individual tasks. When I go to Home Depot there are always a dozen men waiting outside looking for work (although no one labels these men as “micro-entrepreneurs”).

The techno-solutionist in me wonders, “Why are these men still here? Why aren’t they all on TaskRabbit by now?”

It turns out that sharing-economy task-labor is still unavailable to the poor. Being able to sign up for one of these services requires that you 1. have a smartphone with a data plan, 2. pass a background check, and 3. possess good English skills. 

So then where is the task-labor force coming from?

If we want to assign directionality to this phenomenon, I’d say people are moving “down” from wage paying jobs rather than “up” from unemployment. Task-labor is an increasingly populated rung between wage-labor and unemployment.

Proponents will argue that this is one of the benefits of task-labor: if these people did not have task-labor, then they wouldn’t have any work at all. Task-labor is supporting the bottom end of the economy and, without it, people would be worse off.

While this is probably true, this argument sounds like spin on an incidental dynamic. These services are for-profit, not the C.C.C.  and labor is a cost. For example, when driverless cars come to market, the on-demand delivery companies will fire the delivery people and keep only the employees needed to support logistics at the endpoints.

Because the field is so new, these laborers are relatively unsophisticated and do not (yet) realize the costs and risks that have been transferred to them. This poses a problem for the service providers: on the one hand, paying for increased benefits will drive up costs and squeeze margins. On the other hand, no ruling class wants to deal with uprisings from a disgruntled labor force. 

Task labor service providers want to avoid any cost increases that are out of their control (particularly minimum wage legislation and unionization). I expect they will act first and institute some form of self-regulation which will provide services to help laborers.

Here are a few of my ideas on how these services can create a better environment for task-laborers:  

  • Profit-aware tools—Enable laborers to make decisions about the profitability of a given task. Help them calculate the most profitable tasks given location, traffic, gas, and expected completion time.
  • Suggest logistical task combinations—Enable laborers to combine activities (possibly across services: e.g. allow someone to make deliveries for both Postmates and Instacart concurrently).
  • Micro-benefits—If we’re enlisting someone for micro-labor, maybe they should be eligible for micro-benefits. Someone who works for several services could, in aggregate, receive the equivalent of full benefits.
  • Liability insurance— I think a good rule of thumb here is, if a worker is operating in your name, under your brand, and you share some of the profits, then you should share some of the liability if something goes wrong
It is undeniable that task-labor services are convenient if you can afford it, but I’m conflicted about the societal impact. On the one hand, if you think that minimum wage is unnecessarily high then you’ll view TaskRabbit as a good thing because it corrects legislative market meddling. On the other hand, we’re labeling poor people as micro-entrepreneurs to avoid giving them benefits. The laborer isn’t a person – he’s a small business.
It’s important to note that some of the on-demand-labor services are almost certainly a net positive. For instance, HomeJoy has a reputation for being beneficial to both labor and customers by paying more than minimum wage but still charging less than traditional competitors. Exec dealt with the problem of labor-profit-risk by charging per-hour fees for it’s assistants. However, it seems that the demand wasn’t high enough for this service, presumably because customers weren’t willing to take the risk of variable pricing. Exec has since switched to housecleaning.  
Despite the shortcomings many of these services have, the economics seem to be working for some laborers: Sean is still active on TaskRabbit. I know because I asked him to make another delivery for me. This time I bought a $900 Herman-Miller chair from a Silicon Valley fire-sale. “The last thing I’m going to do is drive all the way to Palo Alto just to pick up a chair,” I muttered. TaskRabbit to the rescue.
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  • lidda ford

    You really have no idea how difficult it is to work for minimum wage for a company that makes a lot of profit off your labor. You can’t get ahead. You remain poor and you usually work under extreme expectations and conditions for the amount of pay you get. Better to work for ones self for higher earnings and take ones own taxes out and pay one’s own social security and medicare and purchase disability insurance than work for a company that is getting rich off your labor. Some of these companies are setting way to low a price to pay their contractors. $15.00 an hour for house cleaning work is greta if you are an employee but not if you are an independent contractor because you have 15.3 percent self employment tax (medicare/ social security/medicaid – you pay half if you are an employee and all as in independent), and other expenses and you have no benefits. As a self employed person, you can purchase a disability insurance policy and pay into your own unemployment insurance and worker’s compensation in many states. Texas does not even require Workers Compensation coverage for employees of house cleaning businesses and most people using the services of a maid service are unaware of this.

    Here’s the bottom line: Do you want to earn more money or do you just want to piss and moan about low wages paid by your employer? If you want to earn more money and you labor, you can start your own business and hustle accounts and get paid very good money by your clients- you will have to work harder hence the higher pay to you. A house cleaner who has their act together and does not screw up due to toxic lifestyle issues (constant financial and partner issues due to poor choices) and who does a great job and is licensed, bonded and insured can make $25.00 t $30.00 an hour as a self employed house cleaner versus $12.00 for a maid service even after two years of being an employee. They don’t need to work for someone else or through an agency one they get established or at all. An employee has to show up and gets told what to do and is given all supplies and basically has no responsibility other than to do what they are told and they can screw up a lot without getting terminated due to employment laws. A self employed person has way more responsibility and can’t screw up without severe consequences and as such, they can make a lot more money if they apply themselves. More money, more responsibility.