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 Zeel, on demand dry-cleaning with Dashlocker. There are services for on-demand mechanics, house cleaners, tutors, doctors, snow 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.  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.
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”).
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.
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