Since the turn of the 21st century, technology has improved rapidly and changed the way we work. Global Internet access has increased and computers have grown smaller in size, promoting digital mobility. So, with the rise of the Internet and digital mobility came the gig (or sharing) economy.
WhatIs.com defines the gig economy as “an environment in which temporary positions are common and organisations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements.” As long as someone has access to the Internet and a laptop or smartphone, they have the basic tools to function in a gig economy. The gig economy allows people move from one job to another, exploring different areas of interests and acquiring and selling new skills in exchange for money or any other agreed upon means of payment.
The gig economy also allows people do multiple jobs in non-related fields at the same time. So, someone can be a content developer for a software firm in Lagos while working as an Uber driver in his spare time and also managing a startup’s social media accounts. Ideally, that gives said person the chance to have multiple sources of income. So, the more gigs he can get, the more money he will make. However, that’s about it. He has no health insurance or company organised pension scheme; he is on his own. The likelihood that he has a financial safety net to fall back on is very low.
Take Uber as an example. Uber drivers are not Uber employees, they are independent contractors and so are not covered by laws governing employment. That means beyond the money they get from driving people around, of which the company gets a 25 percent commission, Uber is not responsible for anything else, not health insurance, not pension, not car insurance. Nothing. So, if Uber decides to reduce their prices to attract more customers, the drivers have to increase the volume of their rides per day to make up for the price cuts. This is what happened last week when Uber Lagos got into a price war with Taxify. Some Uber drivers then declared a strike to protest the price cuts.
Because the gig economy is one of Capitalism’s many children, it is soulless and, just like its dad, it is not designed for the good of everyone but a few. It also has its casualties – people on the short end of the stick.
The gig economy is built on platforms, and these platforms have owners, the owners benefit from the scale of their platforms, sometimes at the expense of the people using them. So, in the case of ridesharing platforms like Uber and Taxify, during a price war, the drivers earn less per ride even though they still spend pretty much the same on fuel and car maintenance, while the customers might have to put up with a reduced quality of service or no service at all (in the case of a strike/protest).
Currently, in Nigeria, labour laws are weak and full employees are hardly protected by regulations, employers game pension schemes (and that is only if the company has one at all) and employees are left unprotected in cases of emergency. It’s even rare to find companies that offer their employees benefits such as shares or stock options and other extra incentives. What the gig economy, which is no doubt the employment model of future, does here is that it exacerbates an already deep problem. If present day employees cannot trust the law to protect them, what then will be the fate of the employees (or contractors) of the future?
It’s something for us to think about. We need to start working with lawyers and government officials to protect the future of employment in Nigeria; this will require us thinking 20-50 years into the future. The current labour laws are senile and need to be changed to reflect the present realities and make contingent plans for the future. We could see this as a chance to right a wrong or start afresh. Whichever way we choose to look at it, the new employment model is already catching on but it will only make workers’ lives worse in the long run if nothing is done to create better labour laws and a more functional system to enforce them.