documentary Channel

True stories from the gig economy: it's stressful, dangerous and 'the opposite of flexibility'

Documentary ‘The Gig is Up’ looks at the shadow workforce behind some of your favourite apps

Documentary ‘The Gig is Up’ looks at the shadow workforce behind some of your favourite apps

"People order and think we simply appear. But how do we get there? We blow through red lights, we put ourselves in danger, we pass trucks and trams, we ride up mountains. We don’t just appear," says Uber Eats and Deliveroo driver Leila Ouadad. "Being a delivery rider is damn hard work!" (CBC / The Gig is Up )

Millions of people around the world work in the gig economy. 

Lured by the promise of flexible work hours, independence, and control over time and money, some sign up for Uber, Lyft or TaskRabbit.

Others join Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk), where individual virtual workers do surveys, content moderation, data validation and other tasks – tasks that many people assume are done by artificial intelligence.

"We can see the Uber driver [or] the food delivery person effectively delivering the service through an app. We can see those folks," says Mary L. Gray in the documentary, co-author of Ghost Work and senior principal researcher at Microsoft Research.

"The people we don't see are all of the folks who are literally doing these tasks in which you fold a person into a computational process."

"The value proposition is that a business is erasing the presence of those people. They're presenting it as work that's done magically by artificial intelligence or the internet."

Mechanical Turk's own website says, "While technology continues to improve, there are still many things that human beings can do much more effectively than computers."

Gig economy jobs are done on a task-by-task basis, with no guarantee of work or pay. The Gig is Up, part of Hot Docs on CBC, shares stories from this shadow workforce; where work conditions are often dangerous, pay often changes without notice and workers can effectively be fired through deactivation or a bad rating.

Here are some of their stories.

Tomisin Adeshiyan

Start-up co-founder and online gig worker
Lagos, Nigeria

Tomisin Adeshiyan lives in Lagos, Nigeria. He does jobs on Amazon's Mechanical Turk platform, where he gets paid in Amazon gift cards. (CBC / The Gig is Up )

Being Lagosian and living in Lagos … you spend a lot of time in traffic. Why waste valuable time, right? Time is something that we can't get once it's gone. 

So I open up the MTurk app on my phone. I go through and look if there are any available hits for me to do. When I'm in traffic, I like the video transcription jobs or the audio transcription jobs, 'cause I just plug in my earphones … and I transcribe on my phone. I like seeing the numbers add up. It's something. It's extra money, right? So why not?

I don't like doing hits that are less than 10 cents. Not really worth my time, so to speak.

But you don't actually get paid cash. I get paid out in Amazon gift cards.- Tomisin Adeshiyan

Producer: How much was this one?

$2.50. This is really good for a Nigerian or Ghanaian doing MTurk, this is … you don't get these numbers. 

But you don't actually get paid cash. I get paid out in Amazon gift cards. And so they load that into my Amazon account, so I make the purchase [from amazon.com] and then anyone who's coming from the U.S. could help me bring it.

So the thing is, I've actually just come to terms with this. That's the truth. Because if it was my only source of income, it would be so frustrating. But there's literally no other way to get the money.

I've tried. So maybe that's why I've come to terms with it. I've tried. I don't mind being paid in gift cards. Because somehow, I don't look at it like real money. I look at it like Amazon money. Ha. "Amazon money."

Leila Ouadad

Deliveroo and Uber Eats rider 
Paris

"People order and think we simply appear. But how do we get there? We blow through red lights, we put ourselves in danger, we pass trucks and trams, we ride up mountains. We don’t just appear," says Uber Eats and Deliveroo driver Leila Ouadad. "Being a delivery rider is damn hard work!" (CBC / The Gig is Up )

24-year-old Deliveroo driver Mourad was in a bike accident while on a delivery in August 2019. He died as a result of his injuries in March 2020.

I was so close to Mourad. He was closer than a brother. Our bond was incredible. 

After his accident, I couldn't ride for several days. I couldn't ride because it made me … too emotional to see the same roads and restaurants. I just couldn't do it. 

Mourad gives me the strength to say, "Damn you, we won't ever give up." 

People order and think we simply appear. But how do we get there? We blow through red lights, we put ourselves in danger, we pass trucks and trams, we ride up mountains. We don't just appear. We don't teleport. We are not genies, we're humans. Yes, there's an algorithm that manages us, but we are actual people. 

Annette Rivero

Uber and Lyft driver, activist
San Francisco

"I had a friend who was doing Uber, and said she made more money doing Uber in a day than she made going to work in a day," says Annette Rivero. Within six months of starting, she could see her rates declining. (CBC / The Gig is Up)

I never really went out and was an activist. I was just always like, "I don't have time for that. That's not my problem." But this became my problem, so…. 

I try not to mix this with my family. At the same time, I'm taking time away from them and, you know, inserting this in their life. 

And I feel like … I also feel guilty because I feel like I caused all this. That I left my job. 

I went from, I mean, I was making really good money. Like, we didn't have to think about, "Let's go get a treat" or, "Let's go to the beach" or…. I don't even get to go drive to see my parents in Los Banos [, Calif.,] anymore, because I can't afford the gas. It just sucks. 

Mitchell Amewieye

Artificial intelligence gig worker
Lagos, Nigeria

"You always think [that] if you go out, you’re going to miss a job," says Mitchell Amewieye. He does jobs on Mechanical Turk; his goal is to make at least $10/day. (CBC / The Gig is Up)

[Mechanical] Turk has been my major source of income. I'm also registered with Shopify, so I sell clothes too, on Shopify. It makes me anti-social because I hardly go out. You always think [that] if you go out, you're going to miss a job. And for the requesters I like, if they suddenly start posting jobs at night, I still have to wake up at night to work, so it's a bit of a challenge for me. 

Sometimes, [at] 2 a.m., I'll be sleeping, but I still have [my laptop] on. So it wakes me up because with that job, I know how much I'm going to make from it. So I'll make sure I wake up at 2 a.m., and I'll do the job…. And once I do that, most times sleep doesn't come 'til like maybe 5 [a.m.]. So I'll just sleep a little bit from 5 [a.m.] 'til like 7, 8 [a.m.], and I start work all over again. 

It's kind of addictive. Maybe sometimes I'll make … $20, $15 a day. So to me, I've achieved. For me … I make sure I cross $10.

Al Aloudi

Uber and Lyft driver, activist
San Francisco

Al Aloudi is an Uber and Lyft driver in San Francisco. When he started driving for the companies, he was making $1.95 a mile. "Now I’m making 60 to 66 cents. It doesn’t make any sense." (CBC / The Gig is Up)

Uber and Lyft, those companies, they pay the most intelligent people in the world. Professors, programmers, everything you can imagine. And they forgot about the drivers. We have no voice to [those] companies at all. 

I was making $1.95 a mile. Now I'm making 60 to 66 cents. It doesn't make any sense. 

I'm an activist when I was in my country. And when I came to this country, I know a lot of people, they're gonna need me. When we want to do an action, some people, they don't want to be in the media. Some people, they just … they get scared.

"Oh, Uber, they're gonna know about me and deactivate."

If you are 4.7 and less, they deactivate your account, by the way, if you are a driver. Deactivate means fired. Means no money for your family. So how can I work? All that stress. It's not good. We consider as a self-contractor, but we cannot refuse passengers. We cannot do certain things. You have to go, or you're gonna be deactivated.

Jérôme Pimot

Former Deliveroo rider and co-founder of Collectif des Livreurs Autonomes de Paris 
Paris

The algorithm is inhuman. With a boss at your office, you see him at the coffee machine in the morning. But the algorithm is there every second. It's always in your pocket. We no longer have the boss on our backs; the boss is now in our pocket. And that is much more precise, with by-the-second data about your distance, your speed, your direction. They know everything about us. 

They know everything about us.- Jérôme Pimot

The speed at which we accept an order defines the hunger we have, our desire to work. So the people who accept orders quickly and who never turn one down, they're hungry, so they're offered lower rates than anyone else. Those who are more selective and who take their time, we spoil them, we cajole them. And the more this happens, the more delivery riders come from the lowest strata of society. They're migrants, minors, refugees, people with no access to formal employment. 

Those people need to work — at any price.

Watch The Gig is Up, part of Hot Docs on CBC.

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