'Our boss is an algorithm who successfully prioritizes paying us as little as possible'

New documentary reveals how gig work promised freedom and flexibility for workers but delivered lower wages, poor working conditions

New doc reveals how gig work promised freedom for workers but delivered lower wages, poor working conditions

 Watch The Gig Is Up, now streaming on CBC Gem.

Imagine showing up to work tomorrow and your boss telling you, starting then, your income will be cut in half. 

This is a common scenario in the gig economy, but there, you don't even have a boss: you work for an app on your phone. And the algorithm behind that app regularly drives your wages down.

The new documentary The Gig Is Up explores the two starkly different experiences on either side of a smartphone. There's the consumer, who's ordering a product or service, and the worker, who's providing it. Globally, it's estimated 200 million people will be doing gig work on online platforms within the next few years.

What is gig work like? In some sectors, it depends on timing. 

If rival companies have just arrived in a city and are battling for dominance in the market (think Uber and Lyft), the pay may be excellent. Workers are lured by high income, and new customers are tempted with low prices. At this stage, the platforms are trying to win. 

The cost of the service is subsidized to hook consumers on a platform and leverage "network effects," the documentary shows. Getting more customers and workers on board makes the platform more valuable, adding convenience and reliability, for example. It's about users, not dollars.

Derek Thompson, a journalist at The Atlantic, calls it a "millennial lifestyle subsidy."

The millennial lifestyle subsidy: tech companies like Uber, WeWork and DoorDash lose millions of dollars per year | The Gig is Up

4 months ago
Duration 1:08
Derek Thompson, staff writer at The Atlantic, wonders how long these companies will be able to charge less than the service costs in order to subsidize the habits of urban, upper middle class millennials.

Once the dust settles, however, the casualties in this market war are the workers. 

"Our boss is an algorithm who successfully prioritizes paying us as little as possible," said Gig Workers United, a community union backed by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. "Over time, we have seen our earnings drop instead of increasing relative to our experience."

Annette Rivero, Uber driver and activist a a rally in San Francisco, Al Aloudi, Uber driver and activist driving in his car (Intuitive Pictures)

One such story from The Gig Is Up focuses on Annette Rivero, a woman who left a well-paying job to drive for Uber and Lyft full-time.

"I pay a lot of attention to the rates and I can just tell within six months that my money was declining," she said. "I could make a possible $2,000 a week — to now, I make hopefully $1,000. So that's 50 per cent. My car is running down to the point where, I just don't know, one day I'm going to go to my car, and it's just not going to start."

Another driver in the documentary, Al Aloudi, had it worse. "I was making $1.95 a mile. Now I'm making 60 to 66 [cents]," he said. "It doesn't make any sense."

For director Shannon Walsh, Rivero's story was the most impactful of the documentary because it challenges the idea that these workers can simply leave a job if they don't like it. In fact, Walsh said, they were lured into work that seemed ideal but quickly changed on them.

"[Rivero's] well-educated — she's worked better-paying jobs in the past," she said. "But the sort of bait and switch of these companies, they get people stuck. They can't get out, and kind of spiral downwards. And I think that really drove home to me the insidious nature.… This type of model is really threatening to all of our jobs. There's companies out there that want to make everything into an Uber."

'A type of wage slavery'

Food delivery and ride services are both highly visible segments of the platform economy, but countless online tasks are snapped up by workers every day, all over the world, on an Amazon platform called MTurk

Your dating profile picture might be reviewed by someone in Nigeria, as the documentary shows. Filling out surveys, tagging images, transcribing audio — some of the smaller tasks pay just pennies; some workers are reimbursed in Amazon gift cards.

Who is doing this task work? Many of these platform workers are shut out of traditional job markets, Walsh said, due to disability, caring for children or other family members, undocumented status or criminal records.

"We're creating these tiered classes for people who for whatever reason can't do other types of work," she said. "You really start to get a picture of a world splitting into who can have formal employment and who can't. And this is almost like a reproduction of a type of wage slavery."

Workers and industry experts describe gig work as the "opposite of flexibility."

'The opposite of flexibility:' Gig workers explain the stress of chasing jobs | The Gig is Up

4 months ago
Duration 2:07
Documentary The Gig is Up uncovers the real costs of the platform economy, as told by workers around the world.

Diminishing pay is only one negative aspect of gig work exposed by The Gig Is Up. Workers describe dangerous conditions, exhaustion, no benefits or job security, and no way to defend against bad reviews from customers — which could lead to sudden termination. 

In one telling scene, a food courier in France, named Sidiki, described falling off his bike and caring more about the food than injury. "We protect the food more than our own lives," he said. "When we fall, we don't worry about ourselves — we worry about the bag."

'We're trying to figure out: what does this look like?'

Where did gig work go wrong? It promised flexible, remote work; an escape from office cubicles; and earning potential for those who may not otherwise find work. "If done the right way, these kind of opportunities can literally change lives," tech entrepreneur Prayag Narula said in the documentary.

Industries like taxis and food delivery already existed before smartphones; so if technology made the transactions easier, why did the work become harder? While many people think of these platforms as a convenience, Walsh said, they aren't aware of how working conditions had to change to make them possible.

"We just think it's a more convenient kind of way to get food delivered — and it's actually a kind of restructuring entirely of the way that labour is organized and will be organized going forward in terms of task-based labour," she said. "And that is going to happen to everything."

Ultimately, this new labour class is a work-in-progress, Walsh said. The promise and potential of gig work can be fully realized through organized labour, as it has in the past with other types of work.

In one example, couriers secured a $3.46-million settlement when delivery app Foodora pulled out of the Canadian market in the spring of 2020 — after its workers had organized to form a union. 

"I definitely feel optimistic about the incredible amount of worker organizing that's happening across the world," Walsh said. "No one's arguing to go back to a nine-to-five. We're trying to figure out: what does this look like? And I think there's some really brilliant minds at all levels that are starting to really push for change — and to push for a system that can make this work."


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