Opinion: Work in the age of AI automation – Navigating the gig economy

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By BETH KOTZ

It came slowly at first, almost imperceptibly, but a confluence of factors – particularly evolving technology, rising automation and a trend toward deregulation – has irrevocably altered the way we work, pushing us rapidly away from the jobs of the past and propelling us toward a contractor-based “gig economy.”

The true ramifications of this seismic shift are still not fully understood, but one thing is clear: workers are bearing the brunt of the change. The hard-won rights and protections afforded to workers and their unions are evaporating, and preserving them will require a concerted and coordinated effort between workers, unions and their political allies.

THE DISRUPTIVE REALITY OF TECHNOLOGY

From the iron plow to the mechanized assembly line, technology has always been a disruptive force. However, modern digital technology – driven by the Internet, artificial intelligence and other developments – threatens to disrupt the traditional order in ways not seen since the Industrial Revolution.

A number of labor-displacing innovations which completely eliminate the human factor have risen in popularity with consumers, such as the AI-powered home automation assistants Google Home and Amazon Alexa. “Seamless” delivery apps like UberEats, GrubHub, InstaCart and others make it quite easy to order take-out, groceries and more without ever interacting with a real person (until a meal arrives at your door).

This has given rise to an entirely new, on-demand labor structure in which increasingly greater numbers of workers – an estimated 34 percent of the current workforce – serve as contingent workers rather than actual employees. In a world where anyone with an Internet connection can order almost anything on-demand, mobile apps and online platforms have begun to replace traditional employers in many industries.

LIFE IN THE GIG ECONOMY

In the gig economy, independent workers are being used to handle tasks that would previously have been performed by permanent employees.

Work is typically found through digital platforms, with little to no oversight beyond customer ratings and reviews. Though this development has undoubtedly created many jobs that would otherwise not exist, most of these jobs are “below the API” (Application Programming Interface). Below the API jobs are so-called because they are vulnerable to replacement by computer programs as automation becomes more sophisticated and pervasive.

DECLINING WORKER PROTECTIONS

This movement toward temporary, contract-based, easily automated work has left gig workers in a precarious position. They take on most of the risk and expense inherent in completing their jobs but receive few – if any – benefits.

Since they are not technically employees, gig workers typically aren’t entitled to vacation time, health benefits or other perks of permanent employment. Income levels and working hours are unstable and insecure.

And because workers are often left to compete among themselves for work that is frequently scarce, freelancers and contract workers lack the collective will needed to push for more favorable terms.

A PATH FORWARD?

Given that temporary and contract labor has ballooned by more than 50 percent in the last decade, it’s imperative that gig workers, institutions and society at large come together to address the issues these workers face and grant the rights and protections for which Organized Labor has long struggled.

One key change is the elimination of mandatory arbitration clauses that prevent litigation over employee status. Such agreements, coupled with provisions blocking workers from using the leverage of class action lawsuits, have become commonplace among U.S. employers.

Some unions and advocacy groups have also pushed for a shifting of the burden of proof as it relates to employee classification, requiring businesses to prove that their workers do not qualify for employee rights and benefits.

These are ultimately only steps toward addressing the underlying issues of an on-demand workforce, but they are necessary if such an economy is to continue to grow and thrive.

The massive disruption brought on by digital technologies has only begun, and it will require a rethinking of the social contract with an eye toward protecting vulnerable working people who find themselves caught up in the wash of these large-scale forces.

Modern technologies are simply too disruptive for traditional “below the API” jobs to survive unchanged, and the marginalization of workers shows no signs of slowing or reversing course. Workers across all industries and disciplines will need to cooperate to bring visibility to these issues, provoke political and social change and secure the rights and protections needed to thrive in this new reality.

(Beth Kotz is a freelance finance and tech writer with a strong interest in artificial intelligence and its many profound implications. She graduated from DePaul University in Chicago, IL, where she continues to live and work. Find more of her work at homeownerguides.com.)

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