May 9, 2016
A VOICE FOR DIGITAL DAY LABORERS
What can Uber and other tech companies learn from a day laborer corner?
by Saket Soni
For centuries, migrants in search of work have arrived at street corners to offer their services as day laborers. These workers have always been an essential part of our economy, taking on some of the most important work projects in our country’s history, including, in recent years, the rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina. They did these daunting jobs one gig at a time, without the prospect of permanent, full-time work.
Throughout this history, workers have faced horrific exploitation. I remember showing up at the day labor corners in post Katrina New Orleans with organizers, to defend day labors from abuse. In the last few decades, in New Orleans and across the country, waves of day laborers who faced wage theft and racial discrimination have organized collectively for a voice in the analog gig economy.
Then the digital gig economy came along. Now, workers in search of short-term work don’t have to go to the day labor corner over by Home Depot. They can hop onto a platform through their smart phones. And the disruptive technology companies that created the digital gig economy are now turning their attention to worker organizing.
First, a few weeks ago, Airbnb — the home sharing app taking on the hotel industry — was reported briefly to be in conversations promoting a $15 minimum wage and the use of unionized house cleaners by hosts. That same day, Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber — the ride sharing app destabilizing the taxi cab industry — wrote that the company will create drivers’ associations in California and Massachusetts “to discuss the issues that matter most to drivers” as part of the $84 million settlement in a class action lawsuit against the company.