International Sharing Economy Conference: Day 1 Takeaways

By: Diane Ring

Today the “Reshaping: Work in the Platform Economy” Conference got underway in Amsterdam. In contrast to many academic conferences, the explicit goal here is to bring together a truly wide array of actors in the sharing economy (policy makers, academics, actual gig workers, platform businesses, research institutes, and media) in a mixed format setting that includes academic presentations, panel presentations by gig workers, small group active round tables, and research-poster sessions. The international dimension, with participants and presenters from a variety of jurisdictions, contributes to the breadth of discussion.

I thought I would offer a few of my takeaways from day one:

Universal questions in dissimilar jurisdictions: Although the underlying regulatory structures (for labor law, tax law, social security benefits, health care, etc.) differ substantially across countries, many of the same tensions and debates in the sharing economy still arise. For example, in the U.S. we talk about the cost advantages secured by sharing platforms which treat workers as independent contractors. But the same issues arise in EU member states with quite different social safety net protections. Even in these countries where fewer benefits are tied to employment status, platforms can still obtain significant costs savings by treating workers as independent contractors. Thus, the impact of shifting risk and cost to workers in the sharing economy is a serious policy issues across jurisdictions.

Heterogeneity among platform worker models: At least one sharing platforms is seeking to provide increased benefits for workers (while still offering the flexibility in hours/schedule that draws many workers to the sector). As a result, they use employees (or work with employees of other agencies). This was interesting because the motivation was not worker control, as is the case with some platforms that adopted an employee model because worker supervision was so critical to the particular service being provided (see, e.g., Hello Alfred). Instead, the motivation was a distinct vision of what constitutes an appropriate and fair business-worker relationship. It is unclear if this model can be sustained in competitive environment without certain regulatory floors regarding the treatment of workers.

Data: A dearth of data is impeding sharing economy policy development, and much of the data available is a few years old and may be quite out of date, giving the fast pace of change in this market. But there are a number of institutes and organizations gathering data now. See below.

EC Report: I learned that the EC commissioned a study of the sharing economy and a final report should available in the spring (2018), hopefully with the underlying data included.

Confirmation of research: Some of the observations about sharing economy worker conduct and perspectives that my co-author (Shu-Yi Oei) and I observed in our empirical research on ridesharing drivers (“The Tax Lives of Uber Drivers: Evidence From Internet Discussion Forums”) —resonate with what is being observed in the EU. One example: failure of sharing workers to appreciate at outset the costs that they are bearing (e.g., tax, asset depreciation, insurance, etc.) and potentially make ill-informed work decisions is certainly not unique to the U.S.

Who does the work: Apparently 80% of Amazon mTurk work is done by 20% of the mTurk workers (8,000 of them). I had no idea.

Terminology: Those who are following the sharing economy discussions in the U.S. already know that terminology is hotly contested. Should it be called the sharing economy, the gig economy, the 1099 economy, or the platform economy? And, does the name matter? (For more on that, see a new essay by my frequent co-author Shu-Yi Oei, “The Trouble with Gig Talk: Ambiguity, Choice of Narrative, and the Abetting Function of Law”, forthcoming in Duke’s Law & Contemporary Problems journal, which she is presenting at a conference on Altruism, Community and Markets held at the American Enterprise Institute) What I had not seen until today was the view that the term Gig Economy should be used to refer to platforms where the worker provides labor, and the term Sharing Economy should be used to refer to platforms where the worker provides access to an asset with excess capacity. I think Shu-Yi might disagree with this terminology.

I am looking forward to day two!

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