By: Diane Ring
Yesterday I blogged about Day 1 of the international sharing economy conference, titled “Reshaping: Work in the Platform Economy.” Today the Conference resumed in Amsterdam and included a fascinating roundtable with representatives from some of the platform firms alongside some sharing economy workers. Each offered their experience/perspective on the sector, posed questions to each other, and took questions from the audience.
Not surprisingly, just as there are a range of business models and niches in the sector, there are also a variety of reasons why workers participate in and do platform work. What workers seek from the platforms (beyond good pay) may differ from worker to worker. For example, a sharing economy worker may desire contact with other workers, a sense of community, predictability, or worker dignity. Building on the Day 1 discussions, several themes emerged by the close of the Conference:
Diversity in Legal Responses to the Sharing Economy: Both academics and business representatives noted the great diversity of various countries’ legal treatments of the sharing economy. In some cases, jurisdictions sought to bar the new platforms (e.g., Uber in Denmark and Italy), but in other cases jurisdictions have explicitly reached out to the plaforms (e.g., Uber in Innisfil, Canada where Innisfil implemented a pilot program to have Uber serve as the town’s public transportation).
Beyond these stark examples, there were tales about the ways in which worker regulations, social security systems, health care structures, and taxes in various countries differed enough to impact the relative success of the platforms across countries. Perhaps this is not surprising, but it is a good reminder that tax and other regulatory policies do matter and getting it “right” — whatever that means for a jurisdiction— is important.
New Jobs v. Substituted Jobs: Running across all of the panels and discussions was an undercurrent of “sharing economy as good” or “sharing economy as bad.” It was not that everyone explicitly staked out such extreme positions. Rather, the attitudes were implicit.
Thus, for example, the debated empirical question of whether the sharing economy is creating new jobs or just providing substitute jobs served as a test of whether the sector is a positive force in society. There was no definitive answer, and most likely there is not a single answer for the whole of the sharing economy. Perhaps more interestingly, some argued that even if the sharing jobs are substitutes, they could nonetheless be positive in some contexts. This prospect was identified in the discussion of home cleaners. To the extent that home cleaners predominantly operated in the informal sector prior to the arrival of the platforms (particularly in some countries, given their legal regimes), then a shift to working for a platform might be an improvement, even if wages were not higher. This all fits with yesterday’s call for more data about the operation of the sharing sector.
Consumer Response: One issue that emerged today was the impact of consumer responses to any changes in sharing economy business models, with “consumer” understood to mean the user of goods and services on the platform. Starkly put, the question asks whether consumers will continue to flock to the platforms if workers are successful in advocating for increases in pay, work predictability, and benefits, all of which might entail higher prices to consumers. In some commercial sectors, consumers seem to have developed a preference for “responsibly-made”, more expensive goods. But conference commentators considered that sharing economy consumers might be less interested in paying more for food delivery service provided by platform workers who were treated ”more ethically.” No one suggested that consumer responses should dictate the policy outcomes. But it did seem a fair question to ask.
At the end of the day, I left with the feeling that the really hard questions surrounding the sharing economy are in fact the same hard questions facing all of contemporary society: These questions concern how to collectively reach decisions about how to allocate risk and how to define what society will protect in an economically dynamic and unstable world. Once we can agree on those things, it’s just a matter of the details that best get us there.