Depending on what sections of society you’re aligned with, the notion of an on-demand workforce a la Gigwalk or Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) is either the dawning of a glorious new day in the American workplace or the terrifying epitome of modern alienation and exploitation.

For a lot of business owners, shareholders, technocrats, and diehard fans of the free market, the on-demand workforce is awesome: it lets you forgo the hassle of a drawn-out hiring process; you don’t really need to worry about benefits; the cost of labor is extremely cheap; and you only have employees when you need them.

And there is a certain fantasy of fluidity to the on-demand workforce that can make it seem attractive to the “99 percent” as well: armed with a smartphone, you can be your own boss. You’re not stuck in an office for eight mind-numbing hours; you’re choosing your own work instead of having work assigned to you. It sounds liberating. Freeing. Positively all-American.

But consider that the relative freedom of the on-demand workforce also comes with a measure of significant insecurity. Because you are not an official employee of a company, you don’t receive benefits. Your wages are markedly lower than they would be for an official employee, which means you have to cram as many tasks into a day as you can just to make enough money to cover your bills. And it’s not like you have much of a support system: instead of coworkers, with whom you can collaborate, vent, and enjoy your time at the office, you have other members of the on-demand workforce trying to undercut your bids and win the task for themselves. Hey, everyone has to eat, right?

So the fantasy of freedom becomes a vision of isolation, insecurity, and struggle. Maybe the on-demand workforce isn’t so great after all? At least, not the way it is right now.

But can we change it?

TaskRabbit: the “Uber for Everything” 

Founded five years ago, TaskRabbit used to operate on a bidding system: someone posted a task, and other people vied for the chance to do that task by offering competing bids, with the cheapest laborer winning. But as Casey Newton reports for The Verge, TaskRabbit is scrapping this model in favor of a new approach to the on-demand workforce — one that takes more cues from Uber (Newton calls TaskRabbit’s new model “Uber for everything”) than MTurk.

In the Uber model, users log onto the service, check for available drivers, and then choose from those options. It’s not an auction so much as it is a menu. TaskRabbit is going to follow this example. Now, when people post tasks, they don’t spark a bidding war. Instead, users who submit tasks will be shown three contractors who are available for the task and their rates. Choose your contractor, and you’re good to go.

The decision to rework TaskRabbit’s model was sparked, in part, by growing dissatisfaction among workers. In the summer of 2013, TaskRabbit noticed that, despite adding 1.25 million users and doubling the number of contractors on the platform that year, the percentage of completed tasks was declining. The tasks were there; the contractors were available. But the work wasn’t getting done.

TaskRabbit’s marketplace operations team, searching for the decline’s cause, found that contractors and customers alike were unhappy with the bidding system. As Newton explains, “People who posted tasks complained that they never knew what starting price to set and that it took too long for contractors to bid on their jobs. The contractors … complained it was taking too long to find jobs — on average, they were spending two hours a week scrolling through endless pages of open tasks looking for matches.”

What’s more, contractors often felt like they were underselling themselves in the bidding process. Driven to win tasks by offering the lowest rates, many contractors were accepting work for smaller and smaller amounts of money — amounts that would be obscenely low by most standards. At a certain point, winning bids need to be so low that doing the task is no longer worth the money. The bidding model breaks down.

Under TaskRabbit’s new model, the bidding war is replaced by an online marketplace. People choose contractors according to their work history and their rates. Contractors can set prices for their work and only accept tasks from people who are willing to pay that money. Such a model puts a lot more power back in the hands of contractors, empowering them to offer their services to clients at fair prices rather than grovel for the chance to mow someone’s lawn for $10.

MTurk: a Bleaker View of the On-Demand Workforce

I mentioned earlier that, while notions of an on-demand workforce can encourage visions of liberation and rugged individualism, the reality is often one of insecurity and exploitation: workers spending hours a day trying to find jobs, accepting projects for meager wages, barely — if at all — scraping by. This isn’t mere conjecture.

Writing in The New Inquiry, Jason Huff describes a project he undertook to collect stories from members of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk on-demand workforce. The stories he received were quite sobering.

In typical Amazon fashion, MTurk positions itself as an exciting new technological development. Per the MTurk FAQ: “Amazon Mechanical Turk is a marketplace for work that requires human intelligence. The Mechanical Turk service gives businesses access to a diverse, on-demand, scalable workforce and gives Workers a selection of thousands of tasks to complete whenever it’s convenient … Amazon Mechanical Turk is based on the idea that there are still many things that human beings can do much more effectively than computers, such as identifying objects in a photo or video, performing data de-duplication, transcribing audio recordings, or researching data details. Traditionally, tasks like this have been accomplished by hiring a large temporary workforce (which is time consuming, expensive, and difficult to scale) or have gone undone.”

What the breathless, borderline-utopian rhetoric papers over is the grim reality that many of MTurk’s workers experience. Huff found that people were driven to MTurk out of financial desperation: “In the 323 stories I received, people mentioned ‘money,’ ‘cash,’ ‘dollars,’ and ‘bucks’ more than 600 times.”

Huff also found that many of these workers turned to MTurk to help them feel productive and worthwhile while searching for full-time employment. MTurk was a refuge for the (hopefully) temporarily unemployed. But what if the on-demand workforce became a more widespread form of employment? Could people actually sustain their lives over the long term using a system like MTurk?

According the Huff, that’s unlikely. The workers he heard from often made it clear that they struggled to survive with MTurk as their main source of income. “Why can’t there be a place like this that actually offers the chance of making five or seven or ten dollars an hour?” one worker asked, opining on the brutally low wages that MTurk offered. Tasks often paid “a penny or a nickel,” this worker said.

Huff also points to an article in The Nation that concludes that MTurk workers are “one of the most exploited workforces no one has ever seen.” This picture of the on-demand workforce is far less rosy than the one many of us hold in our heads.

TaskRabbit Isn’t Perfect, but It’s a Start 

Given the conditions produced by MTurk, it’s easy to see that TaskRabbit’s new model is a step in the right direction. By allowing contractors to set their own rates — to value their own work — TaskRabbit puts power back in their hands. Hopefully, economically stability follows.

So far, TaskRabbit has seen good results with the new model, according to Newton. While testing the model in London, the company found that the number of users grew three times faster, the number of people who used the service more than once was 50 percent higher, the amount customers spent on tasks doubled, and the number of completed tasks doubled, compared to the old model.

The fact that people spent more money on tasks is probably the best news for TaskRabbit contractors, as it signals a move away from the ruthless pursuit of slashed prices encouraged by a lowest-bidder-wins auction model. Perhaps contractors will be both empowered and able to pay their bills?

Now, the new model isn’t perfect. There’s still little in the way of job security, and the competition remains l insanely fierce between contractors, just in a different way. Instead of battling over prices, contractors will have to battle over their rankings, as a better ranking means a better chance of showing up in a customer’s top-three search results when they post tasks. But at least people are being reasonably paid for their work now.

As on-demand labor platforms further destabilize an already precarious workforce, it’s good to see some companies — like TaskRabbit — encourage marketplaces where workers can actually – possibly — maybe — prosper.

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