Creating Ethical Workplaces in the Sharing Economy

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EthicsFrom time to time, I am guilty of letting myself get swept up in the wave of excitement that the sharing economy  seems to generate. For example, when I spoke to Fyre CEO Tim Arnold this past January, I initially went into the conversation looking for a fight. Arnold had posed himself as an ardent supporter of the sharing economy — which he refers to as the “gig economy” — whereas I was, at the very least, reluctant about it.

But then, Arnold explained to me why he felt the sharing economy was an exciting and empowering development: “You [as a worker] are really moving around, you’re really doing lots of different things, but within your own control. The power is now in your hands. You’re setting up your own work schedule.”

There’s something wonderfully seductive about this portrait of the sharing economy: sure, job security is increasingly becoming a thing of the past, but that’s because we’re exchanging this security for new levels of freedom. We don’t work for employers; we partner with them. We have the flexibility to grab the opportunities we want and leave behind the dead-end office jobs of yore. And if an employer or client isn’t treating us well, we can kiss ’em goodbye without even a twinge of regret.

Presented in this light, the sharing economy makes holdouts such as myself seem almost un-American. I think of the (decontextualized and more-than-slightly warped ) Benjamin Franklin quote: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” In my rejection of the sharing economy, am I trading my precious, valorous freedom for a little cowardly safety? Was I wrong to be so skeptical of the sharing economy?

But then, when my fretting hits its fever pitch and it seems I should just lie back, relax, and enjoy the surging liberty of the sharing economy, I am reminded of why I find the sharing economy so problematic in the first place: it often turns out that the lip service paid to the freedom afforded by the sharing economy is little more than a ruse designed to get workers to accept their own exploitation. Tell people the precariousness of the sharing economy is actually freedom, and you have a good shot at getting them to not just tolerate it, but embrace it.

DriverOver at Jacobin, Avi Asher-Schapiro writes that “‘sharing economy’ companies like Uber shift risk from corporations to workers, weaken labor protections, and drive down wages.” If we just look at how Uber treats its drivers  or how Amazon treats its “Mechanical Turks,”  it becomes pretty clear that Asher-Schapiro has good reason for making these claims.

As for the old freedom/safety trade, consider this: the relative lack of freedom that comes with traditional long-term employment actually increases our freedom overall.

Sure, if I choose to work for a company in a traditional, full-time, salaried employee capacity, I don’t have as much freedom in my career as I might have working in the sharing economy. I can’t hop around from opportunity to opportunity on a whim. I’ll have a much harder time decoupling myself from an employer or client who really annoys me.

But I give these things up in exchange for a steady paycheck, health care benefits (usually), and a regular work schedule. While my time at the office might be fairly constrictive, my time outside of the office is freer and more enjoyable: I don’t have to worry about being able to pay my bills, because I know how much money will be deposited in my bank account every two weeks. I can draw clear distinctions between work time and play time, rather than hovering over an app at all hours, looking for opportunities to make some cash. I can afford to see a damn doctor if I need to!

(And, I should note, neither the office environment nor our daily work schedules must necessarily be constrictive these days, thanks to telecommuting technologies, new trends in office design, and the concept of work-life integration  — which, I admit, is a double-edged sword, but that’s an essay for another time.)


OceanI need to slow down a bit, because despite all my objections to the sharing economy, this is not a clear-cut case of right and wrong. Tim Arnold is not a bad guy for supporting the sharing economy. His argument in favor of it is so convincing because it’s grounded in some truth: the sharing economy does open up new freedoms to workers. The question is whether those freedoms are worth the attendant lack of security.

Moreover, the sharing economy is not totally incompatible with security or the ethical treatment of workers. I’ve never been an Airbnb host, but from what I can tell, the company does a good job of not screwing people over.

And then there’s Zirtual, the virtual assistant service. Helmed by Maren Kate Donovan, the company is committed to building an ethical workplace that’s firmly rooted in the sharing economy. To wit, here’s a brief Q&A with Donovan that we carried out via email: We’re talking about creating ethical workplaces in the sharing economy. Why is this an issue we should be paying attention to right now?

Maren Kate Donovan: Making sure workplaces in growing industries — much less across all industries — are ethical and fair to workers is something everyone should be concerned about. When a sector booms but workers aren’t treated fairly, it’s bad for the worker, the client, and ultimately, the economy.

RC: What might an ethical workplace look like in the sharing economy?

MKD: An ethical workplace is a place that makes sure all three parties are “winning” — that means a win for the worker (fair pay, a safe work environment, etc.), a win for the client (getting what they want), and a win for the company (meeting internal goals and ultimately creating a profitable venture).

RC: What steps has Zirtual taken to create an ethical workplace?

MKD: One of the largest steps we took was to choose to hire only full-time employees, versus the standard independent contract model used by most in the sharing and on-demand economy.

RC: Can other companies follow Zirtual’s example? How so? What advice would you give them?

MKD: This really depends on the goals of the company. Some places have a service that aligns with the employment model; others have a model that works only with the flexibility that independent contractors give you. As long as you are paying a fair wage and treating your workers with respect, you’re probably on the right track.


HeartDonovan’s answers to my questions are simple, but profound. She’s right: the sharing economy need not be exploitative. Building an ethical workplace is as easy as paying fair wages and treating people with respect. That so many companies in the sharing economy are not doing these things may not speak to the problems inherent in the sharing economy so much as it speaks to the problems inherent in the people heading up these companies.

One can only hope that more companies follow Zirtual’s lead in this respect. If that’s going to happen, it may be time for all of us — whether we work in the sharing economy or simply make use of its services — to put the pressure on organizations who are not paying fair wages or treating workers with respect.

By Matthew Kosinski