Over the past several months, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the Gig Economy, and the risks independent workers face without the benefits, security, and protections afforded by a full time job. Last fall I conducted some research into Gig Economy workers and their attitudes and mindsets toward insurance, the results of which were published in a white paper this past December (and became the basis for the case study we launched last week). One of the key insights from the research was that while Gig Economy workers tend to choose independent work for its flexibility and autonomy, in doing so they also open themselves up to significant risks–legal, financial, personal, and otherwise–which, we found, they are largely unaware of and/or undereducated about.
One of the risks gig workers are most susceptible to is harassment and discrimination. As they are typically not considered regular employees, gig workers have fewer protections under federal anti-discrimination laws, a fact which, like many of the other risks they face, many gig workers are unaware of.
This past January, HoneyBook, an online platform that helps freelancers manage projects, shined a light on the issue when they published a report on sexual harassment based on a survey they conducted with several thousand of their users. Their report indicated pervasive sexual harassment within the freelance community, with an astonishing 54% of the self-employed and freelance women they surveyed reporting they had been harassed at least once. The same day this report was published, Nathan Heller of the New Yorker wrote an article featuring the report and calling for more consistent, accurate data and reporting around sexual harassment in the Gig Economy. Later in January, Eleanor Holmes Norton, a congresswoman in D.C. introduced a bill to protect Gig Economy workers from discrimination.
Still, despite the recent media attention, the full extent of the problem is still unknown, and there is much progress to be made when it comes to addressing sexual harassment in the Gig Economy. The impetus is on everyone–employers, the government, and the gig platforms themselves, that facilitate independent work. In the same way that gig workers deserve insurance that will protect them from the physical, professional, and financial risks incurred through their work, they also deserve to be protected from discrimination and harassment. As we wait for the law to catch up with the changing workforce, here are a few things gig platforms can do to protect their workers:
1. Be like HoneyBook, and start collecting data on sexual harassment.
Writing in the New Yorker, Nathan Heller recently pointed out that while between 1995-2005 the Bureau of Labor Statistics gathered information on independent workers, including sexual harassment data, they stopped, before the boom of gig platforms. Tom Perez, Obama’s secretary of labor renewed this survey, but the data has yet to be released. Without truly understanding the depth and breadth of the problem, it can be hard to fix it.
This is where gig platforms can step in. While HoneyBook’s recent report was far from comprehensive (or necessarily representative of the entire gig population), it was a start, and with 54% of women surveyed indicating that they had experienced some form of harassment, it signals to other gig platforms, employers, and workers, that sexual harassment amongst Gig Economy workers is definitely a problem that deserves attention. If all gig platforms made it a practice of routinely surveying their customer base regarding sexual harassment, and even providing a channel for reporting sexual harassment, the industry could collectively analyze this data and use it to raise awareness and make informed decisions about how they can operate in a way that reduces instances of sexual harassment.
2. Provide gig workers an easy way to report sexual harassment within your platform (and be transparent with your data).
After damaging reports of multiple rapes and instances of sexual harassment committed by Uber drivers surfaced earlier this year, Uber announced last month that it will not only begin doing criminal background checks on its drivers, but also launched several new safety features that will help protect riders, including a 911 button for summoning help in emergencies. In the same way that Uber is taking steps to protect its riders from sexual harassment, gig platforms, specifically marketplaces that connect workers with clients, need to consider how their platforms can do more to protect their workers.
One way to do this is to build simple mechanisms for reporting harassment into the platform, and then making data about clients accessible to gig workers so that they can make informed decisions about what jobs they take, and avoid clients with a history of harassment. If gig platforms want to continue being a trusted marketplace for companies looking to source talent, they need to be able to retain the best talent on their platforms, and this is done by building trust with workers. Giving workers easier ways of reporting clients holds clients accountable and empowers workers.
3. Be like Fiverr and And Co, and standardize your anti-harassment clauses, making them easily accessible to workers during contract negotiation.
Gig platforms should take it upon themselves to make sure workers are aware of their risks and their rights, and help them take the necessary steps to protect themselves. HoneyBook, which provides a contract builder for freelancers, recommends that its users always include anti-discrimination clauses in their contracts. And just this week, Fiverr and And Co (which Fiverr recently acquired) announced that they amended their standardized freelancer contract to “include explicit language around sexual harassment, legally protecting freelancers both in terms of the behavior they encounter and the financial outcomes that come with blowing the whistle on inappropriate conduct.”
But on platforms like Upwork, contracts are created by employers, not workers, and then negotiated via the platform. Ensuring that templated anti-harassment clauses are readily available and freelancers know where to find them will empower freelancers with the knowledge and resources they need to advocate for themselves during contract negotiations.
4. Use your platform to educate users on their rights, and on how to spot harassment.
Last month, Fiverr launched Fiverr Elevate, a resource center for Fiverr freelancers to help them run their business better. Fiverr Elevate partners with other companies that provide products or services such as health insurance or invoicing software to offer educational “courses” to freelancers on things like saving for retirement and doing their taxes. This type of resource center could also be used to educate freelancers on what their rights are when it comes to harassment and what constitutes sexual harassment. It could even be used to connect freelancers with legal advice on what to do if they face sexual harassment on the job.
Having a platform that users log into regularly to look for work gives you, as a platform a captive audience, not only to market to, but to educate. The platform that provides the most value to its users will be the platform with the highest quality talent.
5. Be Like Uber and Lyft, and do away with forced arbitration agreements
This week, following Microsoft back in December, Uber and Lyft announced that they are eliminating forced arbitration agreements for drivers, passengers, and employees with sexual harassment claims against them, perhaps setting an important precedence across the Gig Economy. Forced arbitration agreements, which are often included in terms-of-services or employee agreements, make it impossible for these platforms to be sued for sexual harassment, instead forcing victims to go through arbitration, which is similar to a trial, but without a jury and not a part of the public record. Such agreements disempower the gig labor force, and tend to disproportionately affect women.
Taking a cue for Uber and Lyft, who swiftly followed Uber’s lead, all freelance and gig platforms should, in solidarity with their users, do the same, hopefully encouraging organizations that use their platforms to hire workers to follow in their footsteps.
In Sarah Kessler’s forthcoming book on the Gig Economy, Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work, she follows a range of workers in the Gig Economy on their journeys to make a living in the new economy. And while some workers fare better than others in the new economy, the main takeaway is that while gig workers may enjoy more flexibility and freedom in their work, they are also taking on nearly all of the risk, which once belonged to employers. In other words, the new economy isn’t just gigged, its rigged, and in the favor of businesses not workers. When we start thinking of gig workers as more than a combination of the services they provide, and a starting thinking about them as actual people, we can begin to create a more fair and just world, in which businesses are not the only ones who benefit in the new economy. Gig platforms, in designing experiences that help workers navigate this new world, play an invaluable role in leveling the playing field.