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Working and dying in the sharing economy

Photo: flickr/Wayne S. Grazio

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The National Day of Mourning reminds us that for many, workplaces remain dangerous locations. Each year, Canada's national unions take a moment to remember the lives stolen by unsafe workplaces.

Labour codes across Canada have been written to try and limit the number of workplace accidents. Regulations are meant to enforce labour code laws and fine managers or bosses who willfully or through neglect put their employees into harm's way.

These protections are the result of years of activism from unions and are one of the ways that unions have helped protect non-unionized workers. You have the right to refuse unsafe work, for example, regardless of whether or not you're unionized.

There's no question that these protections have saved lives, but accidents still happen. It's why organizations like the Ontario Federation of Labour have continued to focus on workplace deaths as a core part of their campaigns work.

And, there are legislative gains still being made. This past December, the NDP government in Alberta introduced new health and safety legislation to finally allow the Ministry of Labour into accident sites on farms to investigate.

At the heart of these laws is the logic that the state has a responsibility to manage risk, especially when the tendency of capitalism is to download risk onto the cheapest unit, often a disposable worker. Thanks to labour code regulations, the worst elements of capitalism have been massaged or managed, keeping millions of workers alive, safer and with recourse in the case of an accident or exploitation.

It's the collective ownership of risk that makes any of this possible: there are consequences when a boss skirts legislative responsibilities or puts someone into harm's way. The risk shouldn't be borne by an individual employee alone.

Collectively, we have a baseline from which to demand more.

Right-wing forces have always sought to undermine these protections. Regulations get in the way of profits, ensuring worker safety is expensive and, for a shareholder group that only cares about making stupid amounts of money, the death of an individual worker, while lamentable, doesn't really impact the robotic and heartless capital class.

Drawing these lines in the sands is easy: people vs. profit, safety vs. production and collective risk vs. individual tragedy. Most people line up on the Left of the equation.

So it's perhaps surprising that the hype around the "sharing economy" has so muddied these lines, despite where this capitalist wolf in hippy sheep clothing so clearly lies. On the Day of Mourning, it's worth asking: who pays when someone dies working in the sharing economy?

Uber is perhaps sharing economy's most successful and controversial endeavor. By operating in a market that's highly regulated, and thumbing their noses to those regulations, they've effectively demonstrated that they're uninterested in dealing with thorny issues like insurance, registration and other workplace health and safety matters.

Uber-related incidents causing death or injury happen. Yesterday, an Uber driver narrowly survived a bullet, shot at the passenger he was driving. Sexual assault has been common (hereherehere and here, for example). Aside from public statements made by Uber PR representatives, there are no workplace-related regulations that can be used to help ensure the safety of drivers or their clients.

Uber has threatened to leave the City of Toronto if the city votes to regulate the service, and will not operate in Calgary because of the city's proposed regulations. Among the regulations that many Toronto councilors have called for have been higher wages, standardized insurance rates and safety training.

If a taxi driver is involved in an incident, the municipal or provincial authorities have the responsibility to step in. These processes need to be improved, but they're certainly better than nothing.

The same risk exists for other elements of the sharing economy. Just imagine food-borne illness and related health and safety risks that are likely as the food-based sharing economy grows.

For a generation of millennials for whom neoliberalism has annihilated their communities, new business models could be a way to tell the system to go to hell. Dine at Chez Lisgar, for example, and you'll pay your hosts in wine. But while the sharing economy promises this kind of outcome, the reality is quite different.

These industries exploit the fact that people want more, or better, from their economy. That the benefits touted by Uber (freedom! flexibility!) are actually tied into the broader systemic challenges inherent in precarious work. After all, if you can make a good living in a regulated industry, and be safe, why would you choose operate in a hitchhike-for-fee service?

Exploiting workers for profit can happen in any industry and the worse the exploitation, the greater the likelihood for serious injury or death. Advocates of the sharing economy might conveniently forget about the need for health and safety legislation and regulation, but we, the subjects and clients of this new economic order, cannot.

The National Day of Mourning is a day to remember the dead, especially from the past year. But it's also a time to imagine our future: to call out emerging exploitative practices that, if not stopped, will result in injury and death. Rather than waiting for the next victim, we must call for improvements to these industries now.

 

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