how to do self-care in the gig economy
A new show from artist Liz Magic Laser, 'In Real Life', is examining how zero hours contracts and uncertain work has created a new type of insecurity and stress.
Still of Zahid Iqbal/thelancersinc, graphic designer on Fiverr, Pakistan. From Liz Magic Laser, In Real Life (2019).
Freedom, opportunity, flexibility: these are the glittering promises of the so-called gig economy. Freelancer platforms like Fiverr and PeoplePerHour promote a self-managed career in the creative industries; Uber, Lyft, Deliveroo and more sell the dream of self-employed freedom. But rather than a utopian vision of being your own boss, for many young people working on zero hours contract, the reality is incredibly stressful.
In Real Life, a new exhibition from American artist Liz Magic Laser, is exploring that dichotomy. Essentially a reality TV show, the exhibition takes the form of five films which follow creative workers as they navigate the world of the gig economy. Their roles are varied: one works as a screenwriter, another an animator. Others provide graphic design or social media management. Laser was inspired by her own experiences purchasing services online. “I’ve gone down the rabbit hole of searching what services you can buy,” she says. “I found that it sparked quite an uneasy sense of consumerism -- the type of labour you can buy per unit from people”.
The number of people engaged in platform work has ballooned over the last few years, Guy Standing, Professorial Research Associate at SOAS, explains. In 2011, he labelled this emerging social class 'the precariat': underpaid, overworked and insecure".
“The precariat consists of millions of people all over the world who are being habituated to accept a life of unstable labour, in which they have no occupational narrative to give to their lives, and in which their incomes are erratic and generally falling,” he says. “Most importantly, they feel like supplicants -- without rights. They feel as if they have to rely on discretionary behaviour. And they feel chronically insecure.”
Pay for gig workers is often a long way away from the riches the platforms themselves promise. Uber says you can “make money whenever you want, wherever you are”. But in a 2018 study, the reality looks very, very different. On average, drivers were making a median profit of $3.37 an hour before taxes (around £2.60). 74% were earning less than their state’s minimum wage, and around 30% were actually losing money -- hardly the cash-filled utopia that Uber claims it gives you access to.
Jack, 27, had a similar experience riding a bike for Deliveroo in his early twenties. Initially attracted by the flexible hours, he quickly realised that his dream of financial security was just that -- a dream. Pay was low -- Deliveroo pay £10 per hour, with a further £1 for each delivery. But the work was inconsistent, lunch and dinner bookends to often uneventful days. He also had no sick pay, so was forced to work even when unwell. “They tell you you’re going to have all of this extra money and work when you want and blah blah blah, but it’s just not true. I had no protection and absolutely no guarantee that I’d make any money.”
“In the end, I left to go back to working in a restaurant -- the pay was just as crap but at least I knew when my shifts would be.”
"You can be dismissed for breathing in the wrong rhythm,” said Sarah*, who told me that gig workers are treated with “total contempt”. “There absolutely needs to be more of a safety net in place for workers, especially young people who undertake work in the gig economy to support themselves,” she said. “Dealing with a bad workplace is bad enough, but feeling like there’s nothing you can do about it is even worse. The government needs to look into the actual experiences of people in these jobs to work out what they can do to ensure workers are being treated fairly.”
But ad campaigns for gigging and zero hours platforms couldn't be further from this reality. One ad created for Fiverr in 2017 displayed a tired, beautiful woman staring blankly ahead, exhorting the joys of being 'a doer'“You eat a coffee for lunch. You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice,” it says. The ad was not received positively. But it also summed up the basic ethos behind gig work, the encouragement to be proactive, to push yourself, to work through the night, to promote yourself at any cost. As Jia Tolentino wrote for the New Yorker, this ‘work hard, always be hustling’ narrative serves an important purpose, dressing up the “essentially cannibalistic nature” of the gig economy as an aesthetic, not as a fundamental flaw. It invites us to participate in our own subjugation: we shouldn’t complain, it suggests, because this is how things should be. It’s not exploitative: it’s aspirational.
The pressure of such work is not absent from Laser’s vision -- in fact, part of her show is taken up with the measures through which we cope with the drawbacks of gig work. Each participant is given a life coach who creates a personalised ‘bio-hacking program’, full of such delights as the Pavlok, a device that gives you an electric shock each time you click away from a document or scroll through Twitter. Time-management techniques, breathing exercises, heart rate monitors and tarot readings are also handed out -- most with the explicit intention of giving participants ‘more control’ over their work and life.
Nikki, the show’s young social media manager, was given a vibro-plate, designed to give her several breaks throughout the working day: “forcing me to get off my computer”. It did her some good; she tells me that she still uses the plate now to break up her day. But what never changes is the structure of her work itself. No matter how on top of their schedule someone is , how carefully they plan their work and arrange their social life, how many breaks they take or how much more calmly they deal with a stressful day, they’re still, fundamentally, not in control.
As Standing points out, tech has made it “far easier for employers to change the structure of employment”. This is why he prefers ‘platform capitalism’ to ‘gig economy’, which gives a false impression of fun: “It is platform capitalism in the sense that apps and electronic systems are able to dominate labour relations”. In this relationship, sellers can never have control: any suggestion they can is simply an illusion. Without control, and with every aspect of our day dominated by uncertainty and tech-based performance targets, it's easy to fall into depression and anxiety.
But how can we tackle that decline in living and working standards, and the subsequent negative affect it has on our mental health? Standing is a prominent proponent of universal basic income; his report on the topic, launched in May, argues that a new wealth distribution system is an essential part of a new political system -- and that it has the potential to free people from insecure and exploitative work.
“We need to find new institutional mechanisms to provide people with security and bargaining power,” he says. “Unless people's bargaining power is improved, exploitation and oppression via these mechanisms will grow.”
So much of the answer is workplace and community based, rather than a personal struggle. Unions are key here -- and indeed they have started to take up the cases of gig workers. The IWGB, which traditionally supported migrant workers, now also represents Uber drivers, couriers and more. In May, a group of its members went on strike to protest the company’s "worker exploitation, tax avoidance and regulatory arbitrage”. And in December 2018, the union defeated Uber in a High Court Appeal, which ruled that drivers had been unlawfully denied basic rights.
As Laser’s show illustrates so neatly, self care is all well and good when it comes to coping day to day, and an increasing interest in wellness seems to indicate that we need these strategies more and more. But in the end, platform capitalism’s innately exploitative nature is going to need something a little more disruptive to obstruct its ever tightening grip on our everyday lives.
*Some names have been changed.