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I am halfway through the excellent book by investigative journalist Eyal Press Dirty workwhich examines the often dire conditions faced by those carrying out society’s toughest and most thankless tasks, such as slaughterhouse workers.
“How we think about this work,” Press writes, “reveals something fundamental about our society: our values, the social order we unconsciously mandate, and what we are willing to have done in our name.”
This warning was on my mind when I reported the story below. Delivering meals for DoorDash may sound a lot less cruel than slaughtering livestock. And the rise of the “gig economy” has brought unprecedented levels of convenience to affluent consumers. But it is reshaping the labor market in ways that create precarious lives for large numbers of low-wage workers. Labor law must evolve in response to this.
The ‘working poor’ employed by large American corporations
During my recent trip to New York, I had lunch with Olivier de Schutter, the Belgian legal scholar who serves as the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.
De Schutter had just given a speech at UN headquarters in which he warned of the dire situation faced by the world’s ‘working poor’, who despite their jobs live below the poverty line.
Their ranks include millions of struggling workers in developing countries, he noted – as well as people who work for some of the largest and most profitable companies in the US.
In letters made public this week, de Schutter wrote to e-commerce giant Amazon, retailer Walmart and food delivery service DoorDash, highlighting allegations about the inadequate treatment of workers, especially those without permanent contracts, including “gig workers.” He also wrote a letter to the US government highlighting the allegations, as well as broader concerns about the situation of low-wage workers in the country.
By the time De Schutter made the letters public on Monday, after giving recipients two months to respond, only Amazon had responded. The response — and the silence from Walmart and DoorDash — underscore the problems with relying on voluntary action from companies, rather than reformed legislation, to protect workers’ rights in the growing gig economy.
In his letter to Amazon, De Schutter expressed concern that the minimum wage of $15 per hour was below reasonable estimates of the “living wage” in some parts of the country, and that it circumvented obligations to workers by many of them to be treated as a ‘living wage’. independent contractors.” He highlighted reports that some workers could not afford proper housing, or had such low incomes that they relied on government food stamps to support themselves.
Amazon replied that the average hourly wage “for regular frontline workers” was now above $20.50. No corresponding figure was given for the “independent” workers highlighted by De Schutter, but it was said that it “offers a multitude of jobs and shifts, giving workers the opportunity to choose the opportunities that are best for them”.
At least Amazon responded – unlike Walmart and DoorDash (and the US government). The latter parties’ silence may be another sign of what appears to many to be the UN’s declining influence. It also highlights an uncomfortable question for supporters of the environmental, social and governance agenda: to what extent does a reputation for corporate responsibility really matter for a company’s bottom line?
A good deal, as is evident from optimistic reports such as this study from McKinsey, which showed that companies that talk well about ESG appear to have higher turnover. Yet, despite this, American consumers’ relentless appetite to shop on Amazon remains extensive media Coverage of the complaints from its employees suggests otherwise. That includes Walmart and DoorDash’s decision not to bother responding to the UN’s request for information on the human rights of their workers (*see update below on DoorDash’s position).
DoorDash responded to my request for comment (Amazon referred me to its response to the UN; Walmart did not respond to my email). The company told me that its “dashers” in the U.S. “made more than $25 an hour delivering,” and relied on DoorDash for only a portion of their income. “We will work with the Special Rapporteur in the coming weeks to correct these glaring misconceptions about boisterous,” the report concluded.
De Schutter’s letter to DoorDash cited allegations that delivery drivers were not guaranteed base pay and could even receive less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour because workers paid only for the “active time” spent on a delivery, which does not include time spent waiting for orders. DoorDash also had to pay $2.5 million, he noted, to settle a 2019 lawsuit accusing the company of taking tips from employees.
What can we learn from this episode? It is clear that the UN’s calls will not be enough to change the approach of big companies to their employees, especially the precarious ‘gig workers’ on which they – and the wider economy – are becoming increasingly dependent. A serious movement on that front will not come about through voluntary action by the business community, but through legislative changes. As De Schutter told me: “For the most part it is true that they are not acting against the law. But that is because the legislation is far from perfect.”
An obvious step would be a major increase in the federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009 (it should be tripled, De Schutter says). It is also long past time to eliminate the separate minimum wage for “tipped workers,” which is as low as $2.13 per hour in several states. This is a unique regressive systemwhich had its origins in companies’ refusal to pay decent wages to African American workers after the abolition of slavery.
Still, minimum wage increases would only begin to address the problems highlighted in De Schutter’s letters, which point to a larger task facing leaders in the U.S. and beyond. The rise of the gig economy has been a boon to corporate profits and consumer convenience — and companies like DoorDash are right to say that some gig workers are taking advantage of the ability to work more flexibly.
But there is a clear need to update labor law to provide proper protection for the millions of people who work in the gig economy without the security or benefits of a permanent job. Relying on companies’ concerns about their ESG credentials is not enough.
Efforts to implement such reforms have been met with fierce opposition from the business community – witness, for example, furious lobbying in California by taxi companies Uber and Lyft to prevent them from taking more responsibility for their drivers. Reform advocates will have to find ways to convince voters of the need for change — even as it hits middle-class consumers with higher costs for online deliveries and Uber rides. “The most important question here,” De Schutter said, “is how much inequality do we think we can tolerate?”
*Update: After publishing this story on November 1, DoorDash contacted us again to say it had sent an email to the Shooter on October 31 (the day after he made his letters public following the expiration of the 60-day response period, and after our inquiry to DoorDash about his failure to respond). In its email to the Shooter, DoorDash said it was “diligently preparing a response, which you will receive from us in the coming weeks.”
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