Earlier this year, I was wasting time on Instagram when I noticed that multi-disciplinary artist Eugenia Lim was searching for on-demand workers for a new video work. The project, titled On Demand, would attempt to look more closely at the gig economy in Australia (and by extension, on a global level): by involving the actual workers themselves, Lim wanted to cast a light on the circumstances surrounding the various kinds of work (be that as a rideshare driver, food delivery courier and/or oddjobber) that undergird the market as we know it today. The art work also sought to poke holes at the blanket of secrecy that usually surrounds wages and work conditions, as well as explore the reasons people gravitate towards it. It seemed timely: the visual art world has only just started to tackle this issue head-on, the economy itself reaching a treacherous hilt as neoliberalism rules unabated. And while the grim conditions that define the on-demand sphere are increasingly prodded at and exposed by journalists and whistleblowers in the United States, there remains scant information on what it looks like in Australia, particularly as class becomes more stratified, class distinctions become less cut-and-dried, and work becomes more precarious.
I became an on-demand worker in 2017, while working part-time as a commis chef in Adelaide. At the time, I was trying to pursue writing more seriously, and the restaurant couldn’t afford to give me more hours. There was, of course, the option of finding a second hospitality job, but I only needed an extra ten to fifteen hours – this would both keep me afloat and still give me time to write. But after not being able to find another establishment which would hire me on that basis, and through a recommendation from a housemate in similar circumstances, I decided to take up work as a food delivery courier.
The process of signing up was almost too easy. After submitting your details for a police check and having it approved, you go to the company’s headquarters to officially sign in and pick up the insulated backpack that keeps customers’ food warm as you travel from the restaurant to the drop-off location. Not wanting to waste precious time, I started work immediately, and continued to deliver food for four to six hours, three to four days a week, for an entire year until I relocated to Melbourne.
In these companies’ promotional material aimed at recruiting ‘partners’, the ability to ‘be your own boss’ is often invoked. And while I was barely making minimum wage delivering food to people on my bicycle – sometimes through bad weather conditions – it did provide me with an income stream that I could ostensibly control. There were times when others’ laziness and financial privilege appeared to trickle down to benefit me, particularly after taking on a job whose destination (only revealed after you’ve accepted, to prevent workers from rejecting them) was less than a kilometre or two away. Gamifying aspects of the work (500 jobs completed lets you see your official rating; rejecting a job brings down your Acceptance Rate; you can set a Weekly Target to ‘hit’; a ‘heat map’ shows you where price surges are) provided the illusion that I was simply beating levels in an RPG, to meet the boss that is Life.
The promise of these platforms, that you can get anything done faster, mean that consumers often practice an impatience that would previously be unheard of.
When I moved to Melbourne, I didn’t think I would go back to being a cog in the on-demand machine again, until the cafe I was working at unexpectedly folded three months in. This time, I turned to an app that acts as an online marketplace, enabling users to outsource everyday tasks, such as grocery shopping, cleaning, weeding, and moving. On the platform, people looking for services describe the task and indicate a budget, and workers then bid to be offered the job. Having no financial safety net and thus needing income quickly, I noticed that the more popular services included cleaning and shopping, and as a result started to do them. The freelance nature of it complemented my writing schedule (which funnily enough revolves around a similar kind of precarity, although it must be said that arts work is generally bestowed with more social capital), and even though I currently have enough regular clients to not need the app, the spectre of gig work still looms large over my life.
It goes without saying that working at others’ convenience meant that I was often inconvenienced. The promise of these platforms, that you can ‘get anything done’ and have your goods and services ‘delivered faster’, mean that consumers often practice an impatience that would be unheard of if the services were bought through a traditional agency or brick-and-mortar shop. When everything is outsourced at the click of a button, the worker on the other end becomes a faceless non-entity. A wait time of more than 15 minutes for food is considered bad form, and there were times that I successfully bid on a cleaning job, only to find out that the client needed the job done the same day. Other times, I would arrive at a restaurant and realise that the staff there had yet to prepare the food – a measure I would later learn was employed to ensure the food was kept warm, a move to prevent customer complaints against the restaurant. And while I was expected to be polite in my communication to ensure that I would eventually get a good rating, clients were under no obligation to reciprocate. Many of our interactions were conducted through text message. If I didn’t get a glimpse of them through a usually hasty interaction at their door, then I hardly saw them at all.
In ‘The Automation Charade’, Astra Taylor writes that ‘work has not disappeared, but the person doing the work has changed.’ Through what she dubs ‘fauxtomation’, the worker – and similarly, their labour – becomes invisibilised in lieu of an application, via mysterious algorithms (or, in Deliveroo’s case, they’re given a human name such as ‘Frank’) that make the service you want materialise as if by magic. As Uber’s then-CEO Travis Kalanick once said, ‘In a world where technology can deliver the ride you need within five minutes wherever you are in the world, just imagine all the other goods and services that you could one day get delivered quickly, safely, with just the single touch of a button.’ A few taps on a screen, and a car or a meal arrives at your door, a personal shopper drops off your groceries, a cleaner arrives at your house while you’re at work and you come home to a house that appears to have cleaned itself.
Indeed, the on-demand economy thrives by selling a vision of effortlessness and ease for users by outsourcing the work to others. In a late-capitalist world where it feels as if we have to work more than ever before, the need to ‘always be optimising’ our lives is constantly sold to us. After all, if it is possible to save time and not be inconvenienced so that we can relax (or, more realistically, work) more, why would we not? An extension of ‘lifehack’ culture, on-demand services strive to simplify our lives through technology: it’s not hard to imagine a future where we don’t have to go out in the world at all, literally transferring from home to work and back again without interacting with strangers. Wake up, put on clothes delivered to you by LOT, order an Uber, arrive at your WeWork, get lunch through Deliveroo, book an Airbnb for your next work trip, arrange an Airtasker to clean your house while you’re away, Uber home, whip up dinner from a HelloFresh delivery, ask Alexa what the weather will be like tomorrow – have demands (and financial mobility), and you shall receive.
This would have sounded like a sinister plot in a dystopian film or novel as little as five years ago. When one doesn’t have to think of the labour involved in making the service available to you, it’s easy to manifest a future for yourself, the user, while workers get left behind. Already, labour violations (forcing delivery riders to ‘compete’ for shifts, ‘fingerprinting’, sweatshop conditions, among many others) are coming to light, although it has to be noted that these come mostly from whistleblowers, as there remain non-disclosure clauses in the agreements that workers sign. As such, this is why I haven’t named the companies that I have worked for.
It’s not hard to imagine a future where we don’t have to go out in the world at all, literally transferring from home to work and back again without interacting with strangers.
Thinking back, I have been required to travel beyond the four-kilometre radius allocated for bicycle deliveries, moving further and further away from my original destination, or arriving at a suburb where the app indicated that there was surge pricing, only to have it disappear as soon as I arrived (a ruse which, I later found out, was manipulated by the company to bring workers to less serviced areas). As a cleaner and personal shopper, I’ve had clients reschedule at the last minute, or cancel on me an hour before the job was meant to begin. And there is very little recourse on the part of workers: as we’re deemed self-employed ‘contractors’, there are hardly any formal unions or laws that protect us, and complaints to the company generally go unheeded or unaddressed – support departments are either understaffed or themselves outsourced. ‘We’re sorry to hear about this. We appreciate your taking the time to contact us and share your experience’ is a common template response, even for problems as serious as racism and sexual harassment. Unless one is willing to go back and forth ad nauseum – and that’s assuming you’re well-versed in both English and legalese – with a customer service representative, many issues usually remain unresolved.
What does it mean to experience so much convenience that one is unable to envisage inconveniences ever again? Once you get a car, it’s difficult to imagine riding a bicycle, and even more difficult to think about walking to your destination. What did people do before smartphones, before UberEats, before Amazon Prime? The point is simply to keep going, ever faster and more efficiently, with older modes gradually regarded as more troublesome. Much like the dirt-cheap Chinese meal you’re able to afford because workers aren’t being paid fairly, platforms that operate within the on-demand economy rely on this reasoning to provide consumers with the sense that ‘traditional’ taxis, hotels, agencies, et al – not to mention our own labour – have been made obsolete by the technology they provide. Even if companies such as Airbnb and Lyft own literally nothing, the fantasy of the ‘platform’ reigns supreme, particularly as society lacks the language to understand the way these conglomerates collapse profit, manipulate the social, and redefine capital and culture. By ceding decision-making to the algorithm, users end up viewing oversights or errors as uncontrollable and unable to be helped.
Ruth Schwartz Cowan, in her 1983 study More Work For Mother, argued that the invention of technology such as washing machines and dishwashers rarely translated directly into more leisure time for middle-class women: ‘Some of the work was made easier, but its volume increased: sheets and underwear were changed more frequently, so there was more laundry to be done.’ Under the logic of capitalism, the need to get things done as quickly as possible is a desire that can never be satisfied. By employing the need for better and more, every endeavour creates a new obstacle and thus another problem that requires solving. If the idea of convenience is geared towards the purposes of efficiency rather than leisure, who really benefits?
Through the obscured rationale of ‘the machine’, what is out of sight becomes out of mind. As introversion becomes a memeified, pathologised warping of Western individualism, the atomisation of both consumers and workers within the structures of the on-demand economy results in even more distance. Human responsibility towards one another is disavowed over isolation and ‘convenience’. Before participating in On Demand, I hardly knew or had met any other on-demand workers, let alone had meaningful interactions with customers. When things went awry, it was tricky to determine whether the problem was my own fault, isolated experiences that ‘only happened to me’ or something that was more common until I went on Reddit or online forums that facilitated discussion between workers. And even so, they were hardly specific.
Under the logic of capitalism, the need to get things done as quickly as possible is a desire that can never be satisfied.
As Colin Horgan writes in his short essay ‘The Tyranny of Convenience’, ‘convenience outweighs abstract ideas like privacy, democracy or equality.’ When we prize convenience above all things, not only does labour get invisibilised and worker exploitation therefore disregarded, environmental destruction is also at stake. Beneath the on-demand economy are enormous global networks: of logistics, manufacture and transportation. Alongside these are equally massive sites of disposal, destabilisation, disruption and waste. One of the more obvious outcomes is an unprecedented global amount of plastic waste generated through food delivery apps; beneath this are other insidious consequences such as taxi driver suicides and more pollution on the roads. And because these companies remain cagey about their inner workings, hard statistics are few and far between – we can only speculate on what happens behind the scenes, through individual workers who have come out to speak about it. Otherwise, whatever the company purports is itself taken for granted – like the neoliberal fantasy hawked by sweatshop operators and apologists, there would be no jobs if we didn’t allow sweatshop workers to have jobs, which in turn are created through our demand.
Despite previously making a clear distinction between consumer and worker, it must be noted that the on-demand economy strives to blur the lines between both: workers are regarded as customers, and it is not uncommon for workers to consume from the same platforms they work for either. When on-demand workers are sold the dream of flexibility, we are buying a shot at stability even if there are no guarantees of basic human rights nor income – like the winner-takes-all fantasy that is often peddled to freelancers, the hope that we’ll finally ‘make it’ if we work hard enough (most likely at the expense of fellow workers, or if you’ve already had some kind of advantage in the first place) is suspended above our shoulders in the on-demand economy. And because services through these apps are negotiated through a murky free-market no-man’s-land, it is easy to gravitate towards using, say, Uber as opposed to a taxi, simply because it is cheaper. In a world where there is now an ‘Airbnb for everything’ (campsites, housesitters, petsitters, pools, someone else’s bed for a nap), ownership, labour and consumption collapse into each other to the point that their boundaries become indistinguishable. I may enjoy being part of the fully automated luxury capitalist class for a few days in an Airbnb on a budget holiday in Tasmania (where the company’s presence has exacerbated the rental crisis), but ultimately go back home to deliver someone’s groceries for a mere pittance. For both consumer and worker, the on-demand economy offers us so many conveniences that we become co-dependent on their existence; it’s compelling to imagine a reality where our lives can’t function optimally without them.
In this light, it may be suggested that we boycott these companies, but it’s just as easy to play into the same illusion that sustains the myth of convenience: that personal agency can be wielded in such a way that renders the system moot. Like the ‘conscious consumerism’ fallacy, opting to use a metal straw or dress in eco-friendly clothing shifts the responsibility to the consumer and creates wider class gaps while everything else goes on business as usual. As evidenced through the short-lived (yet widespread) attempt to boycott Uber following Trump’s Muslim ban, as well as calls to #DeactivateAirbnb against Airbnb property listings in Israeli West Bank settlements and protests in France to blacklist Deliveroo, these actions eventually (and quietly) reverse themselves when backed by institutional power and unyielding consumer demand. When technology is used as a smokescreen for invented frictions, then in the same breath provided as a suggestion to solve the very problems they’ve created, it’s easy to cede power to the companies that control both what we know and don’t know. Or, as McKenzie Wark writes in Capital Is Dead, ‘If the information is not being sold to you, then it is you who are being sold.’ In the background, the dream of convenience continues to trail us regardless of where we turn, its shackles our ongoing reward.