Platform companies trumpet the ‘freedom’ their ‘independent contractors’ enjoy. They misrepresent what freedom is.
‘Workers value the flexibility that comes with being an independent contractor.’ This is a common refrain in platform firms’ defence of (mis)classifying workers as independent contractors—workers who are often entitled to the status of employee, with the rights and benefits conferred, as several court rulings in various countries have indicated.
Social scientists, labour lawyers, trade unionists and even journalists have expressed scepticism about this claim: there is no legal constraint on employees having the flexible work schedules many currently enjoy and the platforms’ version does not adequately offset exploitative work arrangements, characterised by risk, precarity and often below minimum-wage remuneration. But there is an even more fundamental critique.
The ‘gig economy’ purportedly offers the freedom to work when, where and how one wants and so to be ‘one’s own boss’. Working on a contract for services, it is said, entails no duty of mutual obligation to an employer—unlike an employee on a contract of service. My research into the comparative experiences of independent contractors and employees in the courier industry however reveals that this ‘flexibility’ narrative is vastly overstated.
To understand why we need to go back to a renowned 1967 paper by Gerald MacCallum, contesting Isaiah Berlin’s conventional distinction between ‘negative’ (freedom from) and ‘positive’ (freedom to) liberty. MacCallum argued that Berlin isolated two inseparable aspects of one singular concept. Freedom in fact took a triadic form, he said, involving an agent(s), constraints and a goal: it always attaches to an individual(s) x and it is the freedom from y, to do or become (or not) z.
Any freedom ascribed to an individual must then reference all three variables to provide a complete picture. Take the claim that ‘independent contractors are free to work when they want’. This is incomplete, as it only specifies what an independent contractor is free to do, without naming what they are free from.
Gig-economy apologists will immediately reply that this ‘y’ variable is the duty of mutual obligation: the independent contractoris free from the power of a manager to control her working time, so she can work at the times she prefers. To be sure, this can have a liberating effect. But it is only one constraint from which independent contractors are free to work at will; there are many other kinds from which they are not.
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I found that independent contractors in the courier industry confronted several constraints which limited their ability to work flexibly. One of the most prominent was unavailability of work—particularly for workers on a digital platform such as Amazon Flex. The drivers I interviewed repeatedly reported logging into the Flex app to discover no blocs (shifts) were available.
To the surprise of some drivers, this problem worsened during economic crises—when they most needed the income—as more individuals looking for work flooded to the app to find it. ‘Flexers’ could thus frequently have the desire to work but be unable to do so. In terms of the triad, they were not free from the unavailability of work to work when they wanted.
Another constraint limiting the flexibility of self-employed couriers is inability to find a substitute. Some independent-contract couriers, such as those who deliver for Hermes, DPD and DHL, are not assigned deliveries in a piecemeal fashion but are allocated entire routes such as a postcode area—similar to a standard employee at Britain’s Royal Mail or UPS. For these independent contractors, the ‘small business’ they supposedly embody is contractually responsible for the completion of that route each day.
As independent contractors, they have no ‘claim rights’, against Hermes, DPD or DHL, to sick leave or holiday. Instead, they have the right of substitution: the driver can subcontract the route to someone else if they cannot be at work.
Couriers working as independent contractors at these firms said that finding such a substitute was nigh-impossible. One driver lamented that he hadn’t had a holiday for two years and that his employing firm offered no help in finding replacements.
These couriers are thus not free from the impossibility of finding a substitute to work whenever they want. This is another constraint that self-employed couriers suffer as a limitation on their capacity to work flexibly.
These are only two examples: a thorough triadic accounting of ‘independent contractor’ freedoms—as I conducted in previous research—reveals numerous constraints challenging the flexibility narrative. The moral weight of these is compounded by their absence for employees.
Standard employees never confront these two problems—neither unavailability of work (short of a critical collapse of demand) nor an incapacity to take time off owing to lack of substitutes (short of a critical excess of demand). Those in favour of labour rights would do well to demand that discussions of workplace freedom and domination reference the triadic relationship of agents, constraints and goals.
Robert Donoghue is a PhD candidate in social and policy sciences at the University of Bath, focusing on the ethical workplace and how workplaces are transformed by 'smart' technologies. He is also a research officer at the University of Essex, writing about legislation globally on artificial intelligence for the Research Department of the International Labour Organization.