Amid the worsening health crisis, it’s becoming clear that the front-line workers are not just the brave health care staff working to save lives but also the gig economy workers that make the quarantine possible. We summon them by clicking on an app—to bring us dinner, deliver our groceries, drive us to appointments, and pick up our medicine.
And many of these workers say they are not getting the protection they need to stay safe during the pandemic. In this week’s Ask The Markup, reporter Mosi Secret describes gig workers’ fight for hazard pay, more access to paid sick leave, and hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, among other demands.
He found that although many tech companies have added new benefits—such as paid sick leave—to help workers cope with the coronavirus threat, they aren’t comprehensive. Uber and Lyft, for instance, are offering sick leave only to workers who have obtained a COVID-19 diagnosis or are placed in quarantine by a public health official. But with testing so hard to come by, that leaves out the many workers who may not have yet been diagnosed but are feeling sick or have been exposed to someone who is infected.
And protective equipment for workers is still difficult to obtain. On the eve of this week’s strike by Instacart workers, Instacart announced it would work with a third party to manufacture hand sanitizer and would start shipping it next week. But the workers replied that their strike was still on and that they also wanted hazard pay: “Workers should not be risking their lives for pocket change.”
To understand the roots of the revolt—and get insight into where it’s going, I interviewed Meredith Whittaker, a longtime tech worker and advocate who was one of the core organizers of the Google walkout in 2018. She left Google last year after alleging retaliation for her organizing efforts. She is a cofounder of the AI Now Institute and the Minderoo Research Professor at New York University.
To be clear, Whittaker has a distinct point of view that does not represent the views of The Markup. The interview is below, lightly edited for brevity.
Q&A with Meredith Whittaker
Whittaker: It’s not centralized. They are coming in fast. There is so much urgency, and the negligence from these companies is so stunning. Workers’ demands are basic: “We want hand sanitizer.”
It started in 2015–2016, with blue-collar workers who started organizing at Facebook and Google. It was the bus drivers and cafeteria workers who laid the groundwork here; they modeled how to take collective action for the white-collar tech workers.
In this case, we are not seeing unions take the lead. We are seeing a lot of worker-led actions. Instacart was completely organized by workers. So you’re seeing a base-building that is really powerful.
The lowest paid and most vulnerable workers realize they are being used as cannon fodder while the executives are at their Connecticut mansions issuing thoughts and prayers.
Angwin: What is different now?
Whittaker: The stakes are higher. They are going to die. They are going to infect their families, their kids, the rest of society. And we are only as safe as the least-protected person. If we don’t protect them, we’re overloading the hospitals where we are all going to have to get care.
Angwin: What is the role of the tech industry?
Whittaker: Tech is the nervous system for everything in society at this point. Instacart, for instance, is a tech company inasmuch as it uses algorithms and a remote management console.
These companies are using the language of entrepreneurship to justify a return to piecework that we haven’t seen since the 19th century. Workers are paid per task, they are never stably employed, and their wages are completely at the whim of a force they cannot bargain with.
For example, last year there was a day when suddenly the Uber app just cut wages by 25% in Southern California. That’s just how the app worked. We have a vast power asymmetry [between employees and employers] that has made the position of these workers extremely precarious.
Angwin: How can we support these vulnerable workers? Should we not order grocery delivery? Or should we order and also give a massive tip?
Whittaker: I don’t know the answer to that. I think if you do order things, you better be tipping 50%, and recognizing that you are putting someone in danger.
There is also an argument to be made that it is better to have a few professional shoppers at grocery stores than having all of us go. I’m not a public health professional, so I don’t know. But people need to be really sensitive that the people who are being asked to do these deliveries are not being protected. They are not getting what they need.
They are doing it because it is more dangerous for them to miss a paycheck than it is for them to stay safe. That’s the symptom of a failed state that is not capable of providing social infrastructure at the scale that is needed.
Angwin: What could help workers on a more structural level?
Whittaker: A general strike would be a way to sort of force the state and corporations to act in the interest of the public and the interest of the people who are the most vulnerable and are being sacrificed by these companies. It is a way to force just action when laws won’t do it.
A lot of workers don’t have the financial infrastructure to strike, but there are a lot of white-collar workers who are sitting at home with an income who could help. There are people who are thinking a lot about how to connect those two groups.
Angwin: Are you optimistic about the future for gig workers?
Whittaker: Let me quote from Antonio Gramsci: “I am a pessimist of the intellect, but an optimist of the will.”
Thanks as always for reading and stay safe.