Tackling the ethical challenges of the gig economy

By Nikita Aggarwal, Research Associate, Digital Ethics Lab, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford and doctoral candidate, Faculty of Law, University of Oxford and Professor Luciano Floridi, Director, Digital Ethics Lab, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

In recent years, digital platforms that support on-demand work have grown enormously, across an expanding range of industries and geographies. This so-called ‘gig economy’ encompasses popular ride-sharing platforms, like Lyft and Uber; micro-work platforms, like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk; and crowd work platforms, like Fiverr, Deliveroo and Upwork, amongst others.

The important role played by gig workers during the COVID-19 pandemic in delivering essential supplies to quarantined homes underlines the growing significance of the gig economy. At the same time, it highlights the vulnerability of gig workers who lack job security in the face of mass unemployment —one of the many ethical challenges raised by the gig economy.

Ethical challenges of the gig economy

In a recent paper, ‘The ethical debate about the gig economy: a review and critical analysis’, co-authored by Zhi Ming Tan, Nikita Aggarwal, Josh Cowls, Jessica Morley, Dr Mariarosaria Taddeo and Professor Luciano Floridi, we map the ethical challenges of the gig economy onto three categories: how it is done, what is done, and who does it.

The first is the new organisation of work (how it is done). Here, the main ethical issues relate to the role of gig economy platforms as mechanisms of algorithmic control and managerial oversight, particularly through the use of algorithmic reputation and rating systems. These systems permit invasive and unaccountable control of the work force, giving platform administrators significant power to manipulate the scoring and matching algorithms that govern the platform and influence job allocation decisions. For example, gig platforms are known to summarily dismiss or “deactivate” workers without notice. The use of opaque algorithmic systems can also produce unfair outcomes, with the “best” (highest rated) workers receiving a greater and growing share of available work, and certain groups of workers, particularly women and ethnic minorities, being discriminated against.

The enhanced scope for automatic, algorithmic management and supervision on gig economy platforms also facilitates the extreme commodification of human labour, thereby permitting an entirely new level of labour precarity. The problem of job precariousness is at the core of the second category of ethical debate about the gig economy: the new nature of work (what is done). Here, ethical concerns also arise from the often unsavoury nature of gig work. For example, gig workers have experienced heightened emotional stress from carrying out content moderation tasks, viewing and labelling graphic social media content such as child abuse videos and terrorist attacks. These problems are worsened by the fact that this type of gig work is often outsourced to low-rights jurisdictions —an example of ‘ethics dumping’.

The third category of ethical debate concerns the new status of workers (who does it). Here, the principal ethical concern is the exploitation of gig workers due to their misclassification as independent contractors rather than employees or workers, and consequent lack of social and legal protection, including rights to minimum wage, health and insurance benefits. This lack of protection increases the insecurity, instability, and vulnerability of gig workers, compounding ethical concerns about the exploitation of gig workers due to the precarious and menial nature of gig work. Concerns about job precarity and inadequate worker protection have fueled much of the protest and industrial action by gig workers in recent years, most recently in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recommendations for policymakers

Policymakers are slowly waking up to these ethical challenges. In 2019, a High-Level Expert Group commissioned by the EU recommended several constructive avenues for reform, focusing on building a skilled workforce to support the digitisation of work, bettering labour relations and strengthening the rights of gig workers. Whilst the HLG’s proposals are, on the whole, coherent, reasonable, and feasible, there is however still much work to be done to satisfactorily address the ethical challenges arising from the gig economy.

For one thing, stronger safeguards are needed to ensure the transparency and accountability of algorithmic systems deployed by gig economy platforms, and provide redress for decisions taken by these systems. This could include the use of “algorithmic impact assessments” and “algorithmic audits” to ensure that the use of algorithmic systems by gig platforms is as fair and transparent as possible. Guaranteeing the rights of gig workers is another pressing issue. California recently adopted a law requiring gig workers to be classified and protected as employees. The UK Supreme Court will soon deliver its verdict on the classification of Uber workers, which could significantly improve the rights of gig workers in the UK.

The new nature, status and organisation of work in the gig economy offers many benefits for society. However, these benefits can only attain if the gig economy is supported by good ethical principles, enshrined in well-enforced legal and regulatory frameworks. The COVID-19 crisis, and the vulnerability of gig workers that it has highlighted, presents an opportunity for governments to finally put in place an adequate safety net for gig workers.

By setting out the ethical challenges of the gig economy in our paper and providing policymakers with some practical examples of how they could be addressed, we aim to fill some of the gaps that currently exist, leading to fairer outcomes for gig workers in the long term.