Many companies in the “sharing economy” argue that they’re creating a new type of work that is better for workers, who can use platforms like Airbnb, Postmates, and TaskRabbit to choose when they want to work, what they want to do, and how much they want to be paid. But when I tried cobbling together an income using these platforms earlier this year, this theory didn’t really pan out.
The platforms on which I signed up to work were so competitive that I had trouble finding work. When I did, it required me to be available at specific hours with short notice. And though the pay for a particular job might have seemed decent on first glance, it often looked like almost nothing after factoring in the time it took to compete, arrange logistics, and travel for it. Meanwhile, these companies don’t provide benefits, job security, guaranteed work, materials that might be required for a job (a car, cleaning supplies, etc.) or, in most cases, any liability for what might happen to a worker while doing that job.
An organization called Peers, which has until now focused on a petition tool that encourages members to “step up and defend the sharing economy,” says it has now switched its focus to helping the workers of that economy.
Starting Wednesday its website will feature an “income discovery” tool to help workers discover platforms that match their assets, skills, and interests; a review tool with which workers can rate their experiences working for a sharing economy platform; a forum for exchanging advice; and a “support marketplace” where workers can find access to health insurance, tax, and other services.
The organization, which has more than 250,000 members and calls itself “the world’s largest independent sharing economy community,” is positioning the whole shebang as “a new direction: to support workers by making the sharing economy a better work opportunity.”
That’s not the entire story. Peers is a nonprofit organization that owns a benefit corporation, which is where its worker support tools operate. The support center is a database of services that workers can buy, some of them provided by more sharing economy companies: Insurance from the Freelancers’ Union and Zen99. Tax help from QuickBooks Self-Employed. Professional management of Airbnb listings by Guesty. Auto Repair by YourMechanic. Rental property home cleaning by Handy.
Some of these companies are listed at the top of user search results, under “featured” products, and they paid for that privilege. The “income discovery” tool also features companies at the top of search results—basically ads from platforms seeking more workers for their apps.
There were a lot of reasons to be skeptical about Peers’s motives when it focused on encouraging members to campaign for local laws, via user-generated campaigns, that allowed for startups like Airbnb and Lyft to operate. The organization was created by a for-profit consultancy. It was cofounded by Airbnb’s Global Head of Community, Douglas Atkins, who is now its board chairman. Its investors include sharing economy founders and investors, and its “partners” include sharing economy companies like Airbnb, Homejoy, Sidecar, and Spinlister.
Similarly, there are good reasons to understand that Peers.org is not the same thing as a worker advocacy organization. Given Peer’s origins, it is not surprising that the company has ignored efforts that might be beneficial to sharing economy workers but increase the expenses of sharing economy startups. Shelby Clark, who founded RelayRides and is now leading the workers initiative at Peers, acknowledges that the organization doesn’t plan, for instance, on pursuing changes in how the law or sharing economy companies handle this new type of workforce. “I think support from workers will come from three places–the marketplaces, government (laws/regulations), and the private sector,” he writes in a follow-up email. “We shouldn’t rely on any one of these to develop the changes needed by workers.” Peers.org fits very squarely in the marketplace bucket–it’s about what workers can do or buy to make their work as non-employees better, not how the system could be changed to make that work better.
That’s not to say that mission and business can’t align or that there isn’t value in Peers’ new tools. Reading advice from other workers, for instance, can be helpful in navigating success on different platforms. Reviews, which include average income, can help paint a more realistic picture of what to expect. And the support tool helps connect workers with options they might not otherwise know about, like freelancers’ health insurance. This is all good.
We just shouldn’t pretend it is enough.