Gig Economy workers crave progress. How can design help?

The Gig Economy has changed the way we work forever. So says Dawn Gearhart, Director of Gig Economy Organising at the NDWA (National Domestic Workers Alliance). But what about the people doing the jobs? Well, Dawn has made it her mission to give them a voice. That's what the latest episode of YELLO explores: the Gig Economy's complexities, challenges, and blind spots. Here's a taster of what to expect.


The majority of us are participating in the Gig Economy. Whether you're catching a lift to the airport, having someone clean your apartment, or needing extra help with childcare, it's easy to download an app to request a service.

Workers, too, are now, more than ever before, using online marketplaces to find jobs. Often using an app. But the conditions they work under are not equal around the world. In fact, an increasing number of companies see value in avoiding traditional employees and the usual employer/employee setup.

Designit's Guro Røberg talks with Dawn Gearhart about the impact of the Gig Economy on workers' rights. What are the costs and consequences for workers using online platforms? And what role does design play?

Lifting the lid on Gig Economy

For a long time, companies have been selling the idea of online marketplaces as a flexible alternative to traditional full-time employment. A way for you to save up for a holiday. But when you look at the data, 80% of the jobs available on online platforms are done by 20% of the people. The majority of the workers who use these services are using them to work full-time jobs. To provide for their families or sustain themselves. They're doing this because they don't have access to better options. So, they make investments to provide the services needed on these platforms; they purchase vehicles, equipment or quit other low-paying jobs.

What are some common misunderstandings?

According to Dawn, one of the most common misunderstandings is that workers use these online platforms by choice. But often, companies remove you from an app if you don't accept a certain number of jobs. If you've invested in an online marketplace, for example, you've purchased a vehicle to provide a service, the option to quit becomes very limited. This can be hard for customers to accept. The idea that the services they conveniently book and frequently use fail to provide workers with a living wage or a choice to move on to something more stable.

What role does design play?

Online marketplaces are usually designed to provide workers with incentives when they first start using the platforms. As a result, workers often have a great experience early on and generate enough money for a living wage. But, as time progresses, the reality starts to sink in, and the upfront investment means they have to stay on. The outcome is significant for employers but devastating for the workers providing the services.

What are the consequences?

If you are an employer, you have to follow certain laws like discrimination and labour laws. You have to pay your workers minimum wages. Depending on where you're located, you're also responsible for workers' healthcare and other benefits. But suppose you can turn those workers into independent contractors and make sure they're accountable for all of the risks. You don't have to pay for the workers at all. That means your business model can be successful because all you're doing is connecting one person who wants a service with another person providing a service.

What's next? A Gig Economy 2.0

Dawn believes that companies have to shift their perspective to see both the people consuming the service and the people providing it as consumers. Luckily change is happening around the world. Workers are becoming savvier and are rallying together in new and innovative ways to demand their rights. Recently, a group of PhD students created a service so that mechanical workers worldwide could come together to avoid a 'race to the bottom' by refusing to bid on low-paying jobs. Instead, companies had to step up and provide a fair wage for the workers. Other vital allies are NGOs and governments who can help educate the public, provide the necessary support, and ban companies from exploiting workers.

Listen to Dawn and Guro talk about all this and more in YELLO EP09 now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.

And as a side note, Dawn recently featured in a CNN Business op-ed sharing more thoughts on domestic workers' rights and the future of work. If you have the opportunity, it's definitely worth a read.