The Perilous Gig Economy: Why Caviar Must Pay for Bike Courier’s Death

Image caption: A white banner hangs off a chain link fence on top of an overpass. It reads “THE GIG ECONOMY KILLED PABLO: REST IN POWER”

By Mar Escalante

Photo Credit: Mar Escalante

On Saturday, May 12, at 7:30 p.m., our dear comrade Pablo Avendano was killed in a cycling accident at the intersection of 10th Street and Spring Garden, when his bicycle was rear-ended by an SUV during a torrential downpour.

He was making a delivery for bike courier company Caviar when he died. This was no ordinary bike accident. It happened because Pablo had to work in unsafe conditions. Caviar must do the right thing and at the very least pay for the costs of his death.

As a member of the activist community of which Pablo was a part, I and many others visited the impromptu memorial set up at the site of his death to remember his life and attempt to make sense of this tragedy. One point people made repeatedly in conversations during the memorial service was that the only time you can make decent money delivering for Caviar is when it is raining, freezing, or otherwise dangerous to be on the roads. Peak pay incentives are given by the company’s work-distribution algorithms according to the whims of the market. When dangerous conditions mean that fewer cyclists are making deliveries or more people are ordering food, the effective pay increases. The constant remark going around was how upsetting it was that Pablo had to take his life into his hands in order to make the money he needed to survive.

No real jobs, no real rights: The gig economy

During the labor movement of the early 1900s through the 1930s, socialists, communists, and anarchists of all stripes fought and died in the streets to create labor unions and secure the labor rights, benefits and protections that we take for granted today: guaranteed overtime and minimum wage, safe workplaces, workers’ compensation, and the weekend, among others. These concessions were won at great cost, and they represent items on balance sheets that cut into corporate profits. In the wake of the recession of 2007-2008, which brought about massive job destruction and subsequent deregulation in an attempt to stimulate the economy, new jobs were created by “innovative” corporations whose innovations included failing to provide basic worker protections. Thus, the “gig economy” began to emerge.

I experienced the emergence of this economy first-hand. I graduated from college in 2007 tens of thousands of dollars in debt into an economy with no available jobs in my field. I was forced to take up work that consisted of writing 15 to 20 pieces of 300-word web content drudgery each day for about $5 each, receiving money weekly as a deposit into a Paypal account, and then receiving a 1099 form to pay my taxes rather than a W-2. I was an independent contractor, technically. But I was dependent upon the job site to mediate my relationship with clients, for which my contingent employer of course took its cut. Courier companies like Caviar also skirt this gray area between employment and contracting by forcing workers to only work for them while on shift, rather than take jobs from multiple courier companies at a time, even though they are not paid by the hour but by the task.

In the decade that followed the recession, the economy made a tepid recovery, fueled largely by this kind of precarious, contingent economy. A Princeton study found that “94 percent of the net employment growth in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015 appears to have occurred in alternative work arrangements,” defined as independent contractors, freelancers, on-call workers, temp workers, and workers provided by contract firms.

I was eventually able to buy a cheap car and get a job as a courier myself, which pays a little better and is less mentally taxing than writing web content, but is still squarely part of the gig economy. I’ve had to make deliveries in driving snow and pouring rain in order to make the rent. Every day I, like Pablo and thousands of others, take our lives into our own hands to do a job, in the words of Pablo’s good friend and fellow activist George Ciccariello-Maher, “for minimal pay and no benefits, a job that incentivizes taking bigger risks.”

With the growth of online networking and the recent ubiquity of smartphone apps, companies realized that they could use technology to both directly connect remote service providers with a remote client base, and give the workers providing these services the outward characteristics of traditional employment — direct deposits, task management, wage discipline — without actually employing them. Remember, the labor victories won by our forebears specifically only apply to people employed by companies, as in, employees receiving W-2s rather than independent contractors receiving 1099s.

Do you see what they did there? Rather than expend their energy fighting labor laws that constrained their ability to make untrammeled profits, companies took advantage of a legal gray area in order to avoid having to follow the laws at all. By doing this, companies like Caviar disenfranchise workers from the victories that comrades in the working-class fought and died for. The promise of a 40-hour workweek, a weekend, guaranteed safe working conditions, support in the event of injury — the rights our parents enjoyed and took for granted — are rapidly becoming lost to us. Now, many of us in the gig economy work two or three jobs and can be called to work at any time, no matter how sick we are or how unsafe the conditions, and if we don’t comply, we lose the job and don’t make rent. By hook or by crook, capitalism has our lives on the line.

Make the bosses pay for it

Pablo’s death was a tragedy that can be laid at the feet of a capitalist system that squeezes us for everything we’ve got. We can’t bring Pablo back from the dead, but we can make sure the system pays for it. The lack of support by employers in the gig economy is something that must be challenged, especially as it grows to encompass a larger portion of the economy as a whole.

Companies like Caviar run a lean balance sheet because they don’t have to set additional money aside to support their workers. Some of these companies may offer a living wage compared to more traditional employers, whose minimum-wage offerings are increasingly made unviable due to inflating prices. But this living wage doesn’t take into account the costs they invisibly shunt back onto workers themselves — things like workers’ comp for injuries on the job, equipment purchase and upkeep, and funeral expenses. These costs are forced back on the family and social networks of workers. Caviar workers injured on the job often fall back on aging parents or adult siblings for housing when they can’t ride. Most Caviar workers depend on the goodwill of bicycle mechanic friends or sympathetic bike shops to keep them rolling (and thus eating) as their bicycles wear out from near constant use. This is all labor that maintains their workers, for which Caviar’s business model shirks responsibility. We must make Caviar and companies like it foot the bill.

This is not an unreasonable or unprecedented demand. In 2002, a Harvard Medical School study found that bike messengers in Boston were injured on the job at a rate more than 13 times the national average rate of injury for all workers. Bike couriers all across Europe have been organizing strikes for better wages since 2016. In New York State, a state-mandated surcharge on fares provides benefits for drivers across the state, regardless of whether they drive for Uber or cab companies. We must continue these fights.

Our lives are at risk because companies want to save on costs and incentivize their workers to make dangerous decisions with the hanging threat of not being able to eat or make rent. This is not an exaggeration. Our fellow worker, Pablo, died while on the job. He was a son, a brother, a dear friend, a comrade, a human being. So we must all organize together and keep the pressure on employers. Workers hold up the entire economy, even though it seems like we are alone in the struggle — especially when we’re classified as independent contractors, siloed into our fragmented communities, pitted against one another for a rapidly decreasing slice of the pie. The shift from traditional employment to the gig economy shows that companies are trying to do whatever they can not to materially care about us. We must organize to reverse this trend, because tomorrow it could be our family and our friends. Tomorrow it could be us.

Caviar incentivized that Pablo work in unsafe conditions, so it must do the bare minimum of paying for Pablo’s family’s travel and his funeral expenses. We must make sure that companies trying to take advantage of workers in the gig economy know that we can and will fight for our own. In the words of the Industrial Workers of the World, a union at the forefront of labor struggles in the 1910s that still lives on today, an injury to one is an injury to all!

Contribute to Pablo’s memorial fund on GoFundMe.

Join local comrades in ALL OUT FOR PABLO demonstrations this Saturday, May 19. Wear black and/or red. Starting at 4pm, the ride will leave from Tattooed Mom’s at 530 South Street and head towards a speak-out at 10th Street and Spring Garden Street, the site of Pablo’s passing. At 5:45, the ride leaves for friends and family to meet up at undisclosed spot to celebrate Pablo’s life. Bring a bike or meet at 10th and Spring Garden. Donations will also be accepted at this event.

Memorial

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