Most people have to work to earn a living, but why do some think they chose to work while others (often with the same employer) feel that they were forced to work? What is the meaning of 'choice' for those who rely on their labour for a living?
In the gig economy, many of the complaints we hear about working conditions are phrased in terms of workers being 'forced' to do the gig. Apart from people who are actually slaves, meaning that they are suffering under physical compulsion and they are literally not free to quit their slave-master, how should we understand the concept of being forced to work?
The many cases brought by gig economy workers seeking legal protection are based on the idea of subordination. The firm makes all the decisions and 'forces' them to sign contracts agreeing that they are self-employed and working on their own account. The case made by the workers is that they would never willingly sign up to such terms that require them to carry the risk of their own enterprise, and they now can't quit their exploitative jobs because they are trapped.
They thought it would be a great job, paying great money, so they bought the flash car. Then it turned out that the job sucks and the pay is abysmal, but now they can't quit because how will they pay off the car? So they have to work long hours to meet their financial obligations and put food on the table.
Sound familiar? This is the lament of all workers everywhere, and indeed all people who are not actual billionaires or trustafarians. Most people would quit their jobs in a second if they won the lottery or otherwise had enough money to self-support. In that sense everyone who works does so because they are 'forced' to work.
The point about gig economy workers is that the firm they work with does not regard them as 'employees' and so will not pay them while they're not working. If they take time off for sickness or holidays, that is time unpaid. So if they want a day's wage they are 'forced' not to go on holiday for that day.
This idea of force is based on the principle that the source of your constraints is irrelevant: being forced to work because you're a slave or a serf (if you don't work the sheriff will come and get you) is exactly the same as being forced to work by economic constraints (if you don't work you won't be able to put food on the table). According to this theory, the slave has nothing to celebrate if he is liberated - as long as he's still poor and still has to work for a pittance that's exactly the same as being a slave. In fact the slave is better off, because at least the master provides him with free digs and he doesn't have to root for himself.
By that logic, employees are also 'forced' to work by their financial constraints and 'forced' into terms and conditions they do not like in the sense that they have few viable alternatives. In theory at least they don't have to starve if they take a day off for sickness since employees are entitled to a minimum statutory amount of sick pay. But in practice there's nothing to stop the employer firing you altogether for being too sick too often, or indeed for being sick at all, as long as he doesn't put it in writing that he has fired you for being too sick too often. Many employees know this, and they feel 'forced' to go to work even when they're sick.
Precarious work, eh. Gig economy workers don't have the monopoly on that one. Life itself is precarious. Some people are just better at navigating it than others, probably because they follow a different road-map and take a more circumspect view of their options.
Since not everyone who works would describe themselves as being 'forced' to work by a capitalist exploiter, how can we distinguish between those who 'choose' to work and those who are 'forced' to work?
The difference seems to depend on how much you earn. If you earn a lot of money, then obviously you chose to work because you value the anticipated pay off. If you earn the minimum wage, then the anticipated pay off doesn't seem 'worth it' and this in itself is taken as reason to say that you were forced to work and moreover you are being exploited.
This can be seen in the Uber case: the drivers who are earning more money are so happy that Uber was invented. The drivers who are earning the minimum wage, or even less, feel exploited and forced into slavery conditions by Uber.
So the questions about forced labour and exploitation bring us right back to the theme of income inequality. As long as there's a distinction between higher paid and lower paid workers, it will always be the case that we describe the wealthy as being free to choose to work and we assume that the poor only work because they are 'forced' to. Yet the value judgement in both cases (free or forced) is being determined purely by the level of income earned.
Curiously enough, the drivers who took Uber to court do not want Uber to be banned. They like the work, but they want Uber to be ordered to look after them much better by giving them their "drivers' rights" namely the right of every driver to be paid wages that are high enough to make him perceive that he has a choice about whether or not to work.
With the current low wages, many of them feel 'forced' to work more hours if they want to earn higher wages, and that's not acceptable in an age where we generally view having to work to earn a daily crust as a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
So on the one hand Uber is a shameless greedy capitalist who should be forced to pay its workers more than they are currently earning, but on the other hand banning Uber would be a disaster because then all those jobs would be destroyed and many people would be out of work. Hmm. It's almost like a scene from Atlas Shrugged, right before all the entrepreneurs do a runner because it's all getting just too ridiculous.
One might legitimately query whether everyone is free to ‘choose’ how to spend their working life, and what is to be done by law (if anything) to liberate those who do not enjoy such freedom. As Richard Epstein observes, ‘Clearly, this world is not devoid of problems. In any exchange between two persons, it is important to ask whether it is truly voluntary or whether it is subject to duress, fraud or some other form of undue influence’ (in Free Markets Under Siege: Cartels, Politics and Social Welfare (Institute of Economic Affairs, 2003) at p. 33). That is part of the law of contract: there must be a true agreement or else there is no contract. This has nothing to do with the fairness of the agreement, but is simply asking whether an agreement exists in the first place.
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