Lessons Learned

Gig economy laborers and immigrant workers share many issues
Thursday, April 27, 2017

Immigrant workers, whether or not they are part of the “gig economy,” share vulnerabilities such as low bay and lack of benefits with independent workers.

That’s the observation of Leticia Saucedo, law professor at University of California, Davis, and an expert in employment, immigration and labor law.

Saucedo gave the Alice Hanson Cook and Lois Gray Lecture, “The Legacy of the Immigrant Workplace: Lessons for the 21st Century,” at ILR earlier this month.

Cook, who died in 1999, was a long-time ILR faculty member, scholar of women and work, union organizer and international labor educator. The title of the lecture initially named in her honor was extended this year to recognize Gray, the Jean McKelvey-Alice Grant Professor Emerita of Labor Management Relations.

Lecture moderator Rose Batt, ILR’s Alice Hanson Cook Professor of Women and Work, said, “She came to the ILR School in 1946, and she’s been working for the ILR School for 71 years, and she goes into the office in Manhattan every day. And she continues to conduct research on women in work, women in unions and social justice.”

Saucedo has worked extensively with immigrants who labor in the residential construction industry, largely as independent contractors, earning no benefits and responsible for costs such as Social Security and Medicare taxes that employers typically cover.

She found men, in particular, create narratives about their risk taking and persistence, overcoming fear and danger to cross the border to come to the United States. “I risked so much to be here that I can handle all the hard work,” she recalled them saying.

This attitude makes immigrants very attractive to employers, who believe they will work harder than native-born Americans and not complain, many say. The women, who did not share this perspective, by contrast, were more inclined to seek out the local Building and Trades Council and organize to improve working conditions.

Members of the gig economy — drivers for Uber or Lyft — also share this narrative. They say they are following their dreams, free of a boss, willing to work hard without security – allowing them to have more family time and flexibility.

But, working under these conditions lacks the stable pay, benefits and security found in traditional union workplaces and shifts the risks to workers and their families, Saucedo pointed out.

Uber saves up to 30 percent in payroll taxes by classifying workers as independent contractors rather than employees, she said. Contrary to their public images, most members of this gig economy are poor, young, non-white and lack a college education. There are no other jobs available to them, Saucedo said, and the companies that use their services exert control via by behavioral psychology or the threat of deportation.

“The gig economy is small, but it’s the fastest growing part of the economy today,” Saucedo said. It grew out of the economic downturn of the late 2000s, when many workers were laid off. “Since 2009, this form of labor has grown over 40 percent.”

Today, some cities and states are taking steps to protect these workers. Saucedo cited California’s independent contractor labor relations act. She also cited the work of organizations such as the Taxi Drivers Union, the Freelancers Union, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, and
other workers’ centers.

A video of the lecture can be seen here.