The precarious, privatized gig economy is already at a workplace near you


I am on a bus riding across northern Ontario. I’m travelling with the band, a 30-piece orchestra. It’s a happy crew, even though the weather is bleak and the snow on the ground looks like a permanent feature until spring.

Everyone on the bus is working on contract, there are no employees. This isn’t unusual for musicians. From the time of travelling minstrels, it’s a profession that moves from gig to gig, paycheque to paycheque. Most of the musicians on the bus also teach, and play in smaller groups—trios, quintets, etc.—to augment income. The luckier ones have spouses with high-paying careers.

The beauty of working with these people is they’re doing what they love. They make wonderful music together. The same can’t be said of other gig workers, like the part-time greeters at Walmart, for example.

Most of us know about the gig economy. Some of it is built on single gigs. Most of it is a cobbled together hodgepodge of part-time work, like driving taxi at night while working on painting or photography during the day. Or stringing together years of seasonal work and EI payments during the off-season.

A while back I read about university lecturers—sessionals—in the US who can’t afford to buy homes. These are well-educated people with Masters degrees. They work from contract to contract on a part-time basis, earning maybe $15,000 to $20.000 a year. More and more of them are unable to afford food and rent. The article interviewed several lecturers who are homeless and living out of their cars.

How did it get this way? It’s a familiar story: five decades of globalization have moved large parts of the North American economy have been shipped overseas, where labour costs are a fraction of what they were here. Manufacturing jobs were the first to go. For the past decade more and more clerical and white collar jobs have been exported. What’s left are management, marketing, distribution and service sector jobs—the jobs that keep the flow of cheap manufactured goods from overseas moving across our continent from Walmart to Walmart outlet. There are still good jobs with pensions. Government jobs, for example.

But even these jobs are at risk. Last week the New Brunswick Liberal government announced plans to increasingly privatize health care services in the province. The great promise of privatization is lowered costs and increased efficiency, because—as the thinking goes—the private sector can do everything so much better than the public sector. That’s just not true. It’s a lie.

Almost every public utility that has been sold to the private sector has become less efficient and more costly. The only real benefits accrued are to the owners who bought the government services at fire sale prices, and proceeded to inflate their salaries into the stratosphere. At which point the public—that’s you and me—starts to pay more, as efficiency goes down.

The tour bus has stopped for our first of five gigs. This one is a school concert in Red Rock, Ontario. We set up in a gymnasium and the musicians delivered a 60-minute concert as if they were on main stage in a world-class concert hall. I sat in the audience on the hard metal bleachers with our new music director (who commutes from New York). As luck would have it we were sitting with the older kids. Their attention span was much shorter than the pieces. A few of the boys talked loudly. A couple left the room. Quite a few of the girls surfed the net on their cell phones. The little kids on the other side were fully engaged with the music. They were open and enthusiastic and still had the capacity to take in the wonder of what they were hearing.

The older kids are who we’re becoming: a society of people with short attention spans, little appreciation for elegance and beauty, boorish manners and a self-centred sense of entitlement.

They don’t understand the gifts their society brings them. They don’t understand the sacrifices these artists have made in their personal lives to perform the music at this level. They don’t understand that government arts funding has made this $20,000 concert in a gymnasium possible this morning. 

The gulf between those 17-year-olds and our 27-year-old conductor seems uncrossable. And the less we invest in our education and our public institutions, the worse it will get. Everything will be available at Walmart and disposable an hour later. What a waste.


  1. Can't they at least get the students to park their phones at the door? Unbelievable. Great column, btw.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts