Welcome to the Micro-Gig: No Job Is Too Small

A crush of apps allowing us to do discrete tasks for small sums of money might be the future. But the atomization of paid labor leaves workers vulnerable.
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Just when we were getting used to the idea of the gig economy, where more people are freelancing and living project-to-project, things are changing again. And fast.

We're seeing a surge in companies that enable professionals to hire themselves out for ever smaller jobs. Some are so short-term, they can hardly be called gigs.

TaskRabbit has created a marketplace for just that -- tasks. Putting together Ikea furniture is one of the site's most popular listings. How much does it pay? An average of $42 per project. (If you've ever spent an entire evening trying to put together an Ikea dresser, you might consider that an incredible deal.)

Then there's Fiverr, a platform where people can post jobs and services starting at $5. Here's a sample: "I will draw your ideas in a cartoon style for $5," and, "I will design a professional business card for $5."

Translation site Rev.com offers low-cost translation services by farming out projects to freelancers, with fees ranging from $1 per minute for audio transcription to 12 cents per word for business document translation.

Welcome to the micro-gig.

The Atomization of Work
This goes beyond straightforward freelancing. Micro-gigs mean people are breaking up their day into little units, creating hyper efficiency for employers, who are paying only for a specific task.

There's never been a better time to launch a startup: You can buy a ready-made web platform and buy your workers in two-hour increments, if that's what you need.

There's no question that these sites provide valuable services. They're convenient to use and help solve everyday problems. Customers are excited.

As a worker, these sites make it easy to pick up little jobs -- you're limited only by the time and effort you want to put in to divvying up your day.

But if this is the direction our workforce is headed, we need to realize that micro-gigging leaves people incredibly vulnerable.

Work is being stripped down to the bone. It's as if we're eliminating the "extraneous" parts of a worker's day--like lunch or bathroom breaks--and paying only for the minutes someone is actually in front of the computer or engaged in a task.

If you get sick, you could be missing out on seven jobs, not just one or two. And forget about personal days or holidays. Billing and tax preparation get much more complicated with dozens of invoices per month. Financial planning becomes untenable. And with such small-scale jobs, an employer's obligation is less enforceable. No one's going to court over a $42 unpaid fee.

As we rush forward into this hyper-efficient economy, we're actually sliding back to certain aspects of the 19th century, where workers had few rights and no protections.

Back then, it was common practice to have 12- and 14-hour days, no lunch breaks, no sick days, no disability insurance, and no recourse if an employer reneged on pay. In short, no safety net.

In the micro-gig economy, there might be fewer abusive managers, better working conditions, and more autonomy than turn-of-the-century industrial workers suffered through. But the micro-gig economy also represents a U-Turn in labor, where many people are once again working without a net --and taking on a level of risk not seen in more than 100 years.

Companies like TaskRabbit and others in its peer group have done a great job creating this new economy. Now, who's going to support the people who work in it?

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Sara Horowitz is the founder of Freelancers Union, a nonprofit organization representing the interests and concerns of the independent workforce.

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