Consider the mighty smartphone. For the app-happy consumer, it’s a convenience machine, a wand for conjuring food, a ride, maybe a carpenter to handle a home-improvement chore. On the other side of the equation, where The Gig Is Up shines an urgently needed light, that device is a heartless and ever-present boss, an algorithm monitoring speed of performance and customer ratings, and given to slashing wages or even “deactivating” workers — chilling tech-speak for “firing” — without warning or discussion. “Like you’re nothing,” one delivery rider says.
Subtitled A Very Human Tech Doc, Shannon Walsh’s gut punch of a film spends eye-opening time with the workers who keep digital-age capitalism churning — the taken-for-granted ride-share drivers and delivery riders and the unseen thousands who fine-tune the AI of internet sites and search engines. The filmmaker travels to California, Florida, France, China and Nigeria to hear their stories, revealing unglamorous realities that tech giants would certainly rather keep hidden. Whether the gigs are for Uber, Lyft, Deliveroo, TaskRabbit or Amazon, the workers have a lot in common, from the constant scrabble for low-paying chores to the lack of labor protections.
There’s also the utopian ideal that draws many people to such work in the first place, the concept that earnings are based on work produced, not on education, upbringing, demographic profile or personality. The gleam of independence from the confines and politics of an office is a lure too. For what one observer calls “people with no access to formal employment” — undocumented migrants, people with felony records — task-based jobs can be lifelines. But whether they come to the work by choice or in desperation, many of these so-called independent contractors increasingly feel exploited and disrespected, and The Gig Is Up offers a harrowing collective portrait of their day-to-day struggles.
Some of them have become frontline activists in the fight for legal recognition as employees, and the way they’ve channeled their outrage into organized action lends the film whatever hope it can muster, hard-won and still very much embattled. Stepping back for a broader take, authors (Mary L. Gray, Ghost Work; Nick Srnicek, Platform Capitalism) and entrepreneurs (LeadGenius founder Prayag Narula) deliver incisive observations, underscoring just how dire the situation is. As Narula puts it, unless companies move quickly to adopt a more conscious approach to the global gig economy, one that treats workers with respect and care rather than as dispensable parts, “the Middle Ages will look like paradise.”
As most anyone in the bottom 99 percent could tell you, little about 21st century capitalism adds up, and here’s further evidence. Spending big on everything, seemingly, except their gig workers’ wages, the giant outfits offering platform-based services aren’t technically making money. That’s because they charge customers less than the cost of their services, in what Derek Thompson, of The Atlantic, calls “the millennial lifestyle subsidy.”
Sidiki, a delivery rider in France, describes how, during a fall from his bike, he thinks first of the food, because a spilled drink can mean a livelihood-threatening complaint from the customer. Another rider in France, Leila Ouadah, is galvanized by the on-the-job accident of a colleague who’s seriously injured. “We don’t teleport,” she says with passionate intensity, disgusted by the uncaring attitudes of customers and employers alike. “We’re not genies.”
There’s no facet of this global economic picture that isn’t distressing, but perhaps the most revelatory aspect of the film is its focus on “ghost work,” a subculture of people around the world who handle the pieces of AI that require a human touch. They tag images, clean data, transcribe audio, fill out surveys. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (named after a chess machine that was secretly controlled by a person) was the first platform for such small online jobs and is still seemingly the largest, with 500,000 workers (according to the company) doing “invisible” online tasks, some of which pay only a few pennies.
“I just made 10 cents,” AI gig worker Mitchell Amewieye, a Lagos resident, tells the filmmaker after the camera captures him answering three questions about a dating-site photo. The median hourly wage for an M-Turker is two dollars, and all workers outside the United States and India are paid in Amazon gift cards.
One of the central figures in the film is Jason Edwards, a Floridian with a mouth full of gold teeth and a rap sheet, two strikes against him in the world of regular employment. Having mastered the ins and outs of some of the more lucrative AI gigs, he keeps himself and his mother, whose chief staples are cigarettes and lotto scratchers, housed and fed in their modest home. There’s a comic element to these characters’ give-and-take, especially when Deborah interrupts her son’s interviews for the film, but also something sweet and heartbreaking in Edwards’ self-awareness.
Walsh captures all her gig-worker subjects with a bracing, kinetic immediacy, and their testimony, whether in submitted phone-video snippets or lengthier filmed portraits, is shot through with a wrenching sadness. There’s a weariness in their eyes, in their voices, their financial anxieties compounded by the stress of being rated entities, like products.
David Chalmin’s excellent score subtly taps into this undertow of emotion. With a spirited collective energy, a closing-credits song ends the hard-hitting chronicle on one of its brightest notes, the other being the crooning and thousand-watt smile of Ali, an undocumented migrant from Algeria riding a delivery bike in France.
The pandemic has brought into sharp relief the ways that essential workers are underappreciated and underpaid, and The Gig Is Up makes brutally clear that we’re in a state of emergency on this front. The corporations that are reshaping the economy have demonstrated that, without being legally required to take care of their gig workers, they won’t. Where does it stop? As one Bay Area Uber driver asks, is any industry safe from being Uber-ized?
Production companies: Intuitive Pictures, Point du Jour, Arte France, Archer Gray, Evoke Media, Rogers Group of Friends, Telefilm Canada
Director: Shannon Walsh
Screenwriters: Shannon Walsh, Harold Crooks, Julien Goetz
Producers: Ina Fichman, Luc Martin-Gousset
Director of photography: Étienne Roussy
Editor: Sophie Farkas-Bolla
Music: David Chalmin
In English, French and Mandarin