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the future of work

Work how you want, when you want and for whom you want.

Sounds like employment paradise – and the rise of the on-demand work force, seems to suggest that this vision can be turned into reality.

It's a vision that's top of mind for many in Toronto this week, as hundreds of taxi drivers demonstrated against Uber, the ride-sharing service that allows crowd-sourced drivers to ferry around passengers, often at cheaper rates than licensed taxis.

While Uber is a prime example of an on-demand work force – where workers are matched with employers for the duration of a project – it's just the tip of the iceberg when discussing the benefits and perils of such a labour market. We are entering an era in which will see the Uberfication of everything, and while the sharing economy brings tremendous value to cost-conscious companies and can provide employees flexibility and extra cash, it comes with inherent risks that ethical companies will need to manage.

A few months ago, a New York Magazine piece detailed how several house cleaners provided by San Francisco startup Homejoy were homeless themselves, despite the fact that the company raised $40-million in venture capital.

These stories will surface closer to home, too. In Ontario, 41 per cent of work is now conducted outside of the traditional scenario, where an employee works full time for a single employer, according to a recent survey. Those involved in such precarious employment – where workers patch together several part-time positions – are typically paid lower wages and have few opportunities for growth, according to a recent OECD report that observed that non-standard work is rarely a stepping stone to a better job.

So, who are these new on-demand workers who source roles from mobile technology platforms, and why do they do it? According to a recent U.S. survey, they are predominantly white, male and between the ages of 18 and 34. They are educated, with almost 30 per cent possessing a college degree. Their motives primarily are making money and controlling their schedule but their inability to make enough remains their most pressing issue, according to a Rutgers study.

The concept of flexibility in these roles is also misguided, according to Kristy Milland, who spent more than nine years as a Toronto-based on-demand worker for Amazon's Mechanical Turk, a platform that crowdsources human labour for tasks that computers can't do as well.

Ms. Milland, who wrote articles and product descriptions, transcribed audio and video files, handled translations, graphic design, Web design, market research, database creation, programming, and other projects, said that work opportunities are posted sporadically and pay below an acceptable rate. Full-time "Turkers," explained Ms. Milland, are chained to their computers at all times of the day just to be able to make enough to get by, and often accept lower compensation to pay their bills.

Ms. Milland made "Turking" her primary job in 2010 when her husband lost his full-time role at a Fortune 500 company. She earned about $50,000 a year, sometimes working 17 hours at a stretch, seven days a week, and taking full weeks off when she generated enough income. She never worked for less than $20 an hour and often took weekends off but usually spent the rest of the day at her computer in case work appeared.

While she lauds the benefits of working when you want, the risk for exploitation quickly surfaces. The company assigning the project can reject your work, forcing you to go without pay – and with no recourse. Amazon can also suspend you without reason and there is no way to appeal, she said. You cannot move up the platform or create lasting relationships with those requesting the work, to open the door to better opportunities.

"Generally, it's a stagnant job where your income ebbs and flows based on what work happens to have been posted," Ms. Milland said.

"We are sold as 'artificial' artificial intelligence, not live humans with skills and intelligence, and that hurts our chance of ever being respected as a talented, high-quality work force deserving of respect," she added.

Until now, new and disruptive companies have fuelled the sharing economy but traditional companies will start to join, said Alexander Shashou, president and co-founder of Alice, a New York-based technology platform that enables services-on-demand for the hospitality industry.

"The business of bringing customers what they want when they want it is no longer reserved just for premium services, but increasingly expected of economy brands as well," Mr. Shashou said.

While there may be no way to put this on-demand work force genie back in its bottle, as the practice becomes more popular and ingrained, the workers' experience needs to be taken into account. As an entrepreneur, I've benefited from working with contractors I've found on Upwork, paying industry standard wages and often speaking on the phone or even in person.

Increasingly devaluing work done by humans helps some companies in the short term, but none of us in the long term, and without taking precautions, we run the risk of racing to the bottom.

Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a machine-learning, human capital search engine for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler

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