For good or bad, there is no question that the sharing economy has arrived.
It's expected to reach global revenues of $335-billion in just 10 years, from its current $15-billion, according to some estimates. And some experts say that by 2020, more than 40 per cent of the American work force will be freelancers, contractors or temporary workers.
More and more, the question has turned to just how governments can regulate businesses built on the sharing framework.
"It's now about what fundamentals we can put into place for this rapidly growing sector of the economy, and the appropriate role for the government to play," said Karl Baldauf, vice-president of policy and government relations at the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, which released a report on Tuesday focused on how to regulate the sector.
In the report, the chamber highlighted some of the challenges to consumer safety and security, new forms of employment under the sharing economy and regulatory protection of industries threatened by unconventional new entrants.
These are all concerns that have increasingly gained attention over the past few years. Lack of regulation could mean substandard service and missing protection for customers. Health and safety protocols could be undermined by free-for-all platforms for sales and exchanges, putting users at risk. Economists increasingly lament the declining quality of employment, which less and less follows traditional trajectories. The report also drew attention to the problems of tax compliance and workplace legislation.
"A lot of the sharing economy is surfacing activities that have previously been in the underground economy and putting them in a different light," said Sunil Johal, policy director at the Mowat Centre, a public-policy think tank based in Toronto. "How do you define economic activity? A lot of this stuff 20 years ago would have been a cash transaction under the table, but the sharing economy has increased the scale to a level where governments can't turn away, and things that used to be hobbies are now businesses."
The sharing economy complicates business transactions in terms of how they are taxed and who is responsible for compliance, he noted.
"The sharing economy makes it easier for people to generate income in ways they are unfamiliar with," Mr. Baldauf said, "and people need to be educated on how they can report that income."
The sense of urgency for policies to better regulate the sharing economy is also a reflection that these enterprises are a growing part of the overall economy.
For example, Toronto startup AskforTask, an online platform that allows individuals to sign up to do chores and other daily errands, has been seeing a 40-per-cent, month-over-month increase in "tasker" sign-up at a time when Canada is said to be in a mild recession. The platform saw a remarkable 800-per-cent increase in sign-up after Target Canada closed all its stores early this year. "Calgary used to be No. 5 for most active cities, but it moved to No. 2 in an eight-month span," said Muneeb Mushtaq, founder of the company.
Some of the taskers on the site may simply be students looking to earn extra cash, much as they would babysitting for neighbours, while others are laid-off workers looking for other means of main income. The fact that the site's sign-up can so closely track current economic circumstances shows just how integrated the sharing and regular economies have become.
"This is a high time for the gig economy and the sharing economy as a whole, and what we've seen is that Canadians have embraced this culture," Mr. Mushtaq said.