Among the game-changing innovations that happened in the last 50 years, the internet could be considered as having the most profound impact on society today. From humble beginnings in the 1980s, it has turned our existence upside down today. In almost everything we do, we use the internet. It has also become a platform for more technological advances that we are seeing today. Ordering breakfast, buying a bestseller book, sharing a moment with a friend, sending a picture over instant messaging, and paying bills are just some of the things that we do over the internet. More interesting is the way it has changed the way we look at work today.
Work as we know it, used to be an arrangement to produce value for an employer in exchange for an agreed compensation and benefits until the arrangement is terminated due to reasons made clear at the start of the relationship. The employee is supposed to work for a prescribed amount of time, work schedule, and in a place provided by the employer.
That concept is slowly changing and, probably, even accelerated by the current pandemic where workers were forced to work from home because of the lockdowns.The internet and new technologies are allowing us to work anywhere, anytime, and in a way where everything can be done through applications running on internet-connected devices. For the first time in history, these technologies now allow us to have the economic benefits of large organizations, like economies of scale and knowledge, without giving up the human values of freedom, creativity, motivation, and flexibility. In fact, the internet has spawned the birth of a recent phenomenon, the online gig economy.
Cambridge defines the gig economy as a way of working that is based on people having temporary jobs or doing separate pieces of work, each paid separately, rather than working for an employer. It is also about exchanging labor for money between the service providers and clients through digital platforms that directly connect suppliers and customers on a short-term basis and are pay-as-you-go.
Examples would be the work done by online freelancers usually for foreign project principals or owners. Sample projects are web design, photography, graphic design, and copywriting. The work is usually done from home or in any place where an adequate internet connection is available. Another example of gig work could be those of workers providing services as drivers and couriers for platforms like Grab, Angkas, Lalamove, Lazada, and Shopee. Most of these workers are providing their services as independent contractors and manage themselves in the same way as micro-businessmen do.
The gig economy, as an employment model, provides its workers more flexibility. They no longer have to rely on classic 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. work to provide for themselves.Instead, they can embrace a more creative and efficient work life by taking on short-term work at will or need. Female workers do not need to find a house helper to take care of their children for them to work. Work-life balance is certainly much easier to achieve with gig work.
But gig work is perceived to be creating issues that are emerging in the open. Of course, as the gig economy expands and more players operating on the same model are bubbling up, the challenge for regulators and legislators is to balance innovations that create jobs and the need to ensure that companies always provide their gig workers a fair deal. Government studies in UK show that independence and flexibility are what gig workers are often satisfied with.
The question today is; how should new innovations like gig work and digital platforms be regulated? Can regulators use the current processes and policies to regulate them? In a previous column, I highlighted what the former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once said: “We face the task of understanding and governing 21st-century technologies with a 20th-century mindset and 19th-century institutions.
Institutional change is therefore critical to overcoming these challenges. But so is a mindset adapted to the 21st-century challenges we face.” This is where everyone can learn from what the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas has done. They have institutionalized the concept of a regulatory sandbox for new technologies like bitcoin and are closely collaborating with the players in the development of guidelines and policies.
How do we ensure that the gig economy in the country is inclusive and benefits every Filipino? Providing decent internet connectivity in every corner of the archipelago is part of the solution. The other is making everyone aware of the opportunities presented by gig work and ensuring that we have an adequate supply of skilled and English-speaking Filipino workers. That is where a government-led upskilling program can be put to good use.
The nature of work is changing and everyone, including the regulators, should work together to position the Philippines to get a bigger share of the opportunities this change presents.
(The author is the lead convenor of the Alliance for Technology Innovators for the Nation (ATIN), vice president of the Analytics Association of the Philippines, and vice president, UP System Information Technology Foundation.)