Sharing a short academic piece concerning genetically modified foods. MLA style not consistently followed for blog.
Job insecurity particularly sparks my interest because of my work for the Oregon State Employment Department (20-years working for the state between two agencies). What many people don’t understand is the sheer number of ways that many employers are able to creatively exploit the worker in today’s workplace. We are all familiar with refusing to pay the employee, but that’s arguably less common an issue today than what are called misclassified workers. These are members of the “Gig Economy,” and they are endeavoring to simply survive as independent contractors. Here is how J.B. Wogan introduces the reader to the topic within a recent article from Governing Magazine.
Every year, millions of American workers enter a gray zone between unemployment and a traditional, stable 9-to-5 job. Wingham Rowan calls them “irregular workers.” In a recent report for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Rowan defined irregulars as those who work outside the home with no contractual expectation of regular hours or income. “This is still an under-the-radar issue,” he says. “It’s not reflected in the official data, but indicator after indicator says [more] people are beginning to work irregularly.” (Wogan)
A correctly identified independent contractor is someone who owns an independent and established business. That should restrict independent contractors to a fairly small number, but unfortunately many opportunities for a paycheck hinge on workers “declaring” themselves independent contractors. Besides losing out on wage and hour as well as health and safety protections, these misclassified workers are in for an unpleasant surprise when they file their Personal Income Tax Return. Many fail to understand the hefty tax implications of working incorrectly as an independent contractor. (While the legal burden rests on the employer to correctly identify and report his payroll, the misclassified worker is typically left holding the bag with regards to taxes.) In applying the unique perspective of Marxist thinking upon the topic at hand, it is my aim to broaden and deepen the readers’ understanding of the misclassified worker issue.
While I am about as far from being a Marxist as one could possibly be, I acknowledge that the issue of the misclassified worker within the Gig Economy is critically important to understand clearly. I would suggest that this has much to do with the fact that our rapid technological advancements have exceeded the speed of regulative safeguards as well as education regarding questions like the central differences between an employee and an independent contractor. When people fail to understand the subtleties, they are more easily tricked and misled into surrendering their rights. In one related sense, I would argue that our economic system at times makes it very expensive to remain poor. Without making too great a digression, I would point out the critical importance of a substantive education, balanced diet, health insurance and medical access including preventative care, etc. If most of these categories are not met in some basic way, then the person may be at greater risk of exploitation within today’s job market. In a similar vein, Karl Marx offers the following.
But does wage labor create any property for the laborer? Not a bit. It creates capital, i.e., that kind of property which exploits wage-labor, and which cannot increase except upon condition of begetting a new supply of wage-labor for fresh exploitation. Property, in its present form, is based on the antagonism of capital and wage labor. Let us examine both sides of this antagonism. (Marx, 14)
The class dimension of this examination is important, because frequently once one becomes a misclassified worker, it seems to become more difficult than one might expect to re-enter the regular workforce.
There is a sense in which the suffering of the poor is so great, and their sophistication with regards to issues of employment perhaps less developed due to a lack of education, that they are more easily exploited and misled. (In a few cases of my own state investigations, the misclassified worker appears to have a cognitive disability and doesn’t even seem to understand what it means to be in business for one’s self.) People like this are working in a form of servitude, yet they don’t necessarily understand what they are doing wrong. An interesting, yet I would argue misleading, quote from Acts of Resistance: against the Tyranny of the Market follows. “So, it seems to me that what is presented as an economic system governed by the iron laws of a kind of social nature is in reality a political system which can only be set up with the active or passive complicity of the officially political powers.” (Bourdieu, 86) The preceding quote seems to miss the complexities of the current situation, however. Arguably, this really could only refer to employer/employee relationships within our capitalist economy. Yet, according to a 2016 article headline from US News and World Report “1 in 3 Workers Employed in Gig Economy, But Not All by Choice.” (Soergel) I argue, then, that the real and present danger is more likely the rampant misclassification of workers across a broad spectrum of industries.
Where Bourdieu seems to strike at something closer to the truth is within his earlier discussion of worker exploitation.
One thus begins to suspect that insecurity is the product not of an economic inevitability, identified with the much-heralded ‘globalization’, but of a political will. A ‘flexible’ company in a sense deliberately exploits a situation of insecurity which it helps reinforce: it seeks to reduce its costs, but also to make this lowering possible by putting the workers in permanent danger of losing their jobs. (Bourdieu, 84)
This preceding passage highlights the similarities between the Marxist thinking concerning the employee within the economic system of capitalism and the new dilemma of misclassified workers faced today within the Gig Economy. The use of the term “flexible” is particularly well-suited, as this is a term one will frequently find being used in advertisements for this category of work. It seems that many of the Marxist accusations actually ring somewhat true with regards to this new section of our economy.
In one sense, it is all about exercising power over one’s destiny. In liberation theology, for example, we see an intertwining of religious elements—or supposed religious elements—within an activist-centered framework for social justice. The Marxist approach to freeing the individual from the alleged exploitive nature of a capitalistic system is similar, except that it replaces the religious dimension with something akin to the “brotherhood of man,” as Marx calls it in his “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.” (Marx) At the heart of both approaches, however, is an attempt by the worker or citizen to take direct action to bring about a system somehow better suited to the realities of the worker’s life. Of course, in the case of Marxism, the mantle of power and exploitation is simply transferred from the capitalist to the state.
The inherent danger of the job insecurity situation is likely going to get much worse before regulation and enforcement can catch-up to ensure a more level playing field with regards to the job market. Where I differ with regards to the analysis offered by Bourdieu and Marx, however, is that I don’t see the problem with a capitalist system or a Gig Economy, as long as the state and federal authorities are thoroughly empowered to do their jobs with regards to the problem of misclassified workers and employee exploitation. I believe we will reach the goal of worker classification compliance, but that is a goal that will take some time to attain. At its core, the problem of misclassified workers is a spiritual deficit in the hearts of men and women. It is a problem of power and exploitation. While Marxist thinking may make more sense when applied to incorrectly classified workers, its ultimate legacy is perhaps best reflected within this passage from Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
The prisoners were at their coldest and hungriest when they checked in through these gates in the evening, and their bowl of hot and watery soup without any fat was like rain in a drought. They gulped it down. They cared more for their bowlful than freedom, or for their life in years gone by and years to come. They came back through the gates like soldiers from the wars with a lot of noise and cocky as hell. It was best to keep out of their way. (Solzhenitsyn, 131)
We can all begin to combat the problem of an improperly classified workers by understanding the issues better as consumers and ensuring that we vote sensibly with our dollars—doing business with ethical companies. The Gig Economy has great potential for freeing up our lives and increasing flexible options with regards to employment, but at the current moment its risks seem to outweigh its benefits.
Cited and Consulted Sources
Bourdieu, Pierre, and Richard Nice. Acts of Resistance: against the Tyranny of the Market. The
New Press, 2006.
Burgmann, Verity, et al. "Doing without the boss: workers' control experiments in
Australia in the 1970s." Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social
History, no. 103, 2012, p. 103+. Academic OneFile.
McGann, Michael. "Recognition and work in the flexible economy." Journal of
Australian Political Economy, no. 69, 2012, p. 59+. Academic OneFile.
"Independent contractors not so independent." Long Island Business News, 16
Sept. 2015. General OneFile.
Marx, Karl. Manifesto of the Communist Party (p. 14). Public Domain Books.
Marx, Karl. “Third Manuscript.” The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts: 3rd Manuscript,
Soergel, Andrew. “1 In 3 Workers Employed in Gig Economy but Not All by Choice.” US News and World Report, 11 Oct. 2016,
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Translated by Ronald
Hingley and Max Hayward, Bantam Book, 1963.
Wogan, J B. “At Work, the 'Irregulars' Are Starting to Get Protection.” Governing Magazine:
State and Local Government News for America's Leaders, Oct. 2017,