by Colin Hynson
Uber and Airbnb, the two poster–children of the ‘sharing economy’, have found themselves in the public spotlight for several months. One reason for this is their rapid growth. Uber, an on–demand taxi service, is now operating in 290 cities worldwide, over one million Uber trips are taken daily and the number of new drivers registering with Uber is growing by 50,000 a month. Airbnb, the room–rental service, now has vacancies in over 190 countries and has been used over 35 million times since it started in 2008.
This growth has led to both companies being described as ‘disruptive’. They have come in and shaken up taxi and hotel businesses across the globe. This has led to a backlash. In London and Paris taxi drivers have held rallies protesting that their livelihoods are being threatened. There are also legal challenges as cities from Delhi to Montreal and Brussels have clamped down on both companies.
Critics of Uber and Airbnb accuse them of bypassing industry rules and regulations that have been put into place to protect both the producer and consumer. Hotels and bed and breakfasts have to comply with all sorts of health and safety, fire, and food safety rules, which those registered with Airbnb can simply ignore. Taxi drivers have to be registered before they can ply their trade and have to pay all sorts of extras such as for additional insurance that Uber drivers do not do.
160,000 people drive for Uber but the number employed by them is zero
Those who rely on Uber and Airbnb for their living also find themselves not doing very well. Many of them are part of what is called the ‘Precariat’. These are people who rely on short–term, zero–hours work and have found themselves forced to become self–employed. 160,000 people drive for Uber but the number employed by them is zero. They enjoy none of the benefits of employment such as sick or parental leave, holiday entitlements or a workplace pension. Robert Reich, who was an economic advisor to President Clinton and a well–known critic of the “sharing economy”, calls this “sharing the scraps”.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Neither Uber nor Airbnb are going to disappear any time soon so it is up to all of us to ensure that both those who work under their banner and those who use them are properly protected. There are other parts of the ‘sharing economy’ that do not seek to maximise profits, to exploit workers or to ignore much–needed customer protection. Instead they are concerned with creating community, sharing resources and enabling people to share what they already have. These bits of the ‘sharing economy’ are also growing fast although not as fast as Uber or Airbnb and a lot of that growth has happened under the radar.
Not one penny of cash changes hands.
In Norwich for instance I volunteer with an outfit called Trade School Norwich. It operates on the simple basis of learning through barter. People propose a course and tell us what things they would like in exchange for teaching the class. The class is then put up on the Trade School Norwich website. People who want to do the course can book a place through the website and also specify which bartered item they will bring along. Not one penny of cash changes hands. As an example, we ran a short introduction to napkin folding (so you can impress your friends and family the next time they come around for dinner). The teacher asked for clothes for an 11 year old boy, coat hangers, empty jam jars (with lids), homemade cakes and biscuits or favourite vegetarian/vegan recipes.
Trade School Norwich encourages prospective teachers to ask for bartered items that do not have to be bought new but can be found in most peoples’ homes, is home–made, or can be bought cheaply from a local charity shop. Several teachers and students have said that the principle of barter made the relationship between everybody in the class more relaxed and less hierarchical. One of the organisers of Trade School in London put it well when she said:
“The beauty of Trade School is that bartering for knowledge allows us to depart from the rapid, impersonal nature of exchange that has become so commonplace amidst our cities. Every single Trade School class is in fact dependent on the relationships encountered during the act of exchange.”
It would be great to see Trade School Norwich be a small part of a wider movement to make Norwich into a sharing city. ‘Sharing cities’ have already sprung up in places such as Berlin, Amsterdam and Seoul. City authorities have encouraged the creation of car sharing schemes, created tool and kitchen appliance libraries, and set up food and clothing swapping events. They also offered city facilities for sharing organisations to use free of charge.
This kind of ‘sharing economy’ is small–scale, much more responsive to local needs and is owned and controlled by both producers and consumers. It can also help to strengthen a sense of community and connectedness between people as goods and skills are exchanged across the city. The seeds are already there. We just need to provide the right environment for them to grow and benefit the people of this city.