New Job Hunting Apps: Tools For The Modern Sweat Shop?

GigwalkBob Bahramipour, CEO of Gigwalk
Looking for a job or some fast income on the side? You might be thinking of trying these new apps for job hunters. Sites like Gigwalk, Taskrabbit, oDesk and others sound appealing for both workers and employers. Unlike a Craigslist or other online classified listings, these apps (which are also sites) enable workers to connect with potential employers without filling in one long application after another (you just register once). Employers can get extra freelance help that they need without having to look for a full-time employee. Workers can even pick up gigs that match their schedule and location so they pick up extra cash exactly when and where they want it.

Given the big jump in temp and freelance work, these sites sound like they could be a bonanza for workers, as well as employers. But they come with lots of caveats (and catches) for workers, so much so we actually started to wonder if they're just enabling the modern sweat shops -- places where workers labor long hours, for little pay, no benefits and no security.

Low, low wages
Tasks for Gigwalk typically pay between $10 and $15, with wages running around $20 to $25 an hour "depending on how efficient the Gigwalker is and how good they get at the gig," CEO Bob Bahramipour told AOL Jobs. He says 60 percent of his site's users are using it "opportunistically." Some are in a "life transition" -- in between jobs, he says. Others have professional skills and are bringing in extra cash. The "average person is probably making between $200 and $300 a month," he admits.

Wasted time
Even simple jobs can take up a lot of time, he acknowledges. Fail to manage time and you could end up working for peanuts.

"A very simple job might pay $20: Go to a Wal-Mart and help set up a display. If [the worker is] brand new to [Gigwalk], we'll sometimes hear, 'I drove 3 hours to a Wal-Mart to do the job and I made $20 and it took half an hour, so I made $40 an hour but I don't know if it was worth it. Is it worth it for me to do this?' If I'm going to that Wal-Mart to shop anyway, then it's really worth it."

Efficiency is crucial.
For example, someone in Philadelphia posted on TaskRabbit for help to move about 15 boxes around the block." The poster also wrote that "[h]aving a car or dolly would help."

When things get really time-consuming
The site's estimate of what the job would pay was between $17 and $23. That might seem like a no-brainer until you realize that you don't know how heavy the boxes are or whether the task requires bringing them up or down stairs, which could make the task more difficult and longer. And then there is the potential of travel time and expenses.

Jobs can also get unexpectedly sticky. The person who took on the box moving task, Mohamed R., apparently had taken a task to deliver flowers from a Whole Foods to some destination. The estimated price: $25 to $35.

Good enough, except something apparently went wrong. Here was the 5-star feedback from the person who hired him:

Sorry about the address mix up! Thank you for being diligent and working hard to get in touch with me and find the right place. I would gladly work with you again.

A simple delivery can turn into a time sink without any promise of the fee increasing as a result.

How much the top earn
It is apparently possible to work the system and string together tasks to make a decent income. "That [top] 10 percent has figured it out," says Bahramipour. "They know the times, numbers, and job tradeoffs." They're running a business that leverages the job platforms. For the top users at Gigwalker, that can mean a gross income of up to $5,000 a month.

And yet, the money ultimately isn't as good as it might sound. Putting together a string of tasks is a business, not a job, and as such has many financial implications. Expenses -- whether transportation, necessary tools and materials, and bookkeeping, to name a few -- come off the top. Then you pay taxes, including 15 percent self-employment tax. And you are the one who pays for healthcare and other benefits. Vacation and sick days are periods without income.

The modern sweatshop?
People depending on the temp and freelance job markets for a majority of their income, and not a helpful supplement, can run from one task to the next without benefits or promise of work. In an email, Bahramipour emphasized that workers get control of how and when they work and what they do. He said that they can more easily generate additional income without having to hold back-to-back traditional jobs.

Bahramipour claimed that with the "control, freedom and easy opportunity to add income streams," people had greater satisfaction with work that they disliked when it was full-time, and he also claimed that business can "execute new types of work and jobs that would never have been possible otherwise." He cited Bing (owned by computer industry giant Microsoft) as an example, hiring 2,000 people to get information on 100,000 businesses.

New name, old sound
Perhaps. And yet, it still all sounds like temp work where the power and control is actually in the hands of corporations, which set the pay and requirements and have no obligations to people past a given task. Rather than create new jobs, it makes it possible to get tasks done with fewer employees, with the company being even more opportunistic than the workers.

Bahramipour proudly said that his "workers are on pace to collectively be earning nearly $5 million over the next year -- most of this is 'new' money that would have been spent by corporations." But as his PR firm noted that Gigwalk had "nearly 300,000 workers on their platform," that would work out to roughly $17 each.

To make the $200 to $300 a month average that Bahramipour had mentioned, that would mean the average workforce was roughly between 1400 and 2100. Clearly a lot of users either haven't tried the system they registered on, certainly a possibility, or have found that the freedom, control, and easy opportunity weren't quite so compelling.
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