The Gig Is Up Review: The Human Costs of Cheap Labour

The Gig Is Up asks how much we’re willing to pay so that others can enjoy a more equitable lif

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7 mins read

A true eye-opener about the human costs that fuel our everyday conveniences, The Gig Is Up leaves audiences with a tough question. Director Shannon Walsh (Illusions of Control) asks how much we’re willing to pay so that others can enjoy a more equitable life. The question isn’t as simple as weighing the value of money. Cash, or perhaps cyber-currency these days, is obviously part of it, but the film confronts the widening gaps created by the plugged-in, cloud-based conveniences that facilitate much of our daily work and play. The Gig Is Up couldn’t be more timely as the COVID-19 pandemic has many workplaces reconsidering what the “new normal” will be: it raises questions that audiences need to answer not tomorrow, but today.

The Gig Is Up introduces audiences to a handful of people who work the hustle-bustle of the gig economy. In Paris, Leila scurries around the city on her bicycle transporting orders for UberEats and Deliveroo. The pay varies depending on how many kilometres she travels and on how much her customers tip. Perhaps the most outspoken and pragmatic voice in the film, Leila recognizes that few jobs offer her the same opportunity. She also articulates how her gig means that she is always on the go for a job whose hourly wage is a pittance. Moreover, as the worker connected to the app, delivery people like Leila often pay for the customer’s perception of the food. A bad sandwich, cold pizza, or spilled drink could mean a poor rating or shoddy tip even if the delivery itself was quick and efficient. It’s also dangerous work with zero security, as the film effectively shows when one of Leila’s closest friends has an accident. This is a business in which human lives are disposable cogs in a machine.

Other stories, like that of Jason in the USA, illustrate how the gig economy is unavoidable for people who can’t secure work through conventional means. Jason explains how his appearance—golden teeth and gnarly tattoos—often makes a successful interview impossible. He instead breezes through work online, torpedoing through surveys under various guises (a Black Republican offers the best bang for his buck) and securing piecemeal pay through dull, seemingly pointless work. His story is also a fascinating example of how much the design of the gig economy sacrifices accuracy and efficiency. Much of this work seems to exist for no reason other than to make someone else’s life easier.

It’s a global problem, however, as Mitchell in Nigeria struggles with the same monotonous chore, flipping through online accounts to accumulate as little as two dollars—and that’s on a good day. People sometimes don’t even work for money as the film’s glimpse into the machinery of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk reveals a competitive ecosystem where people fulfill odd tasks at odd hours of the day and receive credit towards Amazon dollars. (Cash in the USA or India.) The film observes a cycle of precariousness as workers devote their lives towards accumulating enough work to fuel consumerist impulses. But an Amazon gift card doesn’t pay the rent.

Walsh also observes the sacrifices that people make as they find themselves consumed by the false promises of easy money. Annette in California explains her story as she wheels around the city as a driver for Uber and Lyft. She explains how she quit her job because driving delivered more money. However, as the rides continue, she shares the business model that makes her work lucrative for Uber and bad for her, as payment ratios change erratically, car repairs rack up, and, as with Leila, non-existent job security depends on a stranger’s ability to rate her personal worth on a scale of one to five. Annette breaks down and sobs during one interview and The Gig Is Up observes the incalculable toll of the 24/7 hustle. It’s one of the film’s most telling moments. Walsh can’t do much else besides allow the camera to roll and capture Annette’s burden. Annette, like many of the film’s other subjects, is caught in a cycle she can’t escape.

The Gig Is Up inevitably culminates with a final act that sees the workers’ lives overturned by the COVID-19 pandemic. Livelihoods flat-line and cash-strapped workers find themselves without any security as independent contractors. The workers assemble and some try to unionize, but the film makes it clear that Uber et al will just pass the buck to consumers. Walsh doesn’t offer an answer and instead puts a face on the human costs of cheap labour, which leaves it up to the viewer to decide where their values reside.

Drawing upon a mix of talking heads interviews, the film intellectualises the greater capitalism versus socialism factors that need to be weighed. These perspectives add much to the conversation, but the everyday people—Leila, Jason, Annette, and others—fuel the story. Just watch as they work furiously throughout their interviews. Walsh’s film conveys to viewers what it’s like to be always on the go. There is no down time for these ghost workers: even when they’re invited to share their stories with the world, they’re hustling to the next gig.

The Gig Is Up screens at Hot Docs 2021 and DOXA 2021.

Read more about the film in our interview with Shannon Walsh.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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