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Spirituality to Rebuild the Gig Economy

By Eric Clayton

I was not the only one making a last-minute curbside pickup for Mother’s Day brunch.

No one was happy. But as I neared the front of the line — more of a mob at this point — one woman’s unhappiness stood out.

She, like others, had been waiting for more than an hour. She, like others, had been told by the online ordering system that her food would be ready long ago. But she, unlike others, was not simply transporting food from the makeshift takeout window to her mother’s brunch table.

She — a driver for Uber Eats — was getting food for someone else’s mother.

And she was loudly — and understandably — lamenting the loss of her 5-star review. Her five-minute window for pickup was long gone.

Then, an unexpected plot twist: A young couple cut to the front of the line with a wave of beneficence and a smile.

As it turned out, this couple was to be on the receiving end of the Uber Eats driver’s delivery. Living a few blocks away, they decided to investigate the source of their food’s delay. In a testy back and forth with the restaurant, they managed to cancel their order, setting the driver free.

But what couldn’t be sorted out was any backlash the driver may receive from Uber Eats itself: damages to her score, negative reviews for future deliveries and potential reprimanding.

“You’ll have to take that up with Uber,” the restaurant manager sighed. The couple shrugged, their attempted kindness apparently not theirs to give.

And the driver still stood at the window because she was now waiting for a second order.

Time and again, Pope Francis warns of a throwaway culture. He worries over a society that casts aside the sanctity of human life in favor of convenience, power and wealth.

By this point in the pandemic, it is clear that we cannot simply reopen our communities; we must rebuild them. And Catholic social teaching orients that rebuilding around how we relate to one another within society. A just society is built upon right relationships, a recognition of and respect for the fact that every human person manifests God’s image and likeness.

That respect plays out through our rights and corresponding responsibilities within society. As St. John XXIII writes in Pacem in terris: “Every basic human right draws its authoritative force from the natural law, which confers it and attaches to it its respective duty. Hence, to claim one's rights and ignore one's duties, or only half fulfill them, is like building a house with one hand and tearing it down with the other.”

And, of course, central to our Gospel responsibilities, as Pope Francis reminds us, is to pay particular attention to “the cries of the earth, the cries of the poor.”

The gig economy will undoubtedly play an important role in the rebuilding of our global economy. And we, as consumers, play a vital part in that gig economy.

What rights and responsibilities do we each have within the gig economy? And how can we ensure that its rebuilding reflects “the cries of the earth, the cries of the poor”?

It’s true that the gig economy gives many people a foothold in an economic system riddled with injustice who otherwise would be left out entirely. But it’s also true that this current moment has reminded us in stark terms that these supposedly “self-employed” gig workers struggle without recourse to the safety nets available to those in the more “traditional” economy.

As in so many things in life, the good and the bad become entangled. We run the risk of mistaking one for the other. But St. Ignatius, in his reflection on the Two Standards, gives us a roadmap.

We meditate on Christ’s Standard (think of a banner one might carry into a medieval battle) and the values that it represents: humility, rejection and poverty. And we draw a distinction between Christ’s standard and that of the Enemy: wealth, power and pride.

So, how do these standards help us navigate the gig economy? We might ask ourselves:

Does my sense of self-importance factor into whether or not I am hiring a gig economy worker? Do I consider myself more valuable than others and thus justified in putting other lives at risk?

Does a recognition of my own limitations factor into whether or not I am hiring a gig economy worker? Do I stay at home to keep others safe? 

For me, that lone Uber Eats driver shaking her fist in defeat with no recourse to Uber, to the restaurant or to the customer stays with me as a haunting reminder of where the Standard of the Enemy might carry the gig economy if our rebuilding results in a fractured society.

But the image of that young couple walking away, shrugging off a moment of inconvenience, haunts me too. Because there is little sharing going on in this supposed sharing economy. Rather, it symbolizes the temptation that lies in each of us to cry out: “Am I my brother’s or my sister’s keeper?”

Eric Clayton is the Senior Communications Manager for Ignatian Spirituality and Vocation Promotion at the Jesuit Conference. He is an adjunct professor of Mass Communication at Towson University, and has worked with numerous faith-based organizations, including Catholic Relief Services, Maryknoll Lay Missioners and the Sisters of Bon Secours.

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