Will the on-demand economy lead to skewed availability of essential services?


a little bit ofOn- demand economy businesses (like say über, Elance, etc) do the great thing of connecting idle resources with those who need them, whenever they need them and all of this at a reduced or nil search cost.  So, on-demand economy platforms/marketplaces enable better utilisation of resources and improve overall efficiencies.

While most people normally prize certainty of income more than “freedom” from fixed long-term contract, there are some who do not want to be tied up in a fixed long-term contract. They prefer to take up a short-term engagement to provide their services as per the opportunity given to them by the on-demand business platform and continue to earn without having to bother getting the fixed long-term contract. Unfortunately, such elite groups are few in this planet and are usually comprised of people whose basic needs are already met from some other source. Such people stand to gain from the on-demand economy as well.

This means that the on-demand business model essentially leverages the marginal cost concept to make service available on a marginal cost basis instead of the marginal plus fixed cost that a user would typically incur when taking services from a service provider organisation that employs people under long term  contracts to provide the services. So, not  unusually, the services provided by on-demand service providers is often cheaper.

However, the benefit of the on-demand economy is when an “idle” resource is utilized. Meaning that, somebody who is otherwise employed with a full time employer (an employer that pays for his employee benefits and social security) is interested in offering his services in his free time to earn additional money to support his needs. The additional earning is expected to satisfy only incremental needs because basic needs and social security are already taken care of by the full time employer. Hence, he is able to offer his services at a cheaper cost than what his normal hourly rate would be with his employer.

Now, if this on-demand business platform works efficiently, his employer, who is currently paying for his social security as well as his marginal cost of services, might wonder if they should cut costs and take the services of somebody from the on demand business platform at a lower cost where the employer will just be paying for the services and not be paying for the social security.

Imagine a world where all employers or all people who need services think that  on-demand is cheaper and more efficient and hence they should all go the on demand way for all types of services.

Two situations can arise because of everybody moving to on-demand service platforms for getting things done:

Situation 1: Since there is nobody to pay their social security, the on-demand service providers will hike their charges per service to meet their social security needs and since they are now not sure of getting the next order/request for service, they will charge an additional premium to safeguard themselves. Which means the cost of each service will go up and the people who were earlier able to afford the on-demand service because it was cheap are now unable to get the service. Moreover since, everybody has moved on to provide on-demand service, there is nobody who can provide service even at the earlier affordable cost provided by the full time employers. Only the rich few can now afford a service which was affordable to many.

Situation 2: The competition keeps on increasing and on-demand service providers are unable to hike their charges because there is always more people ready to offer their services than there is demand. Hence, nobody pays for their social security.

Both situations are extreme and dangerous. But, both situations are possible in pockets depending upon local market conditions. The world is not perfect, it has a knack of amplifying the negatives in any good thing and so it will amplify the negatives in the on-demand model as well. Till we have a perfect world (!), we need to take caution to avoid the situations mentioned above but let us not stop walking. We need to appreciate the shortcomings of on-demand from the perspective of a more balanced world and take appropriate measures. Is the Govt listening?

On-demand economy businesses is great thing but we must find a way to avoid a situation where the entire world/ or a majority shifts to on-demand ways. We will then have a world full of informally employed where income is never guaranteed but is highly variable. Not everybody can handle the variability. Not every situation (say illness) a person faces can withstand the variability and that is why we value certainty of a job more than informal income. That is why we value full time employment more than contractual labour. That is why we value affordability of basic services.

Fact is,  on-demand services are a stylised version of contractual labour which has seen its share of criticisms because of the uncertainty that it brings to the lives of those who provide services and the lack of responsibility that it lets organisations live with. It creates a dis-balance in the garb of increased efficiency.  Contractual labour had negatively affected the lives of those providing the services. Unrestrained growth of On-demand in its current form threatens to affect both service providers and the customers of the service, unless a counterbalancing innovation/policy is found.

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