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Survival of the sharing economy – scoundrel or saviour?

Sizeable economic and social changes are understandably met with scepticism, often resistance, and sometimes even hostility. But should we be scared of the sharing economy? Or, should we continue to welcome it with cautious optimism?
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The sharing economy, the peer-to-peer (P2P) economy, the gig economy, or whatever you might choose to call it, is shaking-up many industries by reducing the influence of the traditional “middle-man”, and replacing it with online platforms.

Have you ever hopped in an Uber taxi, been an Airbnb host or guest, had food delivered by Deliveroo, or backed an idea through crowdfunding? If so, you’ve participated in the sharing economy.

With more freedom and less regulation, many question the ethics surrounding this new way of doing business. So is it a libertarian move that loosens the reigns of top-down capitalism, or merely a way to make it easier to exploit workers and customers?

Through this new economy, we can make extra money through “sharing” our assets on a freelance basis. Those able, for instance, to let their property in the short-term, can become Airbnb hosts. Meanwhile, tourists, travellers etc. can easily find cheap accommodation online.

Airbnb does, however, lack the regulation of traditional letting services and can result in cases of dodgy hosts and tax avoidance. In Barcelona, where Airbnb lets generated €740m in 2015 alone, the government is making efforts to pursue illegal, tax-avoiding hosts.

Other issues in the gig economy, such as poor worker’s rights and the increase of insecure zero-hour contract jobs have arisen. A female cleaner, for instance, can be denied employment status, and therefore maternity pay and other benefits, despite working for a single company.

Deliveroo, which allows freelance couriers to take up food deliveries, saw its London workers strike for earning well below minimum wage, and receiving no worker’s rights. The debate is far from over. In July, the firm pledged to give workers sickness and injury-related benefits

And Uber has also come under fire for failing to offer job security to its employees. Prominent Labour MP Rebecca Long-Bailey revealed that she boycotts Uber for this reason, but insists the company is still able to reform its practices.

Conversely, both firms allow freelance drivers to effectively start their own business and work on their own time, and at their own rates. From a user’s point of view, Uber customers have increased transport options, and can agree a cab fare with their drivers in advance, rather than having to watch the meter like a hawk.

In many cases, the presence of an online platform can help to improve worker’s rights.

hassle.com’s (now known as helpling) co-founder and former CEO Alex Depledge believed her platform can eliminate the black markets exploiting housekeeping staff by enforcing transparency and fair wages. It currently ensures that staff are paid the London Living Wage, for instance.

Of course, when P2P platforms are exploiting workers, governments must intervene.

So, there is then a balance to be struck in the sharing economy. However, there are many more, wider benefits too.

P2P services generate an additional boost of other economic activity. Car cleaners may benefit from the influx of Uber drivers, for instance, while cleaners may be finding more work from Airbnb hosts.

Indeed, my own company, Homeit, provides a keyless, digital access solution for Airbnb hosts. We’ve also started to integrate cleaning services into our app, so that cleaning services can be booked before and after a reservation.

Just as the P2P movement grows wider, so is the worldwide debate surrounding it.

LA, a notable tourist destination, saw its City Hall filled with the local hotel worker union members, as well as Airbnb supporters to discuss the regulation of the short-term rental industry. Specifically, they debated the need for a 180-day cap on the time a room can be let per year, and whether hosts must live at the property they are renting.

On a wider scale, people are questioning whether Airbnb rentals affect longer-term rental properties and increase the cost of living rent.

Understandably then, many are assessing the pros and cons of the sharing economy.

Some do not want to do business with relative strangers. Others are weighing up what they see as a high gain, high risk scenario. They might look at the potential pitfalls such as property management, emerging government legislation and a lack of job security.

On the other hand, millions are enjoying the ease and flexibility that comes with these new sources of income. And it is technology such as online host platforms that are facilitating this experience.

So we can only expect the sharing economy to grow, that is until some new tech emerges, and brings with it a completely new economy to replace it.

In the meantime, everyone participating in the sharing economy has a responsibility to help make it fairer, safer and more democratic for workers, hosts and users.

At Homeit, we must constantly question the ethics of the sharing economy – specifically that of Airbnb’s – and indeed our own. The sharing economy provides immense opportunity for both businesses and customers, but no user providing a service can be without responsibility.

André Roque is co-founder of Homeit, a remote access platform, that allows you to grant guests, tenants and tradespeople (cleaners, laundry, etc.) access to your property remotely

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