The New Peonage: Liberty and Precarity for Workers in the Gig Economy

56 Pages Posted: 9 Jul 2020 Last revised: 19 Jan 2021

Date Written: July 2, 2020


According to a 2016 Time Magazine article, over 14 million people currently work in the “gig,” “on demand,” or “sharing” economy. In the past 10 years, 94% of net new jobs have appeared outside of traditional employment. The gig economy presents a paradox for workers in the United States. On its face, the “gig” economy represents the height of liberty. Part-time, temporary and platform workers are not tied to any single employer, and can theoretically choose when to work, and whom they want to work for. However, while workers in the gig economy enjoy nominal autonomy, they also lack many protections to which employees are legally entitled. Gig economy workers lack job security and must constantly search for new work. Most gig economy workers do not receive health insurance, pensions, or other benefits from their employers. The reality of the gig economy is greater economic inequality, insecurity, and precarity. The recent COVID crisis has exposed this reality and heightened the vulnerability of gig economy workers. Despite the promise of liberty in the gig economy, workers are increasingly subject to a new form of peonage, exploitative practices reminiscent of slavery and involuntary servitude.

This article starts from first-hand accounts and empirical research and applies an inter-disciplinary approach to understanding what liberty of contract means, and can mean, to workers in the gig economy. It explores the ideology of liberty of contract and presents an alternative approach, the freedom from undue coercion promised by the Thirteenth Amendment. This is the first to article to consider what the Thirteenth Amendment could mean for gig economy workers. It draws on the work of labor scholars who have largely focused on the question of whether gig economy workers should be classified as employees, and constitutional scholars exploring what the promise of liberty in the Thirteenth Amendment means for United States workers. The Thirteenth Amendment offers a promise to these workers, a promise of freedom from undue coercion. However, that promise has yet to be enforced.

Keywords: workers, labor, 13th Amendment, liberty, gig economy, legal history, constitutional theory

JEL Classification: K00, K19, K31

Suggested Citation

Zietlow, Rebecca E., The New Peonage: Liberty and Precarity for Workers in the Gig Economy (July 2, 2020). Wake Forest Law Review, Vol. 55, No. 5, 2020, University of Toledo Legal Studies Research Paper Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Rebecca E. Zietlow (Contact Author)

University of Toledo College of Law ( email )

2801 W. Bancroft Street
Toledo, OH 43606
United States
(419) 530-2872 (Phone)
(419) 530-7911 (Fax)

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