To Airbn(or not to)b

by Heidi Haerterich

Students are often full of adventure, but usually not with cash. As an alternative to booking expensive hotels, traveling young adults are flocking to the flat-sharing website Airbnb to save money on accommodations while also getting a better feel for their surroundings. The rooms they stay in are made available through people, who signed up on the website as hosts. Being a host by Airbnb enables people around the world to get paid by allowing travelers to stay in their homes. This cheap alternative to a hotel may, at first, seem like a great idea, but behind their hipsteresque logo hides a business model, which could lead to an unjust future for those who are trading their commodities as means to make a living.

Where’s the Problem?

So, travelers are spending less money and ordinary people are turning into trendy DIY hotel operators. There are, however long term, unjust consequences for these hosts, who provide their apartment not only to tourists, but also a major company. Airbnb is one of the many successful businesses in the sharing economy, which is a trending system, where people share their services or goods with different people in exchange for money or other commodities. Made strong through the web and mobile apps, the sharing economy is popular because it is easy to use and there is little, or no commitment involved. This makes it simple for anyone with an internet connection to find, as well as offer, their services.

When taking a closer look at this business model, it is hard to determine the actual employment status of those providing their commodities while using platforms like Airbnb. Because they are not actual employees with legal contracts, businesses in the sharing economy don't carry the responsibility of respecting their workers’ rights. Though it may seem convenient for a host on Airbnb to decide when they can give their apartment up, it also means they are given no set hours of work from the platform. A lack of set hours in turn means a lack of a set pay. Here, it's easy for the company to avoid paying their hosts even a minimum wage. Benefits, maternity leave, sick leave, and so on are all nonexistent in this hip, new economy. These are, however, employees’ rights, and the kinds of the things workers have been fighting hundreds of years for.

No Solid Income, No Solid Rights

One of the core concepts of the sharing economy is to share resources and help live in a more sustainable world. Although this is a good idea, the problem of this system comes into play when the people using these platforms depend on their earnings from them as a main source of income. A steady earning is something people need to be able to count on, which is why so many rules and regulations exist in employment contracts. Airbnb brags about the simplicity of becoming a host, but often neglects to admit the way it is unable to provide a proper form of employment for those intending on making more than just a few extra bucks.

A Dangerous Trend

The site emphasizes the hosts’ various ways to make a little bit of extra cash by using their platform. However, this form of unofficial employment is becoming the last resort for many people, who have been let go of their traditional jobs, as a result of companies being defeated by their sharing economy competitors. When so many people are left without a traditional form of income, businesses like Airbnb may continue to grow and thus become a standard form of nonofficial employment. Flat-sharing is indeed weakening the traditional hotel industry and the professions that go along with it. Hotel staff is in turn forced to follow the trend and earn money through sharing economy websites thus leaving the rights of their employees behind. The same can also be said for other gig-sharing platforms and professions, such as Uber and the taxi industry. The more successful these businesses become, the more people will be pulled away from their traditional work places with fair workers’ rights. Therefore, when looking at the long-term social conditions, the sharing economy is actually not nearly as sustainable as they are pretending to be.

Just because businesses, like Airbnb, appear friendly and “in” doesn't mean they're not built on exploiting those, who make their business possible. People who are trading services on platforms in the sharing economy must refrain from being blinded by quick, easy money and look for solid, fair, and long term employers. Equally important are the travelers, who need to be aware at what cost they are getting to stay in a cozy home away from home. Doing so, they can think twice before booking with a company that doesn't show care towards the people that make their success possible. It's great that frugal students are finding ways to feed their wanderlust, but when packing for a trip, students' ethics shouldn't be left at home.