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Ex-Postmates VP of global public policy on the future of gig work

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Vikrum Aiyer, the now-former vice president of global public policy and strategic communications at Postmates, penned a memo to his former colleagues and other stakeholders in the gig economy outlining what he thinks needs to happen next in the industry.

In his letter, Aiyer says “it would be a mistake for us to think that mild tweaks to worker classification, or a single state ballot measure, create a durable path forward for meaningfully addressing what Americans truly worry about: the chance to work, take care of their families, and not fret about what comes next.”

He goes on to say how tech platforms, labor advocates and other stakeholders “are not willing to evolve and give an inch on their respective models,” which means “we’ll never see progress that both empowers on-demand work and improves the social safety net.” Aiyer wants “this uncivil war that pits workers against capital, tech against labor unions, conservative versus liberal” to end.

In the letter, Aiyer puts forth a handful of recommendations for on-demand tech companies. He proposes, for example, that companies give board seats with voting rights to workers, embrace portable benefits “that can close the gap between what’s available to W2 and independent workers” and consider sectoral bargaining for gig workers.

Sectoral bargaining for independent workers would be an innovative reform that could provide sector-wide floors on earnings and benefits, while retaining IC classification. Some in organized labor have suggested extending the right to bargain for all workers –regardless of classification. Before industry dismisses this outright, and since this has not been done before in the US, it warrants critical examination by Congress, the GAO, or university labor centers to explore how card check rules, antitrust laws, and federal preemptions would be accounted for. In concept, this could empower workers and prevent less scrupulous companies from gaining a competitive advantage with a race to the bottom.

While Aiyer, along with Postmates and Uber, was a proponent of California’s Proposition 22, which legally classified gig workers as independent contractors, he says he does not want a carbon copy of it to be implemented throughout the country.

“While Prop 22 was a step forward when it comes to the argument that tech is making of balancing worker flexibility with more benefits on top of the 1099 status, there are two issues that need to prescribe the rest of the path forward,” he told TechCrunch.

The first is that this type of work has become rather popular, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has led to millions of lost jobs throughout the country. Secondly, Aiyer says it’s important to get input from workers as companies push similar legislation either in other parts of the country, or at the federal level.

Aiyer pointed to a key difference in Postmates couriers in Los Angeles versus New York. In Los Angeles, Aiyer said many Postmates couriers are in cars while in New York, many are on bikes. Prop 22 put forth a new floor for insurance standard, but “that might not be the same type of coverage someone on a bike wants.”

“Prop 22 established a floor for California, but it certainly is not the ceiling of broader safety net reforms and what a nationwide policy should look like,” he said.

But for some gig workers, they have long said they don’t want to be independent contractors — even if that does come with some extra benefits. Instead, some have said they want to be employees and be entitled to the full range of benefits that W-2 status provides.

Ultimately, Aiyer thinks it’s a false dichotomy to have a binary in our society where there are workers with benefits and independent workers without.

“What about having both a W-2 full-time employee model and you can raise the standard of independent work to a new height of benefits and you can have both,” Aiyer said. “But to do that in a way that is inclusive to workers and labor advocates, you need to have a reset of those conversations, which haven’t really been taking place since AB 5.”

Aiyer, whose last day at Uber-owned Postmates was in early January, told me he hopes for his letter to reinvigorate conversations between the different stakeholders in the space. As for him, Aiyer told me his next professional move will be doing public interest work.

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Comcast hides upload speeds deep inside its infuriating ordering system

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An NBC peacock logo is on the loose and hiding behind the corner of a brick building.

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

Comcast just released a 2020 Network Performance Data report with stats on how much Internet usage rose during the pandemic, and it said that upload use is growing faster than download use. “Peak downstream traffic in 2020 increased approximately 38 percent over 2019 levels and peak upstream traffic increased approximately 56 percent over 2019 levels,” Comcast said.

But while upload use on Comcast’s network quickly grows—driven largely by videoconferencing among people working and learning at home—the nation’s largest home-Internet provider with over 30 million customers advertises its speed tiers as if uploading doesn’t exist. Comcast’s 56 percent increase in upstream traffic made me wonder if the company will increase upload speeds any time soon, so I checked out the Xfinity website today to see the current upload speeds. Getting that information was even more difficult than I expected.

The Xfinity website advertises cable-Internet plans with download speeds starting at 25Mbps without mentioning that upstream speeds are just a fraction of the downstream ones. I went through Comcast’s online ordering system today and found no mention of upload speeds anywhere. Even clicking “pricing & other info” and “view plan details” links to read the fine print on various Internet plans didn’t reveal upload speeds.

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Bank of America is bringing VR instruction to its 4,000 banks

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As consumer VR begins to have a moment following years of heavy investment from Facebook and other tech giants, corporate America is similarly beginning to find more utility in the technology, as well.

Bank of America announced today that they’ll be working with Bay Area-based VR startup Strivr to bring more of their workplace training into virtual reality. The financial institution has already used the startup’s tech in a pilot effort with about 400 employees, but a wide-scale rollout means scaling the VR learning platform to more of the company’s 45,000 employees and bringing thousands of VR headsets to its bank branches.

Bank of America exec John Jordan has plenty of ideas of where it will be able to implement the technology most effectively, but is open to experimenting early-on, noting that they’ve developed VR lessons for everything from notary services to fraud detection. Jordan also says that they’re working on more ambitious tasks like helping employees practice empathy with customers dealing with sensitive matters like the death of a relative.

Jordan says the scope of the company’s corporate learning program “The Academy” is largely unmatched among other major companies in the U.S., except perhaps by the employee instruction programs at Walmart, he notes. Walmart has been Strivr’s largest customer since the startup signed the retail behemoth back in 2017 to bring VR instruction to their 200 “Walmart Academy” instruction centers and all Walmart stores.

Virtual reality is a technology that lends itself to capturing undivided attention, something that is undoubtedly positive for increasing learning retention, which Jordan says was one of the central appeals for adopting the tech. For Bank of America, VR offers a platform change to reexamine some of the pitfalls of conventional corporate learning. At the same time, they acknowledge that the tech isn’t a silver bullet and that are plenty of best practices for VR that are still unknowns.

“We’re just taking it slow to be honest,” Jordan says. “We already feel pretty great about how we’ve made investments, but we view this as a way to get better.”

Enterprise VR startups have seen varying levels of success over the years as they’ve aimed to find paying customers that can tolerate the limitations of the technology while buying in on the broader vision. Strivr has raised over $51 million, including a $30 million Series B last year, as it has aimed to become a leader in the workplace training space. CEO Derek Belch tells TechCrunch that the company has big plans as it looks towards raising more funding and works to build out its software toolsets to help simplify VR content creation for its partners.

 

 

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Cashify raises $15 million for its second-hand smartphone business in India

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Tens of millions of people each year purchase a second-hand smartphone in India, the world’s second largest market. Phone makers and giant online sellers such as Amazon and Flipkart are aware of it, but it’s too much of a hassle for them to inspect, repair, and resell used phones. But these firms also know that customers are more likely to buy a smartphone if they are offered the ability to trade-in their existing handsets.

A startup that is helping these firms tackle this challenge said on Thursday it has raised $15 million in a new financing round. New York-based Olympus Capital Asia made the investment through Asia Environmental Partners, a fund dedicated to the environmental sector. The five-year-old startup, which counts Blume Ventures  among its early investors, has raised $42 million to date.

Cashify operates an eponymous platform — both online and physical stores and kiosks — for users to sell and buy used smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, laptops, desktops, and gaming consoles. 90% of its business today surrounds the smartphone category, explained Mandeep Manocha, founder and chief executive of Cashify, in an interview with TechCrunch.

“For consumers, our proposition is that we make it easy for you to sell your devices. You come to our site or app, answer questions to objectively evaluate the condition of your device, and we give you an estimate of how much your gadget is worth,” he said. “If you like the price, we pick it up from your doorstep and give you instant cash.”

A few years ago, I wrote about the struggle e-commerce firms face globally in handling returned items. There are many liability challenges — such as having to ensure that the innards in a returned smartphone haven’t been tempered with — as well as overhead costs in reversing an order.

Manocha said that phone makers and e-commerce firms have found better ways to handle returned items in recent years, but they still lose a significant amount of money on them. These challenges have created a big opportunity for startups such as Cashify.

In fact, Cashify says it’s the market leader in its category in India. The startup has partnerships with “nearly every OEM” including Apple, Samsung, OnePlus, Oppo, Xiaomi, Vivo, and HP. “If you walk into an Apple store today, they use our platform.” For consumers in India, if they opted for the trade-in program, Apple.com also uses Cashify’s trading platform, he said.

The startup also works with top e-commerce firms in India — Amazon, Flipkart, and Paytm Mall. The firms use Cashify’s trading and exchange software, and also rely on the startup for liquidation of devices. The startup then repairs these gadgets and sells the refurbished units to customers.

“Essentially, whether you come directly to us, or go to popular e-commerce firms or phone OEMs, we are handling the majority of the trading,” he said. Even if a customer trades in the device to OEMs, or e-commerce firms, these companies sell the device to players like Cashify, which serves over 2 million customers in more than 1,500 cities.

The startup plans to deploy part of the fresh capital to expand its presence in the offline market. Manocha said Cashify currently has dozens of offline stores and kiosks at shopping malls across the country and it has already proven immensely effective in brand awareness among customers.

The startup also plans to expand outside of India, hire more talent, and invest more in getting the word out about its offerings. Manocha said the team is also working on expanding its expertise to more hardware categories such as cameras.

“The management team at Cashify has an excellent track record in building a strong consumer-facing franchise and building relationships with OEMs, e-commerce companies and electronic product retailers to be present across all touch points for the consumer,” said Pankaj Ghai, Managing Director of Asia Environmental Partners, in a statement.

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