Inside the Digital Society: Fair gigs

Gig work – organised through online ‘digital labour platforms’ – is widespread and becoming commonplace. Platforms says it offers workers flexibility. Some welcome this; others say it’s insecure and that the terms on which they work are far from fair.

Some thoughts this week on this – on employment rights; on how gig working fits with them; on the work of the Fairwork Foundation; and on what the issues that it raises tell us about the relationship between digital and non-digital aspects of life.

Employment rights

A large part of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is concerned with work. Article 6 spells out the right to work; article 7 rights to fair pay, conditions, hours and contracts, including equal pay for women; article 8 trade union rights.

That part of the international rights regime gets much less attention than rights like privacy and freedom of expression, but it too is profoundly impacted by the changes that digitalisation’s wrought on our societies and our economies. (One caveat: It’s focused more on formal than informal work, and on labour markets that are regulated rather than unregulated. That's not the case in many countries.)

What’s the gig?

Two types of platform working have become significant today.

Almost every country now has online platforms that match customer demand with service provision on the fly, especially in sectors such as transport and delivery, and in domestic work, personal care and tutoring. International businesses like Uber and Deliveroo compete with local firms, both often displacing – or digitalising – established business models (such as taxi firms).

There’s also a global market for services that aren’t tied to a location, some basic such as data entry, some more sophisticated like translation. Some of this work, such as content moderation, can be extremely stressful. Again there’re a variety of platforms, some tied to global corporations. Fairwork Foundation and others call this ‘cloudwork’.

Why ‘gig’? Because jobs are paid piecemeal, with platforms matching and managing small transactions, usually treating the workers that are doing them as self-employed contractors rather than employees.

What does it mean for rights?

This shift towards platform work’s significant in many countries, but it doesn’t affect the majority of work or workers. In some sectors it’s highly disruptive; in others (so far), insignificant. Its impact varies between countries, as well as sectors, depending on the nature of their labour markets and, where cloudwork is concerned, the availability of marketable skills by low-cost labour.

Where it does occur, though, even on a relatively small scale, it can have stronger impacts on the dynamics of local labour markets, especially for certain groups such as the urban young. Some positive, some negative.

Impacts on employment rights are greatest in countries where formal jobs are prevalent and where employment rights are well-established (where there’s more, in short, to lose through disruption of established norms).

The power relationship

Platforms typically treat those who work for them as self-employed, which means they don’t enjoy rights found in formal employment (such as sick pay, holidays and health and safety rules). Platforms may benefit by avoiding tax and other costs arising from employment, while workers may be denied unemployment and other social welfare benefits if, for instance, they are dropped by their ‘employers’.

And there are powerful asymmetries of power involved in these relationships. The ‘flexibility’ that’s claimed by platforms – and undoubtedly enjoyed by some of their gig workers – can disguise controls on workers' lives and livelihoods at least as powerful as those in more conventional employment. Health and safety rules are often weaker. There’s little job security, and collective representation – such as that provided by trade unions – is rarely available.

Can this be regulated?

As is often the case, there are balances to think of here. Gig working’s a new business model, and it’s largely unregulated. It suits some workers, but is a last resort for others. The way it works in practice could offer workers more protection and better, more consistent, ‘fairer’ outcomes than is currently the case. Improvements can be made by law or business practice.

Some governments have begun legislating in this area. The European Commission’s working on a package that would apply across its 27 countries. Courts in some countries have ruled that platform workers should be treated as employees, not as self-employed, and so entitled to employment benefits and rights.

But what should be the basis for legislation/regulation? And what can businesses themselves do, irrespective?

The Fairwork Framework

The Fairwork Foundation offers here a framework that has its roots in international rights, in standards set by the (UN-affiliated) International Labour Organization, and in a century or so of labour regulation.

It’s based in Oxford and in Germany, backed by development agencies, now with teams in 26 countries round the world, eight in the global north, eighteen the global south.

At its core lies an assessment framework that considers platforms’ performance as ‘employers’ in different countries, with a growing number of reports on different contexts – ten published last year. Where possible, the aim’s to review countries annually to measure change and progress (some countries are now on their third report).

Pillars and indicators

Fairwork’s framework’s built around five pillars: fair pay, conditions, contracts, management and representation. Two indicators are agreed for each, with points awarded to platforms that achieve them. Comparisons can then be made within a country, and recommendations made as to how platforms might achieve a better score next time. There are similar key indicators for global cloudwork businesses, on which a first report came out last year.

These Fairwork indicators focus, it'sworth noting, on aspects of employment that matter in every kind of work, not just digital platforms – on compliance with minimum wage legislation, for instance, contractual entitlements, health and safety, rights to collective representation – though sometimes with a twist that’s digital – for instance, transparency within the algorithms that are used by companies to assess workers' performance. Assessment of the indicators is based on desk research and dialogue with both workers and employers.

The point of this is not guilt-tripping but improvement. To help consumers choose between platforms on the basis of performance. To help gig workers understand what ought to be their rights and work together to achieve them. And, as importantly, to help platforms themselves improve their standards and become better employers.

And there are signs this last is working in some cases. Scores in some studies – and for some platforms in every country – are very low, but where reports have been repeated annually improvements can be seen, not least because that makes the better platforms more attractive to more skilful and committed workers. Dialogue between Fairwork researchers and employers has played a part in this.

Why this is valuable

What I find valuable about this project’s fourfold.

First, it’s human-centred. It’s not concerned with what digitalisation ‘can do’ for employment – like so much of the literature I read on this – but about what is happening at the interface between them. And its starting point is with employment (what’s impacted) rather than with digital (what is impacting). That means it’s rooted in human experience – in what happens to the workers – and how their experience might be enhanced.

Second, it’s pragmatic. Its purpose is to identify ways in which this new labour market might be improved for workers by employers and the sectors in which they are working. It seeks to stimulate more balanced dialogue between both sides in the employment relationship, and offer platforms ways in which they can improve their reputation. That builds on experience in more traditional employment relationships.

Third, it is contextual. There are big differences between the impact of gig labour in different countries (as well as similarities). What happens in highly regulated markets, like those in France and Germany, is different from countries where most employment is informal or unregulated, such as Bangladesh (where, for instance, the experience of many gig workers is adversely affected because they’re subcontractors rather than working directly for the platforms). The experience of cloudworkers also differs from those engaged in locally-specific work.

And fourth, it recognises the importance of power asymmetries and the role of regulation to address them. Gig work shifts many of the costs of employment from employers/platforms onto workers, and separates workers from the benefits and rights they would enjoy in formal work. Gig workers are also generally more isolated. Their negotiating power as individuals is very weak. That’s why access to collective representation and protective regulation are both required.

Three wider points to end with

And I’ll end with these three further points.

The employment rights included in the International Covenant (above) are relevant but were always overfocused on formal labour markets. The principles behind them need to be applied in more informal markets too, and that requires creative thinking.

The studies undertaken by Fairwork Foundation show that the key to understanding what digitalisation is doing to employment lies in understanding employment issues (fair pay, conditions, contracts, etc.), not technology. There is at least as much continuity in this as there’s disruption. Too much literature on the impact of digitalisation focuses first and foremost on the digital: not just where employment is concerned but across the range of human experience and public policy. It should focus far more on what is being impacted.

And, finally, measuring outcomes in the digital society – across that range of experience and public policy – requires qualitative as well as quantitative assessment, analysis rather than assumption, engagement with users (workers, consumers, patients, students) as well as with decision-makers (politicians, managers, technologists). It would be valuable to see similar indicator frameworks in other areas of the changing interface between technology and life.


Image: Fighting for rights in the gig economy by Davide Alberani via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.
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