By fragmenting the workplace, it has transformed the relationship between many workers and their employers.
It has provided a good deal of autonomy for a large number of people who rely on digital technology for their livelihood. But this has come at the price of limited bargaining power: workers often have little choice but to accept the conditions employers impose.
There is a growing awareness among these independent workers that collective action is the key to strengthening their hand and defending their interests. However, traditional ways of organizing are not necessarily adapted to their conditions and needs.
To explore these issues, France Stratégie, ASTREES (Association Work Employment Europe Society) and Ires (Institute of economic and social research) convened the seminar “Building collective groups and action: What does it mean for workers in the digital era?” on July 8, 2016.
It brought together social partners, IT industry representatives and academics from both Europe and North America to look at collective action in the digital era and alternative ways of organizing independent workers.
More specifically, the seminar sought to answer three central questions:
- Why is collective action important in the digital economy? And what are the needs of workers and the challenges they face in terms of defending their interests?
- How can workers take action collectively? In what spaces? With what resources? And in what communities/groups?
- With whom can they take action (i.e. old and new organizations, outside an institutional framework, local networks)?
Mark Graham, professor, Oxford Internet Institute, opened the seminar by detailing the reality of digital work and the possibility for collective action.
He pointed out demand for work exceeds supply, with most of the former coming from advanced economies. Workers, on the other hand, are located worldwide. There are clear narratives of a race to the bottom, with workers feeling powerless, he said.
What’s more, the global wage floor is quite low, with 80% of workers earning 10% of the income on online platforms.
Graham put forth four ways to help improve the lot of digital workers: consumer watchdogs; labour rights strategies to build solidarity and occupational identities; regulatory action such as establishing employment status where the service is provided; and fostering democratic control of production to fight abusive rent extraction in digital marketplaces, for example.
So-called crowdworkers exemplify the predicament of many online freelancers. They perform millions of small online tasks – piecework, essentially – which computers can’t do, such as correcting spelling mistakes and labelling images.
Kristy Milland has ten years of experience working for the first and perhaps quintessential online microtasking platform, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. This crowdsourcing for micro-labour allows large and small companies alike to pay crowdworkers as contractors, avoiding payroll taxes and laws for working conditions fought long and hard for. Minimum wage and workers compensation, for example, are openly flouted.
Milland is the community manager for turkernation.com, a website that was founded and designed to help strengthen and defend the rights of Mechanical Turk crowdworkers. She explained people around the world earn around one to two US dollars an hour “turking” – as Mechanical Turk workers refer to it – and outside the US and India they are paid in Amazon gift cards.
Organizing crowdworkers is key to improving their working conditions, she continued. She stressed that in North America there was a need for the expertise of European unions, plus government support.
Robert Fuss, leader of the FairCrowdWork Watch platform of Germany’s largest union, IG Metall, stressed the importance of fair pay to ensure the quality of work. He added that an international approach to platform work was needed to guarantee worker protection.
Sarah Bormann, “cloud and crowd” advisor for the German services union Ver.di, emphasized that crowdworkers are a diverse group of people. The challenge therefore was to build an identity for them, convincing them they belong to a group. Ver.di has been involved in organizing freelancers for a long time and is therefore familiar with the challenges this large and splintered group of workers poses for unions. Three elements are crucial for unions to develop crowdworkers’ solidarity: consulting, organizing workers, and research and political lobbying.
Graham added that a better understanding of value chains for platform work was needed. In other words, crowdworkers are unaware of the value of their work as they are geographically isolated and perform only a tiny part of a larger project.
At this point a French union member from the floor spoke up to point out that the digital economy in and of itself is not the cause of the dire situation many online workers find themselves in.
They are part of the larger picture, where an increasing number of workers lack job security and others worker protection. But there are international tools that can be used to redress their predicament, he said. The international labour standards of the International Labour Organization (ILO) are but one example.
Central to organizing workers is building solidarity among them. In the digital age, with isolated workers, this is a major challenge. Several attendees highlighted that, paradoxically, the very medium that atomizes workers – the internet – can be used to bring them together.
Milland said that online communities are central to beginning this process.
Whether they are or not, more and more people who toil in the on-demand economy are coming to the realization that for their voices to be heard and heeded strength in numbers is the only way forward.
Caitlin Pearce, director of member engagement for the US’ Freelancers Union, which represents some 300,000 independent workers across the US, said that of the some 54 million freelancers in the country about 30% have worked on online platforms.
Among them, there is a huge divide between those that succeed in building a solid online reputation and manage to earn a decent living and those who do not.
Freelancers Union works to provide workers with healthcare and income stability and protect them from wage theft, which is a particular problem for freelancers and crowdworkers. On sites such as Mechanical Turk, for example, employers can reject work and not pay for it but still use it.
As with Germany’s unions, Italy’s too are in the midst of adapting to the digital economy. Claudio Treves is general secretary of the NIdiL (Nuove Identità di Lavoro, or New Types of Labour), which the country’s largest union, the CGIL (Italian General Confederation of Labour), created in 1998 to represent non-traditional professions.
He explained that when NIdiL was launched in 1998 the thinking was the new generation of workers would sooner or later get “real” jobs. The question, he said, is once precarity has become a structural problem what can unions do.
Unions must continue to push for legislation and collective agreements to provide truly independent workers with social protection.
That said, Treves stressed that for this to be done unions must first know exactly whom they are bargaining with. They must also understand how companies have changed.
César Garcia Arnal, vice general secretary of Spain’s Unión de Profesionales y Trabajadores Autónomos (Union of Independent Professionals and Workers), emphasized the importance of participating in social dialogue on behalf of independent workers.
However, he said that in Spain unions do not have a clear definition of digital workers, which makes it difficult to defend their rights like other small business owners and entrepreneurs.
A French trade unionist brought up the central issue of financing social protection. He pointed out independent workers lack rights because they don’t pay into benefits.
It is clear that the whole social model – regardless of the country – is increasingly outdated, built as it is on salaried workers. A woman trade unionist referred to this, saying the entire social model has to be rethought, and workers must be included in this process.
However, as mentioned earlier, digital workers lack a sense of the collective that, say, factory workers have. A young representative of OuiShare, a global think tank focusing on the collaborative economy, mentioned that many platform workers (e.g. Uber) have no notion of belonging to something larger.
Pearce maintained online communication holds a lot of possibility for gathering workers across class alliances.
Beyond unions there are other professional organizations such as collectives and cooperatives that can help independent workers defend their rights.
The French Designers Alliance (AFD) is but one example. Christophe Lemaire, board member, explained how the AFD works to protect the interest of its members – most of whom are independent designers – by providing advice on things such as intellectual property rights, health and accident insurance and legal assistance in the event of disputes.
Delphine Chenuet, co-founder of the co-working collective Collectif des tiers-lieux, told the participants how her organisation aimed to mutualise co-working spaces in order to raise their visibility, develop private and public partnerships and in general represent their interests.
Without a doubt, cooperative movements have a role to play in the modern economy. Stéphane Veyer, co-director of the work cooperative Coopaname, stressed independent workers can build work collectives and obtain the social protection they lack. Moreover, the 150-year-old question of property and the means of production is still highly topical at the dawn of the 21st century.
Olivier Mériaux, scientific director, National Agency for Improving Working Conditions (ANACT), cited French legal scholar Alain Supiot, stating that in the end, for any collective action to be successful there has to be a balance of “economic weapons”.
He continued, saying there are three types of actions: those involving information, those impacting demand and those concerned with finance. And despite technological progress and a radically transformed marketplace, the problems facing workers today are essentially the same as those faced before the industrial revolution.
In looking at the potential of collective action, Mériaux said three questions must be asked: 1) why undertake collective action; 2) how can collective action be undertaken; and 3) with whom should it be undertaken.
For the first question, the answer is quite simply because there is a need for the imbalance of power between independent workers and their employers to be redressed. The stakes are political, not technical. However, they are a diverse group, with complex identity issues. On top of this, the distinction between salaried workers and freelancers is not a clear one.
In terms of how workers can go about collective action, he maintained that virtual relationships won’t suffice – physical proximity is a must. That said, it can take the form of actions such as naming and shaming. But ultimately information must be shared.
Finally, as to whom should participate, he answered quite simply: all individuals who have the relevant resources whether they’re unionized or not.
In the end, the seminar participants agreed that labour has to become part of the political debate again. And the question of democracy both in society and within companies is central.
The old union adage of unity being strength still rings true in the networked digital economy of the 21st century.