Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Same as it ever was? Labour rights and worker organisation in the modern economy

New jobs, old problems. How can labour protect itself from the cloud?

Tom Hunt
6 April 2017


jon crel/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc)

The ‘gig economy’. Platform-working. On-demand apps and algorithmic monitoring. Outside of some policy, technology and academic circles these terms will draw blank looks from most people. Yet ask people if they have heard of Uber, Deliveroo or TaskRabbit and the recognition will be far greater. They might use the apps. They might even work for them.

Over a very short period these terms, companies and the issues associated with them – as well as the concerns generated by them – have increasingly come to dominate debates about the nature of work in the modern economy. The public and policymakers alike will agree that work for many people in twenty-first century advanced capitalist economies is changing – and changing fast.

Unions, worker organisations and a growing number of politicians are increasingly concerned about the enforced casualisation, extensive monitoring, low pay and uncertain hours that many of today’s workers experience. But it is debatable whether these concerns are about ‘new’ features of the labour market or rather ever-present labour issues that affect workers in capitalist economies.

Are characteristics of the gig economy about ‘new’ features of the labour market, or rather ever-present labour issues that affect workers in capitalist economies?

A century ago pro-labour voices might have been raising concerns about piecework rates, the plight of day labourers, and blacklisting. Whether in 2017 or 1917, these concerns are underpinned by the fundamental challenge of how to protect and enhance workers rights. More broadly they are about how to prevent labour exploitation and strike a fairer balance of power between employer and employees. Similarly, the key mechanisms to address these challenges remain the same: workers organising to improve their individual pay and conditions, and ensuring that protections and rights are enshrined in law.

If contemporary concerns about the labour market are simply old problems with new names, are there genuinely ‘new’ changes and challenges taking place in modern employment?

Work from the cloud

One feature of twenty-first century work that all can agree is different from what has come before is the role of the internet; online technology has become a core component of the modern labour market. Organisations, public and private, are increasingly adopting online platforms and technologies into their business models, and the internet continually creates new opportunities for people to find and provide work, and for consumers to purchase goods and services.

Often criticised as being analogue organisations in a digital age, unions are not standing still.

Debates about new technology in the labour market can often get distracted by a focus on the latest innovative apps and platforms. As a result more significant trends affecting workers, such as how technology gives employers the potential to extensively monitor and control workers, can get overlooked.

But rather than wholly being cast in a negative light the internet also provides employees and pro-labour organisations with new opportunities to strengthen collective action, regulate work, and protect workers. Often criticised as being analogue organisations in a digital age, unions are not standing still. Along with new pro-labour organisations, unions are embracing new ideas and forms of organising to represent and protect workers.

Labour rights in the digital age

Over the coming weeks, a new series of articles on these themes will be published jointly by the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) and openDemocracy. A roster of researchers, economists and lawyers from organisations including the International Labour Organisation, the Resolution Trust and the New Economics Foundation will analyse these issues and assess the questions they present. Contributions will also come from leading academics working in this field and crucially from those in the labour movement who represent today’s workforce. They will include long-established pro-labour organisations like the Trades Union Congress as well as smaller, newer organisations like the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB). The authors will examine questions such as:

• How are trade unions and new pro-worker organisations, in the UK and around the world, adapting to the ‘gig economy’?

• What lessons can UK workers and trade unions learn from alternative forms of worker representation around the world and new forms of organising?

• How can technology be used by unions and workers to enhance rights and achieve pro-labour outcomes?

• Do terms such as ‘employee, ‘self-employed’, ‘worker’ and ‘freelancer’ adequately describe today’s jobs and offer appropriate legal protections?

• Are more flexible, non-standard forms of employment changing people’s attitudes towards work – especially younger workers entering the workforce today?

Policymakers are increasingly alert to the questions and the themes of this new series, as the UK Government’s decision to establish the Independent review of employment practices in the modern economy highlights. The series will therefore contribute to an emerging debate and seek to ensure that labour rights and worker organisations are a feature of it.

After their victory against Uber in a tribunal in 2016 Tim Roache, general secretary of the GMB trade union, wrote:

“This is not about arguing against change – we’d be completely swimming against the tide – this is about a decent standard of life for people who are working incredibly hard but not making much”.

New jobs, old problems. Ensuring that work is fairly rewarded and workers are adequately protected remains a central challenge.

Same as it ever was?

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