The digital gig economy needs co-ops and unions

We live in a world in which it is increasingly possible to use online labour markets to outsource work directly to any corner of the planet. Millions of new jobs are thus available for workers in some of the poorest parts of the planet. But the fact that we now have millions of people around the world all competing for the same jobs threatens to undermine a range of working standards.

Some workers are willing to accept extremely low paying jobs and sometimes undertake speculative and free labour for the promise of securing future work. Furthermore, online work platforms – by design – treat labour as a commodity to be bought and sold. Digital labour is often packaged up into bite-sized tasks; virtual assistance, translations, transcriptions, computer programming, graphic design, writing, and other such intellectual and digital forms of work. When tasks can be packaged up and outsourced, employers are less accountable to any particular workforce who might be able to demand concession like a minimum or living wage. The very existence of a broad base of people working for subsistence-level wages can exert a gravitational downwards pull on any work towards them in a supply chain. Workers are treated as replaceable, and the system is often organised as a cut-throat bidding process: clients lists jobs on online marketplaces, and workers then try to outbid each other for contacts by offering a lower price or better service. 

Some workers are willing to accept extremely low paying jobs and sometimes undertake speculative and free labour for the promise of securing future work. Furthermore, online work platforms – by design – treat labour as a commodity to be bought and sold. As millions more potential digital workers join the global network every year, how can we avoid a situation in which an oversupply of labour can result in an unfairly low market price for work?

We’ll probably need to begin by reframing the very work that goes on in these platforms. If workers are all individual entrepreneurs, it is rational to use these platforms to try to out-compete and exploit their co-workers. Many workers have internalised these sorts of internalised visions of individuality, competition and predatory behaviour. But if people see themselves as workers rather than entrepreneurs, then we have more possibilities for workers to collaborative attempt to help each other through cooperative horizontal relations. 

There is a range of ways in which this could be done. One place we could learn from is agricultural production networks. For instance, as the poverty of workers began to impact yields and the supply and availability of coffee, the creation of cooperatives and other benevolent intermediaries was actually encouraged by multinational buyers.

We could therefore envision more digital platform cooperatives that would ensure that workers all have a stake in the platforms that mediate their work, and that they receive fair compensation for their time. Trebor Scholz and others have been working tirelessly to bring this vision into being for platform workers. The idea has even been adopted by Jeremy Corbyn as part of his ‘Digital Democracy Manifesto.’

However, while platform cooperatives will undoubtedly be beneficial for the workers who are enrolled into them, they do not inherently solve the problems introduced by a low market price for work. It would be hard to police employers preventing a cooperative worker being paid a fair wage by re-outsourcing that gig to other workers for much lower wages.

Others might look to digital unions or looser forms of networks as ways to build a sense of solidarity between digital workers. One explicit role for a digital workers’ union could be building a class consciousness amongst workers. This would highlight the precariousness of much of the digital work that is out there, ensuring that what Gina Neff terms ‘venture labour’ (the “explicit expression of entrepreneurial values by non-entrepreneurs”) does not become the norm. In other words, these networks would encourage worker to recognise that they are receiving all of the risks of entrepreneurship, but few of the rewards.

Some of these strategies for cooperative forms of organising present an alternative vision. As thousands of people join the internet every day, many of whom are hungrily looking for work, we need to creatively think about how best to use digital tools for collaboration amongst workers instead of competition between them. Our digital tools are new, the forms of work that they mediate are new, and many of the challenges they raise are new. But, in a world where the atomisation of work continues to be used against digital workers, let’s not forget an old rallying cry that has served us well: workers of the world, unite!

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