A Workers’ Observatory: a new tool for gig workers?

The media’s lens will swing back to the gig economy this week as the UK government gears up to deliver its response to the Taylor Review. But many details of conditions and contracts in areas like couriering, delivery, care, and hospitality gig-work remain unobserved. An observatory into the collaborative economy could be a vital educating, agitating and organising tool.

Last week the Scottish government published the report it had commissioned to generate ideas for ‘reshaping’ the collaborative economy. The report insists that gig workers must have an effective and collective voice (following principles of the Fair Work Framework), and points to the importance of self-organising and trade union presence in the gig economy. It also proposes that government should support workers’ self-organising and fund skills-development. These recommendations prove the importance of having top-level union voices on key government panels.

But the authors, drawn from unions, businesses officials and others, also admitted that darkness still conceals so much about the collaborative economy. Confronting malpractice depends on a sharper and more detailed view of conditions and changes in the sector. And above all it depends on the kind of information-sharing and collaboration that is lacking across most new platform-based systems: collaboration between workers themselves.

Mapping the Gig Economy

The collaborative economy is the fast-expanding sector of goods and service exchange, arranged via online platforms like Uber, Deliveroo, Amazon and eBay. The name suggests the each platform works like a hive of cooperative activity – but for many workers in the sector, the work is neither cooperative nor collaborative. The term ‘gig economy’ is a better reflection of the worker’s viewpoint. Each gig is a demand for a discrete service or good – food, home care, a taxi – that a worker can in principal choose to deliver or not. This means the sector is based on horizontal contracts of individual ‘contractors’. These platforms are typically one-way tracks between workers and apps, which often conceal a system of control and coercion.

Gig economy workers have conducted inquiries into platforms like Deliveroo, which have established that the extent of choice and control workers have is close to nil. Such workers’ inquiries have found that many apps have functions to nudge and coerce workers into committing to shifts without knowing what they will earn for that shift. To refuse a gig carries the risk of being refused future gigs, and for many who rely on platforms to make a living this is not flexibility, it is false freedom.

But it is hard to build an accurate map of the gig economy, because the rosters of workers, the data about local demand, and the algorithmic managing codes are uncharted and unobserved by almost everyone. Apart from the platform providers only privileged bodies can request it – such as the Scottish Affairs Select committee which in March obtained evidence that most Uber drivers earn most of their income from the platform, despite insisting on its model benefitting ‘flexible’ workers.

An Observatory for the collaborative economy

Encouragingly, the report fully recognised how much remains hidden in the computers and accounts of platform owners. One of its potentially ground-breaking recommendations, in an understated box on page 10 of the report, aims to penetrate this darkness. It recommends that government sets up:

‘an observatory into the collaborative economy … [to] collect, aggregate, analyse and publish a variety of datasets that show the ongoing impact of collaborative economy platforms in Scotland. This would be a new way for platforms (local authorities and conceivably workers) to agree to share certain data and would address the clear data and evidence gaps that exist in order to track activity and impacts.’

But workers themselves should not be placed in parenthesis. If the concentration of information and data is all with the employer, or even the government, then workers are in the dark while employer surveillance observes their every move.

The benefits of a workers’ observatory: educate, agitate, organise

It is easy to think of benefits flowing from this kind of insight. It could give access to the information workers could use to understand the practices and policies that control their schedules and wages. With a better picture of their sector, workers could arrange courses and skills-development relevant to their field of work. Workers could develop the skills and tools to keep a check on the company they work for (with systems like turkopticon, ‘a place for workers to help one another with information and their experiences about employers’). And workers could develop education that would allow them to create truly collaborative enterprises where workers are in control of their pay, schedules, and work.

A workers’ observatory would also provide a tool to expose malpractice, through reverse surveillance of platforms that could bring to light instances of discrimination or breaches of employment law. With an observatory, workers could identify issues locally, and start to coordinate action together. This could be the basis of agitation and other activity to improve conditions and contracts.

Finally, an observatory could allow workers to access the kind of information that will help with self-organisation to link up and form union branches to secure their rights and build power. Information such as pay-rates, the number of staff, the ratio of part-time to full-time reliance on systems, and other information form the basis of any organising strategy.

Giving an observatory the tools and power to penetrate these platforms would give workers skills, put pressure on companies to stop malpractice, and shift power back to self-organised workers.

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