Technology has changed the workplace enormously, for better and for worse. Although mistrust of technology is hardly a recent phenomenon, the speed with which technology is changing (particularly when compared with the slow pace of regulatory change) has given the issue particular prominence. Whether it’s the rapid growth of the freelance economy, worries over robot workers automating entire professions, or outrage over the insecurity of ‘gig economy’ workers, technology is viewed with suspicion.
While much of the scepticism and fear is justified, much less time has been spent thinking about how technology could be used to support workers’ rights. Despite the significant potential of digital social innovation to support low-paid workers, these developments are rarely mentioned.
Below, we explore four areas in which digital social innovators from around the world have begun to develop promising ‘worker tech’ solutions and discuss what they mean for worker rights, now and in the future.
When workers’ voices are united together, their message is amplified. Since the decline of mass trade unionisation in much of the West, particularly the US and UK, workers have struggled to find the collective voice they once controlled. But technology is beginning to show how it gives workers a stronger voice once again by enabling them to unite and organise across vast distances, instantly. Already, this is leading to tangible changes in the workplace.
One example is CoWorker, a platform which enables workers to build campaigns and petition for changes in their workplace. Individuals can start petitions and their colleagues, even if they are geographically remote, can support the campaign digitally.
A successful CoWorker campaign led to the decision by Starbucks to end ‘Clopenings’ (asking employees to work back-to-back shifts over night, meaning they close the shop and then open it again the next morning) after more than 10,000 Starbucks employees signed a petition. In another high-profile win in October, Skechers was forced to announce that they were rethinking their dress code policy after employees organised a petition in protest against the brand’s opposition to visible tattoos.
Digital platforms have led to the creation of a new type of worker: the crowdworker. Platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT) and Clickworker enable individuals to carry out tasks - everything from translation to graphic design - remotely in exchange for money. There are an estimated 500,000 ‘turkers’ working via (AMT) alone, and 5 million people are employed as crowdworkers of one sort or another in the UK.
Crowdworkers, as part of the ‘gig economy’, are in most cases not guaranteed the same rights - sick leave, minimum wage, maternity leave and so on - as employed workers. Although governments are now beginning to take the regulation of the ‘gig economy’ more seriously, regulation has been slow to react to the dramatic rise in the number of people relying on crowdwork to support their income. This has forced individuals to create their own digital solutions.
These solutions are powered by data. Crowdsourcing platforms are being used to democratise the possession of data and address the power imbalance between employer and employee.
This platform enables crowdworkers to share information about their working conditions and pay. This information is used to rank the various crowdworker platforms and help freelance workers value their skills and time more appropriately by comparing their wages with others doing similar work.
This plugin works on the same principle as FairCrowdWork. However, rather than rating platforms, it only collects data from AMT workers. This enables Turkopticon to rate individual employers based on their communicativity, generosity, fairness and promptness.
A recent study found that half of ‘turkers’ earn less than the US minimum wage ($7.25 per hour), with some claiming that they earn $25 dollars on “a good day”. On a platform where employers are not obliged to pay a minimum wage and there are no meaningful repercussions for refusing to pay employees at all, Turkopticon is a powerful tool in the fight to redress this power imbalance.
Many of the goods and products we consume are part of very complex global supply chains. As a result, the public is dramatically under-informed about the production and sourcing of materials and foods. Whether it’s the conflict minerals in our phones or the human ‘slavery’ required to bring cheap food to our supermarkets, collectively we have done very little to end these practices.
However, advances in technology are enabling the creation of much more transparent supply chains. These new tools hope to kickstart a consumer-led pushback against unethically produced products.
How can we be sure that the products we buy are slavery-free? London-based startup Provenance has adapted blockchain technology to track the supply chains of products.
Blockchain is a digital peer-to-peer ledger that enables you to track products at every stage; you can see everywhere something has been, and everyone who has handled it. Most importantly, because blockchain is peer-to-peer rather than a centrally owned database, it is almost impossible to fake.
Provenance recently trialled this system in Indonesia, tracking tuna fish from catch to customer. Fishermen using pole and line and handline fishing methods were able to register their daily catch by sending an SMS message from their phones. After that point, Provenance’s blockchain was able to track their fish up to the moment it was purchased.
By providing shoppers with reliable information about the fish available in shops, consumers are empowered to make informed purchasing decisions that support practices that they believe in. In a world in which Indonesia is the biggest producer of tuna, but also where slavery among fishermen is well-documented, this type of information is invaluable.
As well as shining a light on labour practices, blockchain has the potential to boost environmental sustainability by removing the anonymity of materials - from illegally logged Amazonian trees to overfishing in the Indian ocean.
At a recent hackathon, The Workers Lab, a US organisation dedicated to worker justice, developed a plugin, Reveal, which shows consumers using Amazon (or any third party online marketplace) a product grade based on the working conditions of those who made it. Linked to the International Labour Rights Forum, it gives products a grading based on the likelihood of child labour, forced labour or health and safety concerns.
Technology has enabled the development of new business models. Most famously, Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no taxis. While Uber has attracted fierce criticism over the treatment of its workers, other digitally enabled business models are empowering workers. Platform cooperatives, for example, elevate workers to the status of co-owners, sharing all the rewards and profits.
This tool enables freelancers to share and receive job offers as a collective. Communities of freelancers can find, share and carry out work on their own terms, for which Coliga charges a five per cent fee. Every member of Coliga who helps to facilitate a transaction is rewarded financially.
Acting as a community means that freelancers have access to shared skills, can respond to more job offers, and are able to build a collective reputation in the same way that larger businesses can. All of this is achieved without undermining the flexibility and self-determination of traditional freelance work.
The Berlin-based platform cooperative operates like other digital marketplaces (eBay and Amazon for example) but is cooperatively owned and promotes fair goods and services, as well as “responsible consumption”. Fairmondo is based on the democratic principle of one member = one vote. Membership is open to anyone who buys a €10 share in the company.
Since launching in 2013, the website has gained over 10,000 registered users and has received significant support through crowdfunding platforms, raising €350,000 over the course of two campaigns in 2013 and 2014.
The project intends to create a global online marketplace where local co-operatives in different countries can connect and participate. Over time, Fairmondo hopes to replace traditional online marketplaces. Although anyone can trade via the platform, Fairmondo applies a different fee structure depending on the type of product. Fairtrade, organic and ethical products are charged a four per cent fee, whereas products that do not meet these criteria are charged a seven per cent fee.
This is the Californian platform cooperative for independent service providers. The cooperative model is hardly new. It’s a tried and tested method of ensuring fair wages and empowering workers; “‘the better one of our owners does, the better we all do”.
However, while cooperatives have tended to focus on a specific product in a specific location - a bakery, a greengrocer - digital platforms are removing these restrictions. Customers are able to find a wide range of services, from legal advice to personal trainers.
In cities across the world - London, Philadelphia, Paris - we are seeing a backlash against ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft. In Austin, Texas, voters rejected a deal that would have allowed both companies to self-regulate their activities. Two days later, the ride-sharing giants pulled out of the city leaving a gap in the market.
Within two months, RideAustin was built as a non-profit platform which enables individual taxi drivers to operate in much the same way as before. However, the non-profit status of RideAustin means that drivers take home a greater proportion of their earnings.
There are many other examples of platform cooperatives working in similar ways across a range of sectors; from house cleaning to photography, platform cooperatives are using technology to reinvigorate the cooperative business model.
There is a growing awareness that working conditions are declining, while low-paid work has created an entirely new category of living: ‘in work poverty’. Now more than ever, digital social innovators must show us that technology can be used to help workers.
Alongside the individual examples of WorkerTech mentioned, we are beginning to see a growing infrastructure of supportive networks for WorkerTech. The Workers Lab in the US has announced itself as a dedicated WorkerTech accelerator, while the Platform Cooperative Consortium is providing support and wider advocacy for digital cooperatives. In the UK, Bethnal Green Ventures, a tech for good accelerator, has announced a WorkerTech focus for its next round of applicants.
The growth of supportive infrastructure is a promising sign. We’re used to hearing about technology’s ability to ‘disrupt’ marketplaces; there’s no reason to think that digital social innovation can’t disrupt the relationships between worker, employee and consumer.