• Christina J. Colclough

Towards New Labor Futures: Voices from the Frontlines

The DataSyn Team, at renowned ITforChange asked 21 experts from across the world about their views on some of the big victories of the labor movement in the past few years in the context of platformization, the biggest challenges facing workers and the key opportunities for strategic intervention for workers in the future.

Read all 21 inspiring, worrying yet also uplifting inputs here

 

Here's insights from the Why Not Lab's Christina Colclough

What do you count as some of the big victories of the labor movement in the past few years in the context of platformization?


The continued effort from old and new trade unions is testified to by the number of cases raised in courts across the world questioning the classification of workers as independent contractors. As a result, more and more courts are ruling that workers on digital labor platforms are indeed employees. This is very important. Work is work, and all workers should enjoy the same benefits and rights. Another interesting recent development is how some unions are using data protection regulations to submit data subject access requests and to challenge algorithmic management. Here, the work of the App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU) in the UK is pioneering, and the wins they have obtained in their cases against Uber deserve celebration. A third positive development is the increase in the number of unions which are signing collective agreements with digital labor platforms.


What are the biggest challenges facing workers in the present moment?


Across the world, precarious forms of work are on the rise, stripping workers of their rights and leaving them to bear the risk of the market on their own shoulders. This is not least driven by digital labor platforms that utilize regulatory gaps and regulatory insufficiencies to outcompete brick-and-mortar companies as well as to exploit labor. In connection with this, the digitalization of work and workers is increasingly threatening workers’ fundamental rights, freedoms, and autonomy. Algorithmic management, obscure or blackbox algorithms and automated decisions coupled with, or even facilitated by, regulatory slugginess is leading to the commodification of workers.


At the same time, digital technologies are increasingly being used by platforms to identify and destroy organizing efforts by workers. These organizing efforts are further hampered by market regulations that are aimed at preventing cartels. Given that workers on digital labor platforms are still mainly regarded as independent contractors and therefore sole proprietors, market rules prevent them from organizing. All of this combined, is leading to an exploitation of labor and a downward pressure on working conditions and rights. Acknowledging that digital labor platforms do offer workers in many parts of the world a means to earn an income, the flexibility offered to the workers should not come at the expense of their rights. Here, governments need to take responsibility and regulate digital labor platforms in order to protect workers’ fundamental rights, freedoms, and autonomy.



What are key opportunities for strategic intervention for workers in the future?

First of all, unions must lead the way and demand that governments close regulatory gaps so that all workers, in all forms of work, have the same strong social and fundamental rights. These rights must be enforceable. Secondly, algorithmic management systems and practices must be regulated. This regulation must include stringent demands to transparency, accountability, and fairness, as well as to the necessary ongoing governance of said systems and practices by workers and platforms in co-operation.


Thirdly, while the data-driven commodification of workers must ultimately be refuted, digital labor platform workers and their unions can tap into the potential of digital technologies by collecting and analyzing their own data. Here, several good examples exist from Driver’s Seat, to GigBox and the app WeClock to name a few. In these cases, the power imbalances between workers and platforms that arise through the unequal access to information have been successfully addressed. Fourthly, unions must spearhead a human rights-centered campaign aimed at highlighting the violations of said rights through the unfettered digitalization of work and workers.


Importantly, the four issues raised here demand governmental cooperation, action, and responsibility. Discussions held in intergovernmental fora such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the International Labor Organization (ILO), Global Partnership on AI (GPAI), and G7 unfortunately provide little indication that governments are prepared to regulate from a rights perspective. Changing this will be one of the most crucial battles for unions going forward.

 

Dr. Christina Colclough is founder of the Why Not Lab - a boutique value-driven consultancy that puts workers at the centre of digital change. She is regarded as a thought leader on the futures of work(ers) and the politics of digital technology and works with unions, interest organisations and governments across the world on issues such as AI governance, workers' data rights and human rights, and the development of responsible digital technology. Christina is a Board and Committee member in several international bodies focussed on the Ethics of AI. See Christina's wikipedia page here.