Gig Workers Fighting Back
New article in Wired features WeClock - our self-tracking app for workers - in article by journalist Aarian Marshall: "Gig Workers Gather Their Own Data to Check the Algorithm’s Math".
Read full article here, excerpt below
Uber Eats delivery worker Armin Samii found that the company might have underpaid him by not considering the route he had to follow. PHOTOGRAPH: MAIRO CINQUETTI/NURPHOTO/GETTY IMAGES
Samii is a software engineer. So he created a Google Chrome extension, UberCheats, that helps workers spot pay discrepancies. The extension automatically extracts the start and end points of each trip and calculates the shortest travel distance between the two. If that distance doesn’t match up with what Uber paid for, the extension marks it for closer examination.
So far, only a few hundred workers have installed UberCheats on their browsers. Samii doesn’t have access to how couriers are using the extension, but he says some have told him they’ve used it to find pay inconsistencies. Google briefly removed the extension last week when Uber flagged it as a trademark violation, but reversed its decision after Samii appealed.
The digital tool joins others popping up to help freelancers wrest back control over work directed by opaque algorithms, with pay structures that might change at any time. The need has only grown during the pandemic, which has seen companies like DoorDash, Amazon, and Instacart hire more contractors to support spikes in demand for deliveries. The expansion of the gig economy might be here to stay: The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the “courier and messenger” sector could grow 13 to 30 percent more by 2029 than it would have without a pandemic. Globally, up to 55 million people work as gig workers, according to the research and advocacy group Fairwork.
“Things are changed and hidden behind an algorithm, which makes it harder to figure out what you’re earning and spending and whether you’re getting screwed.”
KATIE WELLS, RESEARCH FELLOW, GEORGETOWN
The projects stem from practical need. In the US, many gig workers keep track of their miles and expenses for tax purposes. But the projects also grow out of workers’ growing mistrust of the companies that pay their wages. “I knew about gig companies’ business decisions that meant they weren’t paying well,” says Samii. But he says he hadn’t thought the apps might “pay for less work than you actually did.”
The tools are particularly helpful to gig workers because of their low wages, and because it can be hard for isolated workers to share or find information about how the job pays, says Katie Wells, a research fellow at Georgetown University who studies labor. “Things are changed and hidden behind an algorithm, which makes it harder to figure out what you’re earning and spending and whether you’re getting screwed,” Wells says.
But some workers have been drawn to homegrown tools built by other gig workers—and the idea that they might themselves profit off the information that companies collect about them. Driver’s Seat Cooperative launched in 2019 to help workers collect and analyze their own data from ride-hail and delivery apps like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Instacart. More than 600 gig workers in 40 cities have pooled their information through the cooperative, which helps them decide when and where to sign on to each app to make the most money, and how much they are making, after expenses. In turn, the company hopes to sell the data to transportation agencies interested in learning more about gig work, and pass on the profits to cooperative members. Only one city agency, in San Francisco, has paid for the data thus far, for a local mobility study that sent $45,700 to Driver’s Seat.
An open source project called WeClock, launched by the UNI Global Union, seeks to help workers collect and then visualize data on their wages and working conditions, tapping into smartphone sensors to determine how often they’re sitting, standing, or traveling, and how they feel when they’re on the job. Once it’s collected, workers control their own information and how it's used, says Christina Colclough, who helped build the app and now runs an organizing consultancy called the Why Not Lab.
“We don’t want to further the surveillance that workers are already subjected to,” she says. “We don’t want to be Big Tech with a conscience.”
Colclough, The Why Not Lab
Colclough hopes that, eventually, workers might use WeClock to show they’re working longer hours than agreed. For now, the app is being used by 15 freelance UK TV production workers, who say that production companies don’t always pay fair wages for all the work they do. The participants in the pilot use Apple Watches to track their movements while on set.
“I love my job,” says one production sound crew worker, who is using WeClock. (The worker asked not be named, for fear of retaliation in a close-knit industry.) “But I hope this can help expose a little bit of the ridiculous hours we work.”