Towards Workers' Data Collectives
Updated: Nov 7
In this essay written for The Just Net Coalition and IT for Change's Digital New Deal essay series, I roll out my vision for the establishment of workers' collective data rights and ultimately for workers' data collectives. A means through which to empower workers and balance out the power asymmetry so prevalent in today's digital capitalism. I caution that fixing data and privacy rights is not an end in itself. We will need to draw a new map for the digital economy and society. We will need to demand from our politicians that they think big – constructively. The current exploitation by Big Tech is not a fad. It won’t go away unless forced to by law. The vision outlined in this essay, is neither utopian nor unattainable. But it will require responsible and dedicated actions on our side. Now.
Excerpts below, full online essay here, download link below.
The commodification of workers as a consequence of increased digital monitoring and surveillance is well underway. Through advanced predictive analytics, work and workers across the world are becoming datafied to the detriment of fundamental, human, and workers’ rights. This essay argues that trade unions must expand their services to include collective control over workers’ and work data through the formation of what I term Workers’ Data Collectives. However, to do so, unions urgently need to address regulatory gaps and negotiate for much improved workers’ data rights in companies and organizations. Without these two goals for the collectivization of data and an alternative digital ethos backed by new regulatory institutions, I argue, union and worker power will be significantly diminished leading to irreparable power asymmetries in the world of work.
We have established that workers’ data is gathered and generated by companies, and that these data can be used in corporate decision-making, and transferred, sold, or used by third parties. We have also discussed that these data can directly influence your work and career prospects, and affect workers like you. Yet, as a worker, you have few, if any, rights in relation to these data and how they are used. The power asymmetry is thus growing between you and the companies which seem to know or infer information about you that can directly affect your life. For workers to maintain any control over their working lives, this power divide needs to be bridged. But we need to go further and ask:
what if workers themselves controlled workplace data, drew insights from them, and used them to campaign for better working conditions, inclusive and diverse labor markets, fundamental rights, and new laws?
The benefits of collectivizing data
In the above, we have established a two-step process towards empowering workers across the world in the digital economy. We need stronger workers’ rights to data and sound structures that will allow us to collectivize that data. To realize these benefits, behavioral, legal, and technical changes will need to be made. We will need to overcome our own lethargy, form new habits, establish new laws and new authorities at the national and global level. We will need new governance structures, technological solutions for secure data portability, and conscious choices about which collectives we will entrust with our data. These are daunting requirements. So what are the benefits?
To begin with, this will allow us to create an alternative digital economy where data is regarded as an infrastructure similar to roads, railway lines, water supplies, and energy. We will vastly reduce Big Tech’s control over our minds, emotions, actions – past and future. We might well succeed in actualizing Shoshana Zuboff’s demand that human futures markets be made illegal. We will ensure that information that is ours becomes responsibly useful to us. Trade unions across the world will get an additional and timely purpose, and we could expect greater mobilization towards this. We will undo the colonizing effects of the current e-commerce discussions and the skewed digital hegemonies and support, not hinder, the development of empowering digital transformations.
On a more practical level, we will pool resources such that we actually have access to persons with the skills and knowledge to protect our data on the one hand, and analyze it to our benefit, on the other. Digital storytelling and visualizations are a powerful means to campaign for change. At the MIT Media Lab, Dan Callaci analyzed and compared data from a WeClock trail in New York to show how often, on the same day, workers were within six feet of one another (see figure below). Used in the context of the pandemic, this could show the relative risk for workers at the workplace.
The benefits do not stop there. The Workers’ Data Collective, like Driver’s Seat, could be used to test and challenge corporate algorithms. It will empower us as individuals and communities if we know who has our data and for what purpose(s).
The data collective could democratize the digital economy and empower workers to form and shape the world of work, advocate for regulatory change, and find remedies for persistent injustices. This will allow us to stop being “users” of digital technology, steered, controlled, and manipulated by algorithms and, instead, reclaim our humanity. This includes, not least, our human rights, our freedom of association, assembly, expression, thought, belief, and opinion.
Many data protection regulations across the world, even those aimed exclusively at consumers, are weak. We must fight for a digital ethos that is responsible and puts our rights above profit-seeking surveillance tools and predictive analytics. In the world of work, unions must be the guardians of this alternative ethos, and themselves become stewards of good data governance.
Here an ILO Convention advocating for workers’ data rights will not only be an act of solidarity with workers in weaker institutional environments, but also a necessary step to prevent digital colonialism.
By negotiating the data life cycle, unions and workers will become much more familiar with, and insightful about, the potentials and challenges as well as the power of digital tools. For our ultimate aim of creating worker-owned and run Data Collectives, unions need to embrace this learning.
Existing power asymmetries will only widen if workers and their unions do not build capacity in the fields of data, algorithmic systems, and their governance. By negotiating the data life cycle, unions and workers will become much more familiar with, and insightful about, the potentials and challenges as well as the power of digital tools. For our ultimate aim of creating worker-owned and run data collectives, unions need to embrace this learning. Unions must work together smartly to build capacity.
Furthermore, by extending these rights across all parts of the value or supply chain, all workers and countries will be able to develop their own digital transformations without a priori being stripped of the ability to localize their data due to trade agreements.
Download full essay here