Blog Post

In the on-demand economy, flexibility isn’t control and algorithms won’t protect workers’ rights

I’m a socialist. I’m not a communist nor virulently anti-business, and definitely not anti-progress, but I’m certainly for workers’ rights and against the over-concentration of economic power in the hands of the few. Call me a social democrat if you will.

Why do I bring up these tiresome labels? Because I was reminded of them in stark terms when reading a weekend piece by TechCrunch’s Danny Crichton, in which he argued that algorithms are becoming “the champions of workers.” I strongly disagree, and will continue to do so until I see algorithms that take the workers’ side in disputes with their employers.

If anything, the on-demand economy is symptomatic of a world where workers have less control over their environment and destiny, not more.

“Fundamentally in control”

Crichton’s argument goes like this: The on-demand economy, embodied by services like [company]Uber[/company] and [company]TaskRabbit[/company], puts workers “fundamentally in control of their economic lives” because they can choose their working hours and therefore “develop their own personalities and brands.” Algorithms could “provide a vastly improved market for work… more convenient, safe and lucrative,” thus finally obsoleting not only labor unions, but also employment laws.

Per Crichton’s piece, the improvements come mainly in terms of flexibility, which used to be “the exclusive preserve of elite talent” – not only does this have benefits of convenience, but health too, because “control over one’s work” reduces stress and “can literally extend a worker’s life expectancy.”

TravelUnions, meanwhile, were previously useful for establishing a model of full-time employment with benefits such as leave and pensions. However, the new generation want “passion careers” where they can mix “cooking, Egyptian hieroglyphic travel blogging, and some regression analysis of health data,” and are more interested in fun than higher salaries. This is because they’re not as materialistic as those full-employment fogies.

And what about workers’ rights? Well, if Uber doesn’t pay enough then drivers can and will move to competitors that “pay better or offer a superior work environment.” Algorithms will “compete against each other for talent.” In the light of all this innovation, it’s “disappointing” that unions are trying to perpetuate “old modes of work.”

Power dynamics

I can’t help but feel that Crichton has somewhat missed the point of unions. Yes, creating a better workplace is a big part of that purpose, but so – fundamentally – is the ability of workers to organize themselves so they can speak with a collective voice. And the purpose of that is to counterbalance the voice of management or the providers of capital, in order to preserve their rights. It’s about maintaining healthy power dynamics.

There is no such opportunity for workers in the on-demand economy — no platform for organization, no collective voice, and no power. Sure, if individual workers don’t like the work then they can theoretically leave, but they can and will be replaced immediately. That’s the whole point of the on-demand economy – it’s taking full advantage of the fact that the supply of workers greatly outstrips demand. And that means that the departures of individuals will provide little incentive to on-demand employers to improve wages and working conditions.

A piece of a job is better than no job at all, but it doesn’t give you security and predictability. Want to talk about employment and health? Crichton’s big citation is the Whitehall II study, which examined how social position can affect health. The big takeaway from this study is that the poorer you are, the likelier you are to get sick. In Crichton’s hands, the study proved that “workplace flexibility can literally extend a worker’s life expectancy.”

If you’re talking flexibility in working hours, then sure, that’s definitely healthier, as Whitehall II and many other studies have established. But if by flexibility you mean uncertainty, then you’ll find an altogether different story. Indeed, studies have generally found that “flexible employment” is as bad for health as unemployment is, with the model’s inherent insecurity causing chronic anxiety and raising self-reported morbidity.

Take it or leave it

[pullquote person=”” attribution=””]Sure, they can refuse to be picked up, as long as they’re happy to starve.[/pullquote]Flexibility is not necessarily control. Sitting there waiting for a task to roll in, on take-it-or-leave it terms, is not an empowering experience. Many people would genuinely prefer “the corporate grind of the past, with employees sitting in soulless cubicles and waiting thirty years to retire,” as Crichton put it, if that’s the alternative.

I’m from South Africa, where you regularly see people sitting by the side of the road, waiting for someone to pick them up and take them to go weed someone’s garden or lay a few bricks. These hopeful workers represent the ultimate commoditization of labor, a never-ending supply with no meaningful differentiation and no bargaining ability. Sure, they can refuse to be picked up, as long as they’re happy to starve. If they have any control through their “flexibility”, it’s of a pretty meaningless variety.

The fact is, it is possible to combine flexible working practices with full-time or long-term part-time employment. Thanks to the internet, we don’t all need to be behind our desks at fixed hours of the day. Sure, we’re not talking complete flexibility – timing still matters to a great extent – but nor, in many cases, are we talking old-school clocking in and out.

Some people don’t even like this kind of flexibility, when it means always being on-call. Witness the policies adopted by many German companies, which block after-hours email in order to prevent worker burnout. Who asked for that? The unions.

What some people seem to forget about unions is that they’re comprised of workers. Yes, unions can become powerful entities in themselves (which is, again, the point), but they ultimately push for what workers want. In a healthy working environment, the terms are thrashed out by mutual consent between the employers and the employees. Solidarity is key, but even when some workers don’t choose to join a union, they’ll often still benefit from the results if their colleagues do.

Brave new world

I get that Crichton isn’t calling for permanent instability in employment. As he wrote, “the market has to be built in such a way that stability is a possible outcome for those who seek it.” But it’s a tad naive to think that this stability will come from the startups building the platforms in question. They simply have no interest in doing so, and won’t until the demand for labor outstrips the supply.

Look at Uber, which strenuously denies that its drivers are its workers at all, which won’t guarantee to pay those drivers’ fines if they’re caught keeping Uber’s business afloat in cities where the service is banned, and which ultimately wants to get rid of those drivers altogether. TaskRabbit now matches tasks to workers by algorithm rather than letting workers bid for them, erasing much of the control its workers had over their work situation. These are the kinds of businesses that are going to be the “champions of workers”?

I have absolutely no doubt that the workplace of the future will look very different to that of today, and perhaps entirely different to that of a few decades ago. There will probably be fewer jobs to go around, and in many cases we will certainly need to adjust our conceptions of the workplace and the working week. A lot of people like the traditional setup because they care more about what happens after 5pm than the drudgery that comes before, and maybe they’re going to be out of luck.

However, the workers themselves need to have a say in how this new world develops. The idea that a handful of platforms operating on razor-thin margins will create an equitable world for their workers — that algorithms written by the employers will protect workers’ rights better than the workers themselves and their elected representatives could — would be funny if the reality of this model weren’t so outright terrifying.

Ultimately, if work is to truly benefit the worker, she needs to have a voice and real clout. Maybe the traditional union model and traditional labor laws won’t provide that, but the underlying goals of that model and those laws — to make sure employers can’t exploit employees — must be central to this brave new world of work. We just need new ways of achieving this, not to stop trying.

14 Responses to “In the on-demand economy, flexibility isn’t control and algorithms won’t protect workers’ rights”

  1. This was an interesting article, and although I definitely don’t consider myself a “socialist” by bent, I do agree there are significant changes happening, and changes needed, in the way we consider “doing work” today. Sure, we’ll see increasing freelance work, but that doesn’t have to be a commodity and there are sites that support non-commodity freelance work.

    One of the big challenges also that you don’t mention is the issue of enforced flexibility for part-time or shift workers, who have to be available at the beck and call of employers for shift schedules that change week-to-week with uncertain hours. NewMetrics has just come out with an app that really helps these types of workers, MyShiftster – check it out at Send me a message if you’d like more info. It’s a free app that a shift worker can use to manage their schedule, trade shifts, communicate to friends & family.


  2. Dean Bubley

    I think there are two separate issues here.

    The Internet & on-demand economy empowers those workers who are capable of self-employment, freelancing, self-direction and entrepreneurship. Conversely, the socialist & union paradigms are generally poor at supporting the needs of the self-employed, and either explicitly or implicitly see self-reliance as anathema to the concept of collective representation.

    On the other hand, those workers who do more mundane or easily-replicable tasks tend to get commoditised by technology, whether it is flexible on-demand systems or robots.

    To my mind, the dichotomy isn’t between “management” and “workers”, it’s between individual work vs. collective work. As a society, the former is inevitably gaining strength vs. the latter because individuality can’t be automated. However, the transition is slow, painful and rarely discussed.

    There’s no mention of the thorny topic of how we deal with who cannot manage to work as individuals, whilst simultaneously empowering those who can.

    I think we need to start to reframe the discussion as having 3 constituencies, not 2 (workers vs. bosses):

    – Collective workers
    – Employers
    – Individual workers

    • David Meyer

      Whatever we come up with must offer different kinds of opportunity to suit those in different situations, yes.

      The funny thing is, there’s a lot in common between these individual work platforms and collective work, or at least what collective work could be when implemented with collaboration tools, data-driven resource management and so on. I like to joke sometimes that libertarian Silicon Valley is building the ideal toolset for futuristic communism (not something I advocate by the way!)

      The issue is how power dynamics evolve in this context — must the setup be vertical, with everything feeding upwards, or should we think more in terms of lateral opportunities? If we don’t want to end up in a neo-feudal situation, with all of the social unrest that would inevitably result, what forward-looking systems should we be designing?

  3. John Connor

    Even mentioning “unions” or “socialism” will bring out the ignorant political comments, but this article is very much on point. Wealth will continue to be concentrated into the hands of the few who control the technology. While those wealthy few may certainly deserve those riches, everyone else will be relegated to this “on-demand” economy. Whichever jobs haven’t been replaced by bots and algorithms will be up for grabs to the lowest bidder.

      • doubter

        Sorry, but what really annoys me whenever I hear is this kind of discussion about wealth distribution is its with its CONSUMERISTIC undertone. I couldn’t care less when some middle class folks like myself cannot afford a new car but have to buy a used on instead. And they cannot keep up with the Jones’. I am almost vomitting at this senseless complainism which passes as ideology.

        I do care however very much, when I see little fellows (kids) not being cared for properly because of – pick one — incapable parents, broken eduction systems etc.. I really care when I see people suffering. But guess what, unions just don’t care.

        • doubter

          I think that most of these discussions miss a much more important point. Economic power and freedom (note, losing freedom means somebody can take your wealth away or not pay enough because he can coerce you). Our ‘capitalistic’ system is far from free (Lobbying, monopolies, stealing salaries by secret agreement etc..)
          The financial crisis showed it. Just pronouncing a ‘free market’ is not enough by a long shot. Without proper precaution there will be ABUSE.

          And that will probably be the new struggle, certain fellows abusing their digital power whichever way.

  4. Mike Burns

    I am sorry David. Though you are undoubtedly right that the workplace will be different in the future. It will not be created by the benevolent collective. it will be done by those risk takers that have a vision for their product or service and the guts to put themselves out there. The jobs created by this risk taker (s) will only exist if they serve the goal of that service or production.
    Its great to see the old socialist ideals being dusted off lately. haven’t heard this kind of naivete’ since the 1960’s.

    • David Meyer

      I’m open to all ideas. Some reckon we should move to a commons system, which I think is a nice idea but I can’t see how the transition would work in practice. And I certainly agree that whatever system we create should encourage risk and competition. My personal politics are in flux, as is the environment they’re reacting to, but right now I choose to identify as socialist because I sympathise most with the associated aims. Ultimately, as I mentioned in reply to another comment above, we need to come up with new socio-economic philosophies to fit a new age. It’s not about dusting anything off; rather about taking stock and moving forward in a way that keeps things lively but fair.

  5. David Meyer

    Equitable as in fair. And I think the supply and demand issue is going to become increasingly problematic. Ultimately we will probably need new -isms, based on our technological reality, but whatever they involve should benefit as many people as possible.

  6. Ken Meyer

    What is an “equitable” world for the workers as you envision? One based on TRUE “equity”, in which value is determined by market worth (i.e. – supply and demand)? Or are you speaking of the “gimme, gimme” kind of “equitable” which mean an “equitable” world in which labor isn’t compensated in terms of what it’s actually WORTH, but rather what those like you arbitrarily insist it should receive…..which means, of course, a world in which those who DON’T earn their way in it are subsidized by those who DO.

    I suspect the latter. A “from each according to his ability, to each according to their needs” kind of thing. That’s a good situation for those who lack ability and have all sorts of needs…but for those who are required to SUPPLY those “needs” (or the “wants” associated with them), not so much.

    Perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to say this, but I suspect you (the author) are one of those who have no problem demanding that others fulfill YOUR needs and wants…but when it comes to accepting responsibility YOURSELF for providing for the wants and needs of OTHERS, then it’s another story.

    Am I very far wrong on that? [smile[

    • James Jones

      Very archaic reasoning at work, The end of work is probably soon upon us, do to ever increasing automation.

      In 1840 68% of the population (which was less than 30% of today) had to work hard physical labor to get enough to eat, by 1900 this had already dropped to 38% by 1950 it was 10% today its 2% with a 3x+ increase in population. This same kind of reduction is now being detected in “skilled” trades as physical and data automation reduce the number of people needed to get a task done.

      “Work” as a form of “social merit” will likely soon become meaningless as a high tech society can be run by a small percentage of its population due to the cumulative increases in productivity brought about by generations of machines. Coming up with a social framework appropriate to the realities of low to no scarcity (Example: The US throws away 250 million tons of household waste annually after recycling, 9% is metals, valued at about 40 billion)
      is paramount to avoiding a period of social turmoil as the unemployment rate spirals higher and higher. Simply because we are using an 18th century economic model for 21st century realities. Another example of un-earned benefit being structural – every time we burn a gallon of gas it represents the labor of 50 men working a 10 hour day in 1840, or a barrel of oil (about $100) is equal to a horse working 8 hour days for a YEAR!! – we are using a structurally identical economic model to 1850, yet we live in a very different world.

      End of work video: Humans need not apply

      Labor percentages

      Oil to man/horse work – dozens of examples from google