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

Google-Factory-Flextronics

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 Uber and TaskRabbit, 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

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.

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