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Worker organisations can survive the digital age. Here’s how

- Edward Webster and Ruth Castel-Branco

There is a widespread view that labour has become irrelevant as a force for change.

The argument goes that the proliferation of digital labour platforms – and the rise in job insecurity this brings – means that worker resistance is increasingly futile.

The problem with this pessimistic “end of labour thesis” is that it gives globalisation and the digital age a logic and coherence that they do not have. The result is the decentring of workplace struggles over the conditions of work and an obscuring of relations of exploitation. The outcome is that capital is let off the hook.

We argue that worker organising and public policy can play an important role in shaping the terms of digitisation.

In South Africa, Uber Eats workers have demonstrated their structural power by collectively logging off the app. In Colombia, Rappi delivery workers have successfully organised transnational strikes with support from established unions and social movements.

When it comes to policy, the Biden administration recently showed that platform business models can be changed. It proposed a rule which would reclassify platform workers as employees, extending labour and social protection to precarious workers.

We argue that unions continue to be important. But we also argue that, in the face of a decline in traditional union membership, it’s critical to focus on where resistance is taking place, rather than where it is not. While we are witnessing a decline in a particular form of worker organisation, worker organisation is still very much alive and effective.

The end of labour thesis

There is significant evidence in support of the “end of labour thesis”. Over the last decades there has been a decline in union membership globally. Established trade unions are particularly reluctant to organise platform workers because it’s a difficult sector to organise.

Platform workers are geographically dispersed and work in an individualised manner, which makes collective claim-making difficult. The elusive nature of algorithmic management muddies the nature of demands. And the misclassification of platform workers as self-employed means that it is not always clear who they should make claims from.

This ambiguity over platform workers’ class location raises difficult questions for union organisers. Who is a worker? Is a food courier who owns one scooter a worker? What about someone who owns two scooters and hires someone to ride the second one?

The picture is blurred further by how big technology giants are using data to manage workers. Data tracking has become critical to what is being called algorithmic management. It’s used to make decisions about recruitment and allocation of work, ratings and remuneration and even termination. One of the consequences of this is what’s been termed algorithmic insecurity – the fact that workers are aware that their performance is assessed on the basis of arbitrary ratings.

As Anita Gurumurthy, executive director of IT for Change, notes, demands for the extension of labour protections need to include demands over data ownership.

In defence of labour

Despite the challenge of organising platform workers, labour protests have grown. The Leeds Index of Platform Labour Protest shows that platform worker organisation, mobilisation and resistance have spread rapidly across the globe.

Indeed, platforms seem to be a breeding ground for self-organisation, as digital management methods strengthen workers’ associational power.

Protests do not always fit established frameworks for labour relations. Some workers are organised in trade unions, such the Movimiento Nacional de Repartidores de Plataformas Digitales in Colombia, founded with support from the main union federation and social movements. The Transport and Allied Workers’ Union in Kenya is another.

However, our research also points to the proliferation of self-organised groups, which blur the boundaries between traditional unionism and informal workers’ associations or cooperatives. These range from mutual aid associations like the Brothers of Melville in South Africa to women-owned worker cooperatives like Senoritas Courier in Brazil.

As labour scholar Maurizio Atzeni argued during a policy dialogue hosted by the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies, the processes that create conditions of exploitation also foster resistance.

The relationship between capital and labour

A key question is whether emerging forms of worker organisation have the power to reclaim control from digital capital and push back against “algorithmic insecurity”.

While emerging cooperatives may offer insights into alternatives to platform capitalism, they alone cannot transform platform capitalism, media and communications expert Rafael Grohman notes.

At the centre of platform capitalism are unprecedented levels of power in the hands of a few corporates, namely Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix, Google and Spotify. Despite a drop in share prices with the potential introduction of regulatory reforms, they account for 20% of the US stock market.

Control and power is concentrated in a small, mathematically proficient elite dominating decision-making and policy by owning and controlling the “algorithm” in ways that generate even greater inequalities. Global IT giants have become more powerful than most countries and governments. They evade corporate governance codes, laws and policies, including anti-trust, competition and tax collection.

As Gururmurthy notes, data has become a new frontier of capital accumulation. It has also become a source of value in and of itself, to be bought and sold along the data value chain.

The role of the state

In the absence of an adequate regulatory framework for platform work, two broad pathways can be identified.

One involves a deepening of the domination of foreign-owned tech giants with no national or global agreement on how to operate. This could be described as a form of re-colonisation of the global south. This could create more jobs, but workers would be stuck in low-wage drudgery with none of the protections or benefits of formal employment.

An alternative pathway could be a “digital social compact” created with the active participation of platform workers and their organisations. This would involve coherent global and national policies, including legislation to protect workers.

This optimistic path opens the possibility of the extension of labour and social protections to informalised platform workers.

The Future of Work(ers) Research Programme at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies, University of the Witwatersrand is hosting a seven-part dialogue series. The aim is to generate public debate on the relationship between digital technologies, the changing nature of work(ers) and the implications for inequality.

The researchers are from the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies. 

This article first appeared in The Conversation