The platform economy: time for more democracy at work – Maria Mexi
The platform economy has intensified the power imbalances between companies and their workers, which only the collective voice can correct.
The evolution of the pandemic has demonstrated the growing importance of the platform economy in providing essential services to local communities, while highlighting the inherent vulnerabilities and precariousness of platform workers. While the platform economy is growing in size and importance, uncertainty remains as to what to expect.
Before the pandemic, as part of a research project funded by the Swiss Network for International Studies, I conducted fieldwork with colleagues in four European countries (Switzerland, Germany, Greece and the United Kingdom) on the conditions experienced by workers in the platform economy and responses from the social partners. Consistent with the literature, we found that the contingent and atypical work arrangements prevailing in the digital labor market exacerbated power imbalances between workers and employers. In all four countries, workers reported (to varying degrees) an intensification of exploitation resulting from deep-rooted practices and mindsets in the platforms. operating mode.
Since the launch of the platform economy a decade ago, the companies within it have been severely criticized, for inadequate job protection (unfair labor), the profit of conventional firms (unfair competition) and inadequate consumer protection. The pandemic has exposed this dark side even more.
During early blockages, digital platforms successfully outsourced responsibilities onto governments for financial support and onto platform workers for their own protection. Some have even increased worker surveillance during the pandemic – with the potential for it to “normalize” in the wake of this pandemic.
Our fieldwork also confirmed another strong argument in the literature, which is that platform workers feel they are losing the voice they need to uphold their social protection and employment rights. The ability of platform workers to organize and make their voices heard collectively is increasingly challenged by the general weakening of industrial relations in many countries and a trend towards the individualization of labor relations.
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At the same time, platform workers face unique obstacles when it comes to collective agency. During the rapid changes in the economy and the labor market in the past, workers have formed organizations to defend their interests. But this organization often involved a single employer, a single workplace, and a set of duties and obligations that could be structured around a contract that remained in place for several years. In the platform economy, given the abandonment of full-time work and direct employment, these conditions are no longer apparent.
Another important factor that complicates organizational capacity is the disparity in the work performed by different segments of the workforce on various platforms. Workers are often linked to a multitude of platforms, which translates into very heterogeneous motivations, experiences and demands of workers, limiting the leverage offered by effective collective action and the representation of interests.
In addition, platform companies generally do not wish to be considered “employers”. This further complicates the picture, as it denies the existence of a negotiating partner.
Reduced bargaining power, combined with excessive oversight through algorithmic controls, effectively undermines the freedom touted companies and their workers desire, while further reinforcing workers’ inability to influence their working environment. These findings reinforce Polanyi’s inspired narratives in the platform economy literature: it is a ‘disembedding’ of the market in institutional environments such as welfare systems and strong unions, so that labor is “re-commodified”, intensifying the disciplinary power of competition in the labor market.
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Mobilizing and organizing collectively when work is digital, discontinuous and scattered around the world poses challenges. Yet all Uber or Deliveroo workers should have the right to organize, claim their rights and take control of their work.
On the positive side, despite undeniable difficulties, new approaches are being developed by unions to adapt to the changing working conditions of platforms: opening up membership to platform workers, setting up new initiatives and unions and / or negotiation of collective agreements with platform companies. Such efforts need to be strengthened and supported, while the concept of democratizing platform enterprises and the platform economy must be given serious consideration.
As demands for more “democracy at work” intensify, collective bargaining and social dialogue are increasingly seen as part of the solution. Empirical evidence shows that coordinated bargaining systems are linked to decreasing pay inequalities and increasing employment. Whether it is the adaptation of the workplace to new technologies or the quality of employment, worker representation and collective bargaining agreements are key tools for governments and social partners to find and to agree on fair and appropriate solutions.
Moreover, because of its attributes of deliberation and reconciliation, social dialogue can suggest avenues for addressing the most problematic aspects of platform work in a mutually beneficial, and therefore sustainable, manner. It can remedy power imbalances between platforms and their workers, applying the correct classification of workers and tackling classification errors, promoting transparency and fair treatment of working conditions, allowing access to social protection, training opportunities and health and algorithmic discrimination and transparency and data justice. (Workers’ demands for access to data held by platforms about them will likely be among the most contentious issues in the years to come.)
In this context, the mobilization of unions, with their valuable sectoral knowledge, is essential to level the playing field, by pushing for more detailed regulation or by pushing digital platforms to come to the negotiating table. . All this requires, on the one hand, global trade union cooperation and, on the other hand, specific action in each country.
In a nutshell, for platform workers in unbalanced power relations, social dialogue, worker organization, development of agency, voice and representation and its expression through collective bargaining are the key safest path to a more inclusive future. Beyond the academic literature, this has been confirmed by the work of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the International Labor Organization, as well as by the discussions of the European Commission with the social partners on how to regulate the work of platforms.
More research and policy action would help shape the future momentum, putting in place national or global frameworks for structured dialogue and collective bargaining between governments, platform companies and workers. This should be part of a larger strategy to democratize the platform economy as a whole, from its governance to the ability of individual workers to organize and make decisions together about their work.
This was first published by the Albert Hirschman Center on Democracy at the University Institute of Geneva.