There are now seventy million people around the world who find work through digital platforms. In the UK, we have tended to think of work that happens in a particular place at particular times. However, the rise of digital work platforms is bringing into being a much more uncertain and precarious future of work.
Digital platforms provide a way for workers to find and complete work. This can either be work that has to happen in a particular place (including delivering food, driving passengers, or cleaning a house) or freelance work that can be completed remotely (including the shorter “microwork” of digital tasks that can be easily distributed across the world).
The platform company mediates that relationship between customers and workers through a website or an app, and legally engages with the workers as so-called “self-employed independent contractors” rather than employees.
My colleague Prof Mark Graham and I have been developing a way to understand and try to improve the conditions of platform work. We have been interviewing platform workers across the world, trying to understand the experiences and impacts of this work.
In high-income countries, platform work it tends to be compared to relatively secure jobs that are often (or used to be) protected by regulation and trade unions. It is experienced by many as a degradation of existing norms and conditions of work. In low- and middle-income countries, many workers come from the informal sector, perhaps without ever having had secure work. However, for both, the outcomes are ultimately similar: low paid, precarious, almost no agency, and with little opportunity for worker voice or collective bargaining.
Despite the increasing evidence of negative outcomes from the work, there is the offer of flexibility that so many workers are looking for – or at least the promise of it. Many workers truly value this new way of organising work, finding ways to fit it around their lives. The challenge is therefore how this work can be improved for, and by, the workers on these platforms.
There are major challenges for platform workers who attempt to collectively organise for better conditions. The dispersed nature of the jobs – whether spread over the roads of a city, or even over the planet – makes it hard for workers to come together and organise. Many existing trade unions are either not interested, or do not know how to support these workers (with a few notable exceptions like the IWGB). There have been strikes by platform workers in many countries, but still few tangible victories for workers. Most platform workers therefore still have little choice but to take the low wages and poor working conditions offered to them by platforms.
In response to the relatively lack of regulation and the nascent stage of worker organisation, we have developed the Fairwork Foundation: a project, based at the University of Oxford, that rates platforms against criteria for “fair work” that have been co-developed with workers and platforms. From 2019, we will be producing yearly league tables of platforms in India, South Africa, Germany, and the UK.
By highlighting best and worst practices against a transparent rating system that evaluates fair working conditions, we aim to provide incentives and disincentives that should nudge platforms towards better practices. As the platform model infiltrates into ever more professions and ever more sectors of the economy, it is important to set core standards that work should never fall below. We see our project, the Fairwork Foundation, as one step towards building a fairer future, and one that begins at work.