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Seven ways platform workers are fighting back

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Research and reports
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Platform working is an expanding part of the economy. Globally the number of platforms has grown five-fold in a decade.[1]

And the coronavirus pandemic seems to have been the catalyst for further surge in platform growth in the UK and elsewhere as many homebound workers opted for internet shopping and food delivery.[2]

New polling data published in this collection shows that 14.7 per cent of working people in England and Wales, equivalent to approximately 4.4 million people, now undertakes platform work at least once a week. Almost a quarter (22.6 per cent) of workers have done platform work at some point.

It can seem that practices like casualisation, management by algorithm rather than human and a complete absence of trade unions are baked into the way that platform economy is run. There are fears that it is therefore only a matter of time before these spread to other jobs.

Yet platform workers, who range from private hire drivers to translators, and their representatives are fighting back in many important areas and have secured notable victories.

However, often this activity is conducted in isolation: the labour lawyers plot improvement to employments rights in one corner while the tech enthusiasts highlight discriminatory algorithms in another. Meanwhile, union organisers plug away in the vital work of signing up new members.

This essay collection seeks to unite these experiences to build a picture of the various areas where platform workers are fighting for their rights with the aim of informing and inspiring future union activity. All work should be decent work. These essays set out ways this might be achieved in the platform economy.

[1] International Labour Organization (2021). World employment and social outlook: the role of digital labour platforms in transforming the world of work, ILO

[2] Fairwork (2021). UK Ratings 2021: labour standards in the gig economy, Fairwork p. 8

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Introduction – Tim Sharp, TUC

When the GMB trade union announced it had signed a recognition with private hire giant Uber, its national officer Mick Rix declared: “This agreement shows gig economy companies don’t have to be a wild west on the untamed frontier of employment rights.”[1]

Companies that employ platform workers like Uber, food delivery business Deliveroo and online retailer Amazon have become emblematic of poor employment practices.

Evidence abounds of overworked delivery drivers forced to urinate in bottles[2], safety failings[3] and the use of discriminatory technology[4].

The terms “gig economy” and “platform economy” are often used interchangeably. One way to understand the difference is that the gig economy to refers work based on short-term tasks and platform economy to transactions that take place through digital means.

What this set of essays is concerned with is where the two intersect, where there is the exchange of labour for money between individuals or companies via digital platforms that actively facilitate matching between providers and customers, on a short-term and payment by task basis.[5]

This encompasses a wide range of activities. On online web-based platforms such as Upwork and Fiverr, workers undertake work in areas like translation, financial services, legal services, patent services, design and data analytics. Location-based platforms are involved in activities like taxi services and food delivery.[6]

Location-based platforms have been among the highest profile, perhaps due to the visibility of these workers. During the coronavirus pandemic, when many workers remained at home, the likes of delivery drivers kept supplies moving to households, often with inadequate protective equipment.[7]

But there are issues relevant to platform working generally including the role of the platform in price-setting and pay-setting, charging of fees to workers and clients, matching of workers with clients, allocation and evaluation of work through algorithms, monitoring of work using digital tools, and the use of rating systems.[8] Common to virtually all platforms is an effort by operators to deny those who work through them an employment relationship and avoid obligations, such as the payment of minimum wages and trade union rights.[9]

This presents workers with unpredictable scheduling, inconsistent earnings, and unreliable long-term employment prospects.[10]

The rise of platforms has been assisted by the prevalence of digital devices, the availability of cheap data and the development of algorithms. But it has also been based on the willingness of operators to use weak labour laws to organise work with very little investment in physical assets and by avoiding the hiring of employees.

The availability of workers also appears to have been driven by the desire to top up rock-bottom wages[11] and the difficulty in securing flexible work in conventional roles.[12]

This set of essays starts with analysis of new polling data on platform working by Professors Neil Spencer and Ursula Huws. This reveals the continued growth of platform working. People in England and Wales who said that they performed work they had found via an online platform at least once a week grew from 5.8% of the working population in 2016 to 11.8% in 2019 rising to 14.7% in 2021 (equivalent to approximately 4.4 million people

This has presented challenges to trade unions including in organising workers who often operate in isolation from their colleagues;[13] in enforcing workers’ rights in the face of employers who are willing to use misleading contracts and fight lengthy court battles;[14] and in tackling exploitative uses of data and algorithms by platform employers.[15]

It is therefore tempting to regard the platformisation of work as inevitable. Casualisation, management by algorithm rather than human and a lack of a worker voice appear baked into how the platform economy operates. In time, it appears, this will spread further into other forms of work.[16] This fear is supported by a survey conducted by the TUC showing significant numbers of workers report that artificial intelligence is used by their employer for issues like absence management, performance ratings and work allocation. In time, it is argued, this will spread to other forms of work.[17]

But seeing the platformisation of work and the downgrading of terms and conditions as inevitable would overlook the fact that workers and their representatives have developed strategies for fighting back against this trend. The notable victories that they have secured offer an insight into how platform work could become decent work.

This essay collection seeks to unite these experiences and highlights seven areas where workers are fighting back. Too often this work is conducted in isolation: the labour lawyers plot improved employment rights in one corner while the tech enthusiasts fight discriminatory algorithms elsewhere. Meanwhile, the union organisers plug away trying to recruit new members while corporate governance specialists seek to get workers’ rights issues taken seriously in City boardrooms.

One of these arenas of struggle is in the courts. Employment law is based both on the legislation passed by Parliament and the case law: how courts interpret those provisions. This is why the recent defeat of private hire giant Uber in the Supreme Court is so significant.[18] The judges found that Uber couldn’t rely on misleading contracts: the key factor was what Parliament wanted to achieve in protecting vulnerable workers. Therefore, drivers were entitled to rights including the minimum wage and holiday pay. This has paved the way for the GMB to sign a groundbreaking recognition deal with Uber which includes access for GMB to worker hubs to talk to drivers.[19]

But the implications of the case could reach further. In their essay, Professors Alan Bogg and Michael Ford QC explain how unions can use the Uber judgment to challenge the spurious use of substitution clauses in the contracts of some platform workers. These purport to allow workers to give their work to others. The real aim is to show that those they engage are not the platform’s workers or employees with employment rights. This looks unsustainable now that courts are invited to examine the employment relationship in the round.

Worker Info Exchange founder James Farrar also draws on the implications of the Uber judgment in his essay. Now that platform employers have less scope to rely on dodgy contract clauses, the next battle is over the use of data to control workers.

This chimes with a recent report for the TUC that set out the legal routes available to workers when AI decision-making goes wrong.[20] This was accompanied by a manifesto for change.[21]

In his contribution, Farrar sets out how platform workers can use data protection rights and collective structures to take control of their personal data at work.

This theme is picked up by Dr Christina Colclough of The Why Not Lab. She shares Farrar’s concerns about the power handed to employers by their access to worker data. Colclough set outs what amounts to a route map to worker collectivisation of data, starting with the means for sharing of data that are becoming available to workers and data. But it is not just a case of downloading a few apps: unions and workers need to capacity build, including developing a movement-wide understanding of data and algorithms.

The UK is by no means the only country where the employment model used by platforms is being challenged in the courts. In Spain delivery platforms faced a succession of legal defeats. This has resulted in a hugely important sector-wide agreement on rights for deliver drivers, as Carlos Gutierrez, secretary of youth and new realities of work at the union federation CCOO, sets out in his essay.

But in the UK sector-wide deals are rare, due in part to hostile labour laws. This has required unions to be innovative about the ways they seek to organise at enterprise level in the platform economy. Mick Rix, national officer at the GMB, explains in his contribution how his union has sought to combine legal routes with new ways of organising. The union’s persistence has resulted in a recognition deal at notoriously anti-union Uber, including rights of access to driver hubs.

Investor concern at employment practices appears to be rising. This became most apparent when Deliveroo founder Will Shu listed his company on the stock market earlier this year. While not the only reason for the shares plunging, many investors were worried about what they saw. Tom Powdrill, head of stewardship at corporate governance advisor PIRC and Janet Williamson, senior policy officer at the TUC, explain in their essay that the pressure will continue.

A further front in the battle for decent work in the platform economy has been opened up by the academics at Fairwork. Long responsible for highly influential work on the sector, the organisation has now published rankings for some of the most prominent platforms in the UK.[22] Informed consumer power could yet become another driver of better worker conditions. In their contribution, Dr Alessio Bertolini and Dr Matthew Cole explain why platforms’ approaches to worker engagement and trade unions plays such a prominent role in their ratings.

Between them these essays build a picture of a diverse sector that has hitherto thrived by denying its workers basic rights. But pressure to observe workers’ individual and collective rights is coming from the courts, unions, via investors and potentially through consumers. Platform work can be decent work and this collection is intended to inform, encourage and inspire platform workers and their representatives in their ongoing struggle.

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[1] Butler S (26 May 2021). “Uber agrees union recognition deal with GMB”, The Guardian…

[2] Reuters (3 April 2021). “Amazon acknowledges issue of drivers urinating in bottles in apology to Rep. Pocan,” Reuters

[3] Goodwin, K (22 April 2021). “Food delivery firms must address rider safety concerns, say campaigners,” The Ferret

[4] Kersley A (1 March 2021). “Couriers say Uber’s ‘racist’ facial identification tech got them fired”, Wired

[5] This draws on the definition employed in Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (2018). The characteristics of those in the gig economy. Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

[6] International Labour Organization (2021). World employment and social outlook: the role of digital labour platforms in transforming the world of work, ILO pp. 74-77

[7] Fairwork (2020). The gig economy and Covid-19: looking ahead, Fairwork

[8] ILO (2021) p77

[9] Croft, J and Venkataramakrishnan, S (19 February 2021). “Uber loses landmark UK battle as Supreme Court rules drivers are workers,” Financial Times; Butler, S (5 December 2018). “Deliveroo riders lose high court battle to gain union recognition,” The Guardian

[10] Johnston, H and Land-Kazlauskas, C (2019). Organizing On-Demand: Representation, Voice, and

Collective Bargaining in the Gig Economy, International Labour Organization

[11] University of Hertfordshire et al (2019). Platform work in the UK, University of Hertfordshire…

[12] TUC (2 September 2019). “One in three flexible working requests turned down, TUC poll reveals”, TUC…

[13] Johnston and Land-Kazlauskas (2019) p. 24

[14] Ford, M, & Bogg, A (2019). “Between Statute and Contract: Who is a. Worker?” Law Quarterly Review, 135, pp. 347-353

[15] TUC (2020). Technology managing people: the worker experience, TUC…

[16] ILO (2021). p. 3

[17] ILO (2021). p. 3

[18] Uber BV and others (Appellants) v Aslam and others (Respondents) (2020) UKSC 5

[19] GMB Union (26 May 2021). “Uber and GMB strike historic union deal for 70,000 UK drivers”.…

[20] Robin, A and Masters, D (2021). Technology Managing People – The legal implications, Cloisters and TUC…

[21] TUC (2021). Dignity at work and the AI revolution, TUC…

[22] Fairwork (2021). UK Ratings 2021: labour standards in the gig economy, Fairwork

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