Often discussions surrounding the gig economy are bound up with the novelty of the online platforms and digital devices and applications that are associated with it. However, when thinking about the gig economy from the perspective of the future of work there are lessons to be learned from the past. As part of our research into social dialogue and the gig economy, we investigated the future of work that encompassed the perspectives of those whose labour was tied to the rise of online platforms and we elicited the views of those who were organising these workers, such as trade unions and labour organisations.
In our study, some of those involved in amplifying worker voice in the gig economy conveyed some scepticism about its novelty, arguing that the types of work on offer could sometimes be presented as new but were in fact a reinvention of precarity. This perspective implies a need for the platforms to reflect upon the quality of work they are generating but there is another dimension we should not ignore – the role of the consumer. The disposition of many of us in the UK (and beyond) has been to embrace the convenience of purchasing goods and services from our mobile device that the new platforms offer. This is a phenomenon that is far from fleeting – in fact, the trend towards online shopping may have become entrenched for a fresh cohort of consumers over the period of the pandemic as lockdown encouraged the population to embrace going online. As such trends become the new normal, we should pay even closer attention to the quality of work that the platforms produce.
Fully comprehending the quality of work in the gig economy dos however require an appreciation of what is happening offline as well as online. It is important that we connect the quality of employment experienced by the fast-food worker and the platform courier who may both be part of the same online transaction. The concerns shared by these workers have been exemplified by their participation in a gig economy strike that took place in the UK in 2018. As such, when we cast our lens wider to consider the rise of non-standard forms of employment more broadly including the proliferation of zero hours contracts in the UK since the 2010s, we can trace the connective tissue between the precarity of the past and the platform work of the present. These modes of labour market flexibility have evolved with technology to create contemporary dilemmas in the gig economy. For example, some workers may be content with the flexibility these platforms can offer while others view such work as a necessity (through a lack of other options) which they hope is a stepping-stone that transforms into a stable, permanent contract or career. What is particularly interesting here in terms of dialogue between workers and employers is how labour market flexibility in the era of the gig economy has served to obscure the role of ‘the boss’.
An emergent effect of the rise of platform work has been the accelerated disappearance of the workplace boss. Recent research has uncovered the technological aspects of these new forms of algorithmic management, which speaks to some of the key factors enabling this change. The disappearance of ‘the boss’ gives rise to a range of issues but let us highlight two which may be particularly problematic when considering the types of future dialogue required to protect the rights of workers and nurture the development of worker voice. First, when a problem at work arises then the lines are somewhat blurred in terms of to whom such issues must be addressed, and accountability for resolving issues becomes opaque. Second, the rise of algorithmic management and the absence of a decision maker on the ground could make organising for better conditions for traditional worker organisations such as trade unions more difficult when real time decision making is said to be taking place ‘elsewhere’. Understanding this change is particularly important when grasping the types of work generated by online platforms in the UK, where in recent years there has been a growth in self-employment, driven partly by those in the gig economy. Contention around whether or not such workers actually are self-employed or instead have a ‘boss’ have been at the centre of disputes in the UK.
Part of the explanation of the rise in self-employment in the UK connects with the growth of those platforms that involve either transport or the delivery of goods. It is the growth of jobs in these sectors that led many to hope that the Taylor Review into Modern Working Practices, would bring greater clarity to the issue of worker status in the UK. However, concerns regarding the recommendations of that review, particularly from the trade union movement have for some rendered it something of a missed opportunity. It is this impasse around the future of work in the UK, driven in part by the increasing dominance of platforms, and concerns over worker protections that has led to key decisions being made in court. The significance of legal avenues in the UK gives some indication of the experience thus far and perhaps the prospects going forward of developing an effective social dialogue. Some recent court rulings have thus been the key factor in determining the status of gig economy workers as employees and this has been driven by support from trade unions – both emergent grassroots unions dedicated to representing gig workers as well as the long-established larger unions in the UK.
Perhaps then, a key goal in the era of platform work in establishing a more effective social dialogue is to overcome the way in which algorithmic management can obscure who owns and operates the platform and the decision making that effects the employment attached to them. For social dialogue to be effective going forward, perhaps a key first step is therefore to identify the boss. Failing to do so effectively may have specific consequences for young people entering the labour market. New cohorts may be uncertain as to where to direct their claims for better pay, opportunities for training and progression as well as any concerns they have regarding the workplace environment (e.g., in terms of health and safety or issues around equality, diversity and inclusion). This speaks to the important role of trade unions in terms of educating and organising a new generation of workers as well as navigating the technologies and data that are shaping the workplace of the future.
Although the concern with ‘identifying’ the boss outlined here may seem rudimentary, it is based on a recognition that a boss who is obscured by algorithmic management creates challenges for the future development of any meaningful social dialogue. Progress towards more effective forms of social dialogue in the UK already navigate a terrain where recent legislation such as the Trade Union Act has not provided an altogether hospitable environment in terms of relations between government and the organised collective voice offered by the trade union movement.
The future of platform work in the UK and the future of social dialogue are therefore inextricably linked. Employers must reflect on whether they offer an attractive environment for new generations of workers. Government must ensure legislative frameworks are more responsive to the impact of technological disruption. While workers must continue their efforts to identify the boss: they cannot negotiate with an algorithm.
Tom Montgomery is a Research Fellow in the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health and a Lecturer in Politics at Glasgow Caledonian University.
This article has been written for the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy’s series of commentaries on the need to redesign the platform economy on a more democratic and sustainable basis.
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