If workers do not get the protections they need from government, they will have to take action for themselves
11 July 2017
A delivery courier recently told me that her work makes her stressed and anxious. She is badly paid, sometimes less than the national minimum wage, and each part of every delivery she makes is timed and monitored through an app on her smartphone. She regularly receives an email, generated automatically, which tells her to speed up because she’s falling short of target times.
I’ve spoken to Uber drivers who fear the algorithms which allocate them jobs, give them a performance rating, and even decide to ‘deactivate’ them. Union officials have told me about warehouse workers regularly taken away by ambulance because of the physical injuries they have sustained working under constant surveillance by digital trackers and CCTV. They burn themselves out meeting the demands of their employer to shift products off the shelves at ever faster ‘pick rates’, and end up in hospital.
These are some of the workers who have to put up with ‘modern employment’ in Britain, where insecurity and low pay are rife, and excessive monitoring and control come as standard. More than three million people in the UK are in insecure work; close to a million people on zero hour contracts; more than five million people earning less than the real living wage. The system is not working for them. That is why Matthew Taylor’s review into modern employment – which reported today – was commissioned by the Government. But will the Taylor Review proposals do anything to help those stressed out, burned out and fearful workers?
Well, it’s a start. The review clearly recognises that some workers in the so-called gig economy need much greater rights and protections if they are genuinely going to benefit from flexibility.
But there is another issue on which the Review is silent. And that is the issue of surveillance.
We urgently need appropriate limits on surveillance and monitoring in the workplace
The digital industrial revolution means that increasingly firms will face a choice to digitalise or die, as they seek to survive and succeed in the modern economy. The introduction of platform networks, and the increasing use of smartphones and other digital technology to allocate, organise and manage work, means that data is created at each stage of the production of goods or delivery of services. The aggregation and analysis of this data, combined with the use of algorithms, provides firms with the opportunity to push for efficiency in ways that have not been possible before.
This creates huge potential to become more productive and less wasteful. But it also means a shift in power and an increase in the control employers can exert over employees. Those who fear technological unemployment because of the march of the robots ought to be just as concerned with the prospect of humans being forced to behave like robots because of the degree of monitoring and control that is becoming possible. And this is true not just for those in the very lowest paid work but increasingly also for those in white-collar jobs.
We urgently need appropriate limits on surveillance and monitoring in the workplace. Algorithms and big data are increasingly used by firms to monitor performance, and make decisions about wage-setting, hiring and firing. There needs to be transparency about how these algorithms are used, as a first step in the process of figuring out how we hold them accountable.
Then there is the problem of market dominance. Go to many of Britain’s towns, especially on the edges of big cities, and you will find taxi drivers facing unemployment because of the aggressive expansion of Uber. In some parts of the economy, firms are so dominant they are capable of setting wages artificially low without fear that workers will move elsewhere because they have no effective alternative. One way to address this would be for the Government to expand the remit of the Competition and Markets Authority to include the interests of workers who are victims of dominant and concentrated market power.
The Taylor Review does not offer enough for those at the sharp end of modern employment. So it’s time for workers to take matters into their own hands.
At the New Economics Foundation we’ve been working with taxi drivers in Yorkshire – including former Uber drivers – to set up their own driver-owned app so they are in more control of their working lives. In London the fightback against these new forms of insecure work is well under way, led by unions big and small. And we’ll be joining that fight soon, working with organisers over the coming months to campaign against insecure work in the capital.
To protect themselves from exploitation, the courier, the driver and the warehouse worker need real power. That power can come from government, regulation and legislation. But it can also come from action and innovation in the workplace. If workers do not get the protections they need from government, they will have to take action for themselves.
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