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Improving the working conditions of platform workers. Pt. 2

James Farrar

Digital Workers’ rights activist

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Improving the working conditions of platform workers. Pt. 2

In this episode, Sarah Diedro is in conversation with Digital Worker Rights Activist James Farrar. They discuss his thoughts on data driven exploitation in the gig economy as a former Uber driver turned activist, and how gig companies are using ‘hidden algorithmic control’ to exert more power over workers.

In this two-part episode, we tackle the issue of platform workers – an increasing amount of workers who rely on being paid for each completed task (gig) in the gig economy. In the first episode, Sarah Diedro is in conversation with Green MEP Kim van Sparrentak, who is assessing the European Commission’s new legislative proposal to improve the working conditions of people working through digital labour platforms. In the second part, Digital Worker Rights Activist James Farrar, describes his experience as an Uber driver and the main challenges that digital workers face. New disruptive digital technologies lead to innovation, but also risk endangering existing worker’s rights and protections – leading to the need to regulate digital working rights. 

Although the EU lacks a clear definition of gig-work, it is estimated that up to 36 million EU workers have participated in gig-work, including through platforms such as Uber or Deliveroo. Technology offers new ways to put workers and customers in contact with each other through online platforms. In the digital economy, work is broken down into its smallest constituent parts and is then distributed to workers using algorithms. Today, platform workers are paid for each completed task (gig) rather than employed through regular work contracts which include social protections – but this will likely soon change. 

Considering the impact of the gig-economy on workers and the likely increase and spread to more traditional sectors of the economy, measures must be taken to limit the negative consequences. That’s why the European Commission is working on a solution for platform workers to make sure that they get the rights that they deserve, in the form of a new legislative initiative. The Greens have always pushed for decent working conditions and are fighting for platform workers to have the worker protection and rights that they deserve. 

Uber driver turned activist: Data exploitation in the gig economy

In the digital economy, platform workers face many challenges. Firstly, they are misclassified by many digital platforms as self-employed, as they seek to externalise obligations that historically assumed by employers. Secondly, the surveillance of these workers has been intensifying, with facial recognition and geolocation checking becoming the norm. Platform workers are increasingly under the control of ‘hidden algorithms’ which seek to exert power over them. Thirdly, they face heightened occupational health and safety risks due to their limited worker protections and their essential work during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

James Farrar is Founder of the App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU) and Founder and Director of the Worker Info Exchange set up to help gig, platform workers secure their data rights as defined under the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). When James Farrar was assaulted on the job, these risks became evident. Contractually, Uber had set itself up as merely a booking agent rather than an employer, shedding any responsibility for the drivers themselves. Instead of helping Farrar with his police report, they focused on protecting their customer. He then started to ask: ‘What are we truly earning per hour?’, ‘How is our time on the platform utilised?’, and ‘Is there fairness in how the work is allocated and dispatched?’. 

Farrar fought for his employee rights along with other Uber drivers in a worker status claim case that went to the UK Supreme Court and succeeded in February 2021.

What started out as an individual issue became a collective struggle for worker’s rights. He started organising workers in 2015, which became a certified trade union with the largest base of Uber drivers and couriers in the UK. Despite the asymmetric relationship of power between workers and big platforms, Farrar has proven that it’s possible to resist on the streets, in court, in the lobbies, in the workplace and in the media to challenge unfair automated decisions. Recently, Worker Info Exchange has published a report ‘Managed by Bots: Data-Driven Exploitation in the Gig Economy’ which explores how companies exert algorithmic control on workers. Farrar illustrates the importance of building worker power in the face of companies who try to isolate claimants and repress change:

“Organising is about workers getting together, building trust and solidarity amongst themselves, and preparing to resist and fight back.”

The European Commission’s new legislation to improve platform worker’s conditions

Due to a lag in regulation, member states such as Spain have been spearheaded solutions to these challenges, in tandem with the thousands of court cases brought against big digital platform companies across Europe. Now in 2022, important legislative changes propose to address them to ensure better working conditions of platform workers at the European level. The European Commission’s new legislative initiative, which Green MEP Kim van Sparrentak is working on, has two important aspects. 

The first is that it tackles ‘bogus self-employment’, which allows companies to treat platform workers as interchangeable assets rather than employees. Indeed, the platform workers do not really have the freedom of a self-employed person in the first place – they cannot decide which jobs they want to take and must take the ones given by the algorithm. Now, the companies must show evidence of their employees being self-employed.

The second is that the algorithmic management of employees will be strictly regulated, ensuring that it is now part of a social dialogue which will give workers a say in how the algorithm works. A person will also be made accountable for important decisions that until now have been relegated to the algorithm such as firing employees (also known as ‘robo-firing’). This is vital since algorithmic management is extending into other sectors. As Kim van Sparrentak states: “The whole idea of having platforms and platform work is not something that is going to go away soon. But we have to make sure that the people working for these platforms have the right protection and are treated as the employees that they are.”

The EU draft directive will do a lot to mitigate the issues that platform workers face, but there is still work to be done to recover a dignified conception of work and rights within the digital economy. It must also be part of a larger effort to stop the increasing casualisation of corporate employment relationships which creates insecurity and precarity. As Farrar states, the language of the gig economy: “has confused our conception of work and the rights are associated with it”.

Beyond worker solidarity, we also need national and global solidarity on this issue, to share experiences about the gig economy, our learnings about data and digital rights in Europe, as well as tactics of resistance. At a time in which the digital economy is infiltrating new areas of the labour market, it is critical to remain vigilant of how new and disruptive technologies are affecting hard-earned worker’s rights and working conditions. 

Follow the work of Kim Van Sparrentak and James Farrar on twitter.

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