Holding platforms accountable to digital workers’ rights

There is an urgent need to improve the welfare and job quality of digital workers, write Mark Graham, Sai Englert and Jamie Woodcock.

Striking Uber and Lyft drivers protest Uber's decision to cut per-mile pay from 80 cents to 60 cents, outside the Uber Hub in Redondo Beach, California, U.S., 25 March 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Platform workers from around the world are starting to push back against poor working conditions in the gig economy. Uber drivers across Los Angeles and Orange County, in the United States, went on strike over pay last week. Uber has recently announced unilateral changes in their per-mile wages, bringing them down from 0.80 to 0.60 USD. The drivers, who have had no say in the changes and were informed through a message received in the app, refused to take the changes sitting down. An estimated 3,000 drivers took strike action.

Last summer, Uber drivers in South Africa struck over similar issues. The increased cut taken by the company – 25 per cent of every trip – alongside growing fuel prices and the expectation that drivers should shoulder all the extra costs, from travel between jobs to car related costs, meant that workers’ wages plummeted considerably in a short period of time. Workers demanded better conditions and greater support from Uber itself. In October, almost identical demands led Uber and Ola drivers – both platforms hire over a million workers in India – in Mumbai and New Delhi to take strike action also.

The UK is no different. Every Monday in the last few months, Uber drivers have met in central London to protest the imposition of new congestion taxes on taxis in Central London. Often parking hundreds of cars across the road – most recently on London Bridge and around Parliament Square – the drivers have demonstrated their capacity to disrupt much of the daily traffic of the capital. The considerable additional cost that the tax represents will severely cut into the drivers’ already meagre pay and push many of them out of a job.

Abdurzak Hadi, a London Uber driver and the chair of London committee of the United Private Hire Drivers (a branch of the IWGB), the union that organised the demonstrations, said:

‘For the last 3 months we have held weekly demonstrations against the imposition of a new congestion charge tax on private hire drivers by the local authority Transport for London, which will cut our earnings by thousands of pounds each year, so much that it will make continuing to work as drivers very difficult. These demonstrations are about more than just this charge, they are about the erosion of our dignity at work and the ever increasing extra costs we have to pay that should be taken on by our employer – Uber – instead of shifted onto us individually. If they take a share of our profits they should shoulder a share of our costs.’

Of course, the campaign against the tax represents a specific demand around how the growing challenge of fighting climate change can be addressed in large cities such as London, and who is expected to shoulder the costs for new projects, yet it also touches upon a number of much larger issues connected to the so-called gig economy – namely the high level of precarity experienced by workers who depend on Uber-like apps for their survival and the considerable amount of costs that are shifted away from companies and onto individual workers in the process.

This process of shifting risks onto workers manifests in four primary ways.

Firstly, the use of apps that track the workers on the job allows employers to shift important quantities of unpaid hours onto the individual workers. Online freelancers in the Global South spend an average of 16 hours a week simply searching for new jobs. The so-called ‘off time’ is individualised despite its crucial aspect to the workers’ ability to carry out each job. For example, when workers travel from one job to the next, when they take a break (imagine if taxi drivers did not stop regularly), or if after travelling to a job the customer cancels, they are doing so without pay. This in turn pushes workers to increase the amount of jobs they take on as well as their hours on the job, in order to earn a liveable wage.

Secondly, most platforms refuse to acknowledge their role as employers of workers. They instead style themselves as technology companies that connect self-employed individuals providing services with service users, instead. Uber, for instance, claim that they do not pay their drivers. In Uber’s worldview, their ‘partner-drivers’ instead pay Uber a fee to use Uber. While this can appear as a rhetorical argument, doing so allows companies to avoid any responsibility in regulating workers’ pay, conditions, or working hours. It is an argument that ignores that platforms, irrespective of how they classify workers, can have an impact on the quality of those jobs.

Thirdly, the issue of employment status also has direct consequences on the burden of labour-related costs. Vehicles, equipment, or security measures are again not considered to be in the remit of the company, but that of the workers instead. If this is an effective mechanism to cut costs for the companies it severely drives up costs for workers, further undercutting their pay. This is where additional costs, such as the new tax, adds new and often unmanageable pressure onto individual drivers.

Finally, and crucially, the lack of employment status also generates a lack of collective bargaining rights for workers when disagreements arise between them and the platforms. One recurring issue is that of platforms changing the terms and conditions of workers or increasing their share of each individual job. Workers are simply informed of the changes through the app’s official communication channels and faced either accepting it or login off – not much of a choice at all. In fact, it was exactly this kind of action that led to Deliveroo workers taking strike action in London, when the company unilaterally moved to change their pay scheme.

To address the fact that platforms continue to find ways of avoiding the responsibilities that come with employment contracts, and the fact that platform workers in most cases have struggled to effectively bargain with platforms, we have developed a new initiative – Fairwork – to hold platforms to account.

Taking both the Fairtrade and the Living Wage Foundation as sources of inspiration, Fairwork highlights best and worst practices in the emerging platform economy by developing standards for platforms around the world. The aim is to harness multiple points of leverage from workers, platforms, and consumers to help improve the conditions and job quality of platform workers.

Fairwork gives platforms scores based on how well they achieve its five standards of fairness: pay, conditions, contracts, management, and representation. Fairwork has carried out interviews with stakeholders, including governments, platform operators, unions and donors in its two first focus countries: South Africa and India. It has then requested that the platforms themselves demonstrate their adherence to its five points of fairness. Platforms are then scored on this basis. It is important to highlight that the scores achieved by platforms do not necessarily mean that they do not provide fair working conditions, but that they were unable to demonstrate this adequately.

In its first year of activity, Fairwork has already had a real impact on the lives of platform workers and the raising of standards in places of work. For example, after coming in contact with the foundation, the company Bottles committed to support the emergence of fair workers’ representation on its platform, free from company interference.

Similarly, under the influence of Fairwork, the No Sweat platform has introduced significant changes in several areas of fairness. Indeed, it pays over the South African minimum wage after taking the workers’ costs into account, has a clear process to ensure that clients on the platform agree to protect workers’ health and safety while also having a clear process for workers to lodge grievance about conditions. It is further committed to consensual and informed process of minimal data collection by the platform. When asked about the process of working with Fairwork, Wilfred Greyling, co-founder of NoSweat said:

‘NoSweat Work believes firmly in a fair deal for all parties involved in any work we put out. Fairwork has helped us formalise those principles and incorporate them into our systems. The NoSweat Work platform is built on people and relationships, we never hide behind faceless technology.’

These are important achievements, especially in the first year of Fairwork and the development of its international standards. The question now is whether it will manage to serve as a positive encouragement to other platforms across the board.

Of course, it should be clear to all that the work of the Fairwork will not resolve the issues faced by workers in the gig economy. These issues will only be resolved – as any other issues in the labour movement – by the workers themselves. However, the Fairwork standards can serve as an incentive for platforms who are afraid of being outdone by their competition to implement better pay and working conditions. It can also serve as a helpful resource for consumers and workers to frame their demands towards platforms.

Fairwork is financed by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), commissioned by the Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and conducted in collaboration with the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. The research project was carried out in collaboration with the International Institute of Information Technology Bangalore (IIIT-B), the University of Cape Town, the University of Manchester, and the University of the Western Cape.

Mark Graham is the Professor of Internet Geography at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. See more of his work at markgraham.space or follow him @geoplace. Sai Englert is a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. Jamie Woodcock is also a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. See more of his work at jamiewoodcock.net or follow him @jamie_woodcock.