Recognition and visibility in the platform economy

Today the TUC press-released a recent piece of research I directed which they co-sponsored (along with FEPS and UNI-Europa who were the main funders). It’s quite a strong story – the number of people in the UK working for online platforms has doubled in the three years since the first survey we did. But of course, not being about the Tory leadership contest or anti-semitism in the Labour Party (that extraordinarily assymetrical attempt at ‘balance’ the British media seem to be engaging in), did not result in the usual requests to rush down to Broadcasting House in the small hours to talk about. Which is just as well because I am currently too incapacitated to get out of the front door.

But what is really striking about the coverage (including that of the TUC and previous reports of our related research) has been the way that the image almost invariably chosen to illustrate the ‘platform economy’ is that of a cyclist (usually white and male) sporting the logo of a food delivery delivery company such as Deliveroo or Uber Eats (or very occasionally, carrying an insulated food delivery box from which that logo has been carefully photoshopped out).

What our research shows, however (and this is even quoted in some of the coverage, like this from the BBC) is that food delivery riders represent only a very small proportion of people working for online platforms. Indeed, even if they are amalgamated with the people working for driving platforms like Uber (the other great stereotype of the ‘gig economy’ worker) they are greatly outnumbered by other platform workers, working in more hidden ways. The largest group, by far, are people working for online platforms like Upwork, Fiverr or Clickworker in global markets doing anything from low-skilled ‘click work’ to higher-qualified professional work like software development, graphic design or editing. Then there is another huge group (also exceeding the driving and delivery workers) doing a variety of household work including cleaning, babysitting, assembling flat-pack furniture, plumbing, gardening, building and repair.(for platforms like Helpling, Taskrabbit, Mybuilder or Findababysitter).

Even if we concentrate just on the food delivery workers, the white guy on a cycle is not necessarily typical. In the part of London I live in the vast majority of takeaway food comes on a scooter (usually with an ‘L’ plate) driven by somebody who is black or from an ethnic minority, often speaking very little English. There are some women cyclists but they are rare compared with the scooter-driving men from Latin America, South Asia, the Middle East, Africa and, less frequently, Eastern Europe who until recently congregated outside my house every day and deliver my dinner on days when I am too ill or tired to cook. (This is based on personal observation rather than research evidence, but has been confirmed in discussions with other researchers and trade union activists in the field. And is certainly not contradicted by the survey results).

But in the context of the larger picture this is neither here nor there. What is extraordinary is the way that this white male cyclist has become the emblematic figure not just of the gig economy in general but also of the ways that workers are starting to organise against online platforms.

Part of the explanation (though I am not sure how big a part) has to lie in their visibility There they are, on our streets, parading the logos of the companies that are also advertised on our screens, presenting the perfect photo opportunity for the lazy journalist looking for an image that says it all without a lengthy caption. And, to be fair, how easy would it be to explain how an image of somebody mopping a floor, or mowing a lawn or pounding a keyboard represents platform labour? But these workers are not only visible to random observers; they are also visible to each other, making it relatively easy to compare notes, discuss grievances and get together to formulate strategies to improve their situations. And, connected with this, they are also visible to researchers and, being in a form of employment with low entry barriers, offer attractive opportunities to find workers to interview and to carry out ‘participant observation’ of what may seem like an exciting new form of worker organisation – or at least the potential for it. I have lost count of the number of PhDs in progress based on just this form of research, usually (but not always) being carried out by white men. They remind me very much, these young men, usually committed socialists, of their equivalents over half a century ago who went to work in auto factories to collect the material for the first book that launched their careers as Marxist labour sociologists.

And far be it from me to knock them.There is something heroic about the way that, in city after city around the world, these riders are coming together, taking part in colourful protests, joining trade unions, taking on the platforms in the courts and, in 2018, even forming a new international organisation – The Transnational Courier Federation. In these pessimistic times, what socialist does not rejoice in the thought that precarious workers really can organise, and want to partake vicariously in their successes? And what labour market researcher does not want to find a topic that seems timely and politically important and likely to lead to publishable results (and, dare I say it, goes a step beyond the knowledge of the PhD supervisor)? These workers are living proof that the spirit of trade unionism is not dead and that the impulses for solidarity and collaboration can resurface even in situations of extreme atomisation and competition between workers.

They remind us of past struggles, like those of the East London dockers in the 19th century who organised to bring dignity and fairness to a situation described by their leader, Ben Tillot in the following words ‘We are driven into a shed, iron-barred from end to end, outside of which a foreman or contractor walks up and down with the air of a dealer in a cattle market, picking and choosing from a crowd of men, who, in their eagerness to obtain employment, trample each other under foot, and where like beasts they fight for the chances of a day’s work’* . While the physical shed is lacking, we have interviewed platform workers describing the equal desperation with which they wait, thumb poised, to click ‘accept’ on a newly posted task before somebody else gets it. Who could not applaud these 21st century equivalents of the casual dockers, with similar goals, exhibiting similar courage?

Yet I do find myself worrying that, in our appreciation and admiration for these actions, we may fail to learn from history, or take the wrong lessons from it. The dockers, like today’s delivery riders and taxi drivers, were out there in public spaces, waiting together in the places where there was likely to be the greatest demand for their services and, as a result, well placed to organise. And their efforts clearly led to results – results which over time became integrated into the institutional landscape, for example in the development of the National Docks Labour Scheme or (in the case of the London taxi drivers who set up the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association) agreements covering standard charges, licenses etc. This very success, of a type repeated across the labour movements of the world, might provoke in some a belief that this form of organisation is all that is needed. Whatever new form of work emerges, it may be thought, so long as the workers get together and follow the example of other trade unions they will sooner or later be able to bargain their way into a situation that conforms ever more closely to the standard employment model.

And yes, that is partly the case, and yes, that is certainly something to support and strive for. But yet, but yet.. What about all the workers who are not visibly present in public spaces, who do not get a chance to meet each other in person? What about those who aren’t even competing with compatriots but bidding against competitors across the world in economies where wage levels, laws and working conditions are very different?

In late 19th century London the dock workers managed to organise, and so did some factory workers, including women. But there was very little organisation among the tens of thousands of domestic servants, skivvying away in private in other people’s basements during the day and sleeping in their attics by night. Their 21st century equivalents are not usually provided with a bed but are expected to work in equally hidden circumstances, under extremely tight time pressure, with the constant threat hanging over them that a bad customer review might lead to being dropped from the platform with no right of appeal. Domestic workers around the world have managed to organise effectively, from South Africa to Hong Kong to California, often against appalling odds. But the circumstances in which they work create huge obstacles to being able to identify and meet each other (very often, the only way for workers to contact each other is via ethnic or community-based organisations).

It is when we come to such vulnerable groups, often women, often migrant workers, that we come up against the limits of sector-based or occupation-based collective bargaining as narrowly conceived and, in the same spirit as the 19th and 20th century trade unions, need to start campaigning for society-wide measures that cover all workers, regardless of whether they are signed-up members of particular unions. Not just the right of cycle couriers, for example, to have a particular employment status or a particular level of minimum pay but generalised rights for all workers to have employment protection and a national minimum wage.

The challenge, then, is for the efforts of the visible workers to be channelled in support of those who are less visible, in forms of solidarity that should ultimately benefit all. But in order for this to happen the existence of those invisible workers has first to be recognised. Easier said than done.

*Ben Tillot (1910) Dock, Wharf and Riverside Union: A Brief History of the Docker’s Union, London.

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