Bama Athreya, Ben Wray – Decent Work in the Digital Economy: Is Data the Key?

Bama Athreya of the Gig Podcast and Ben Wray of the Gig Economy Project report on the key take-aways from a recent international conference on decent work in the platform economy.

This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in the EU was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Lipman-Miliband Trust

New rights frameworks over data are key to the advance of workers’ rights in the digital age, organisers, regulators and researchers concluded at the 23 September Advancing Decent Work in the Platform Economy international conference organised by Reshaping Work.  

The virtual conference brought together 70 organisers, academics, policymakers and advocates from a dozen countries, including South Africa, Brazil, India, US, UK and Mexico. Participants agreed on the need for workers and municipalities to gain access to and control over the data of digital platform companies, as a key prong in any successful strategy for decent work in the 21st century.

Speakers:  Workers and Governments Need Stronger Role

In the opening panel, keynote speaker Debra Weddall, National Secretary of the Rideshare Drivers Network in Australia, set the stage for a worker-led model of platform sector governance.  She argued that workers need to reassert the right to define, or  “re-design”  app work to restore rights and dignity.  

“If we don’t do that, if we don’t present a workable re-design of app work – because it is affecting every area of employment – we are going to be in a situation where it will just evolve according to company expertise; what they can do and what they can get away with,” Waddell explained, as she made the case for a worker-led model for platform work to instruct and influence governments around the world.

She argued that this needed to be an international effort as otherwise “companies like Uber can pick us off one by one”.

Four additional speakers framed issues for discussion.  “Getting access and control over your data can help us build collective bargaining power,” James Farrar, founder and director of the Worker Info Exchange, an organisation set-up to help workers secure their data rights, and a member of the app driver & couriers union in the UK, told the conference.

Farrar, a former Uber driver who has recently brought a global class action suit against the company which could have major implications for worker data access, said workers are being deactivated from the app for so-called “fraudulent activity”, which includes turning down work. He said that Uber and other digital platforms keep a wide-range of data on drivers, but that drivers aren’t aware of what is kept on them or how it is used.

“We are entitled to all this data, but we have to fight to get access to it,” he said.

Meera Joshi, a former public official who led New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission and promoted reforms including a minimum wage floor for Uber drivers, also argued that data rights are key to regulatory progress, as without it there is an “incredible imbalance of power” between muncipalities and digital platform companies.

Because New York was able to access Uber’s data for the city, it could show that 96 per cent of drivers were not earning the minimum wage, and that 40 per cent of drivers were spending time in their cars uncompensated.

“As a politician you can’t walk away from that. And the companies were without the ability to refute it because it was based on the data they produced,” Joshi explained.

“When you have a data point to make public…you have one of the most powerful weapons that money can’t buy: the truth.

Zephyr Teachout, Associate Law Professor at Fordham Law School in the US and author of Break ‘Em Up, a recently published book on tackling monopoly power, reminded participants that asking for data access is insufficient; a concerted effort is needed to end data monopolisation. 

eachout argued that re-building the collective power of workers required “destroying illegitimate corporate power”, which meant ending a business model that requires market ‘winners’ to extract and monopolise supplier activity in order to take over markets.

Teachout described the labour market monopsony that occurs when companies are allowed to use such a strategy to establish a monopoly position, as there is no “option to leave” to a competitor firm. She said that links had to be made between problems of monopolisation in the digital platform sector and similar issues in other sections of the economy. 

“This is not technologically determined – this is a business model that we can ban,” Teachout said. “The way to ban this business model is to ban forms of monopolisation across the board.”

Valerio De Stefano, Professor of Labour Law at KU Leuven in the Netherlands, connected the discussion back to the need for reforms to labour and employment law, saying that it was “basically false” to argue that workers cannot have “flexibility and employment protections at the same time”.

“Many employment laws established around the world were specifically designed to give protection to casual workers,” he said.

Breakouts:  A Data-Centered Agenda for Workers and Governments

The plenary was followed by four off-the-record breakout discussions, providing space for participants to identify critical issues and brainstorm bold new approaches and solutions.  While these discussions were not for attribution, as participants we gleaned new insights.  The following themes emerged and are worthy of continued and more detailed discussion:

We need to redefine whether data extraction is a fundamentally exploitative activity.  Just as we have defined other forms of labour exploitation such as forced labour and child labour as unacceptable, the extraction of data for the purpose of surveillance and behavioural control should be addressed in international and national norms as simply out of bounds for any company.

In situations where workers willingly provide certain data to companies, they still need the right to contest the programming logic behind automated decision making; workers have a right not just to the raw data they provide, but to know how companies are using it.  This means companies must be obliged to share code with workers, where that code is directly relevant to their work. 

Companies can’t have unfettered rights to decide what other entities obtain access to worker data.  Two issues emerged involving government’s role.  On the one hand, workers have a right to know if their data is being provided to law enforcement or other government entities, and to opt in or out.  On the other hand, municipalities have suffered from corporate obfuscation of data in order to make it more difficult for regulators to enforce minimum standards. 

Regulators must be transparent about what data will be collected, and with whom it will be shared, and the ways in which it will be protected.  Here, digital rights advocates, particularly those with a singular focus on individual privacy and a blanket opposition to government access to data, can be at cross-purposes with organizations representing collective interest.  It is important to find common ground on the rights and restrictions around data collection and use by governments on behalf of citizens.

Given business models premised on data monopolisation, this agenda must be combined with a worker-centric approach to competition (or anti-trust) policy, as workers are less likely to be successful in achieving collective rights to data unless corporate concentration is diluted.  Anti-trust legislation is out-dated and open to abuse, to the point that competition laws are even being weaponised by digital platforms to prevent self-employed workers from collective bargaining, as a recent case in the European Union has highlighted. The way forward with respect to some platforms may be to turn them over to public control.  In other cases, governments must establish the principle that data is part of the public ‘commons’ and establish rules that set a level playing field for all companies seeking to build business models around citizen data.

In sum, our key takeaway from this event is that well-meaning advocates seeking to enhance consumer and small business protection, individual privacy rights and workers’ rights may be pulling in different directions.  Consumers and citizens would be well-served by making common cause with unions and worker advocates to develop a common agenda around data governance.  The platform sector’s fundamental economic premise of unlimited corporate data extraction needs to be challenged, and advocates need to agree on government’s role.  If advocates can unite, progressive policymakers in governments will have the support they need to coalesce and advance citizen- and worker-centric public policy.

One of the co-hosts of this event, the Cornell University Industrial and Labor Relations School’s Worker Institute, will hold a conference on November 12-13, 2020 reprising key themes and questions from the September 23 event.

David Whyte

Brave New Europe’s feed of radical alternatives to capitalism is indispensable for our times. It is crucial that we support its mission to promote alternatives to our bankrupt and self-destructive economic and political system.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.