Ben Wray – Digital Platforms and the Pandemic: Interview with Jamie Woodcock

The changing face of the gig economy

Ben Wray is a freelance journalist leading BRAVE NEW EUROPE’S Gig Economy Project. He also produces a morning newsletter called Source Direct on Scottish politics, which you can sign-up to here:

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

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Jamie Woodcock is a senior lecturer at the Open University and a researcher based in London focused on work, the gig economy and platforms. He is author of The Gig Economy (Polity, 2019), Marx at the Arcade (Haymarket, 2019) and Working The Phones (Pluto, 2017), and is on the editorial board of Notes from Below.

We reviewed The Gig Economy last week (read here), and this week The Gig Economy Project spoke to Jamie as we reach the six month mark of the pandemic in Europe: how is it changing labour relations, what trends are we likely to see going forward with the platform model, and what’s the outlook for gig economy organising and resistance?

Q) It’s almost six months since the pandemic crisis started in Europe. What have you observed in terms of the impact on the gig economy?

JW: The big trend is just the sheer number of people relying on digital platforms to make a living and who have seen demand on those platforms drop spectacularly, and thus have not been able to work but still have all the same costs, often including work costs.

I’ve been doing research with delivery drivers and private hire drivers, and I had a conversation with one who said: “I’ve got a car I need to continue to make payments on, I’m scared of going to work because I’m worried about Covid, there could be an infected passenger and I don’t want to bring it back to the family home. But I’ve got no choice but to keep going out to work.”

I think that’s quite typical. Another driver told me that in the worst moments of the pandemic, he could spend the entire day waiting for work and not get a single delivery. And many of the government schemes, like furloughing or the self-employed support scheme in the UK, don’t cover these types of workers.

So all of the things that everyone thought in terms of the risks of the gig economy, that some people would suffer when they are injured or had to take time off work because they have no contractual security, suddenly that all happened at once.

Q) What about the huge rise in home-working and digitalisation, how is that changing work?

JW: I think what a lot of people will find with home-working is a new settlement, whereby bits of our jobs can get fractured and broken up so that we can work at home and with greater flexibility, but that won’t come with all the benefits that we want. One example is online freelancing platforms which randomly take screenshots of your desktop, so you never know when you are going to be surveilled. My image of working from home is not having my desktop constantly surveilled by my boss.

We haven’t won a struggle to work more from home, it has been forced upon us externally, so the settlement of what working from home might look like is not likely to be as great as we might hope. It will be a testing ground for new forms of management in lots of ways.

Q) Naomi Klein has talked about an emerging ‘Screen New Deal’, where state counter-cyclical spending is funnelled through big digital platform giants in an outsourcing frenzy. What’s the role of the state in terms of the future of the gig economy?

JW: When you look at services that the state engages in and spends a lot of money in, health & social care is probably the largest sector of the gig economy at present. Care work on platforms like is huge. Millions of people work through some of these platforms. And you can imagine health services taking on some of the lessons from platform work. Particularly with elderly care, you can see this being quite an attractive model for state’s going through a moment of crisis and looking to put pressure on workers terms and conditions.

This is really where what happens with Uber, in terms of regulation and workers’ struggles, is really important. Because that model can become a dominant way of re-organising services. An Uber for nurses, and Uber for care home workers, and so on. You can easily imagine these things happening.

Q) Will digital platforms start to dominate all sectors?

JW: Platforms, as a business model, work better in some sectors than others. Transportation, with discrete tasks, with down-time periods that you don’t pay for, taking people or things from A to B – there’s a logic to organising work that way. Other types of work, where there is a need for greater interaction and co-operation, are still much harder to organise through platforms.

Where I think the growth of platforms is going is the intensification of outsourcing. Travis Kalanick, the former CEO of Uber, has attempted to set-up a version of Uber for providing an outsourcing service for security guards, waiting staff; agency work essentially. In those kind of sectors you can see the logic for capital; it’s a way of cheapening the cost of labour.

Basically the intention with all of this is to roll back victories that workers’ movements have won, and in particular around rolling back the type of benefits that people get when they are in work; health benefits, social security, and so forth. So in that sense it doesn’t really matter if the work becomes gigified as such, what matters is there is this assault on terms & conditions.

Q) Is there a big threat to jobs in the platform sector from automation in this crisis?

JW: The dream of Uber, Glovo and all these platforms is: ‘We have outsourced all our workers who are doing the day-to-day work of transportation and so on, and through the data they generate – the knowledge being added – we will eventually train robots to replace them’.

This is something the platforms aim for, but it is also part of the sales package – the marketing – of these platforms. They want to sell themselves as technology companies who don’t really employ people. Uber having three to four million drivers is treated like just a contemporary inconvenience. And therefore they argue that it’s worth investing huge quantities of cash so that in the future they can roboticise the work and extract huge rents from cornering the market as a tech-monopoly.

There’s some problems with this. While these types of discrete tasks are more susceptible to automation than other types of work, anyone who has been a delivery driver knows that automating delivery in a place like London for example is a really technically difficult task. So if we look at the automation of flying, for example, most of the flight is automated, but the difficult bits of starting and taking off are still done by humans. It’s likely that the same will be true of truck-driving.

A lot of people take at face-value that there is a technical solution to automation that will be relatively easy to achieve. There’s a story I love about JustEat, which used robots to deliver food in London, and of course people found ways to trick the robot, trap it and steal the food! There’s a lot of issues with these things that won’t necessarily be thought of by engineers, but in the real world it’s a bit more difficult. So I think with automation, of course it’s important, but it is definitely over-emphasised by platforms, particularly to seek investment.

Another aspect to take into account is what’s called ‘the work of automation’; humans training algorithms. On Amazon Mechanical Turk a lot of the work is image recognition, tagging images and so on, which is used for developing self-driving cars and such like. The history of technological change suggests it is never a binary issue: something is automated, or something is done by a worker. Automation still involves labour and often creates new types of work alongside it.

I think we can see more and more automation in the gig economy, but I don’t think it will be a matter of, for instance, everyone involved in transport will suddenly be out of work and robots suddenly do all of it. The reality is always a lot more complicated.

Q) You have researched gig worker struggles. What is distinctive about them?

JW: A lot of people see workers on platforms as these temporary, isolated people who are just kind of putting up with the work until they can do something else or are made irrelevant by automation. Gig workers are people who have a history of their own. They often were transport workers before hand; mini-cab drivers who became Uber drivers, couriers who became Deliveroo or Glovo riders. These people bring to the gig economy traditions of organising, so it’s not a ground-zero thing.

When they enter the gig economy, they realise they don’t have rights, they don’t have training, etc. And so quite quickly they have problems and grievances with platforms. The issues around employment status are important in the shape of gig struggles, because lots of drivers would raise grievances with platforms and be met with very little response. In Deliveroo, for example, which was the first big strike of platform workers in London, it rapidly escalated into a wildcat strike because there was no opportunities to head it off before that. Management didn’t want to enter into negotiations because they didn’t want to acknowledge that they are employees.

So often in the gig economy things go from zero to 100 very quickly. People have a grievance, there’s no outlet for it, it builds and builds and then there’s a big strike. When we look at new forms of work historically, it can take a generation of workers experimenting, struggling, finding ways to resist, until you start getting waves of unionisation, new unions, new modes of struggle and so forth. That’s happened in four or five years in platform work, which is remarkably quick.

Platform workers have this shared identity that is very international. One of the things that really fascinates me is that when Deliveroo workers struck in London, there was messages of support from riders across Europe, who got in touch with each other because they felt they have the same kind of job. That’s quite a rare thing in other types of work; security guards in London don’t automatically identify with security guards in Paris and Berlin. The Deliveroo or Foodora rider are able to build these connections much quicker.

Q) Gig worker struggles have largely taken place outside of the traditional trade unions. Why is that?

JW: I had a discussion with someone from a mainstream union around the time of the first Deliveroo strike in the UK. They said: “Yeah we are interested in organising these people, but we don’t know where to find them, how would we even go about recruiting them?”

On one level that’s understandable – these workers don’t have the same mode of operation as their current members – but on another level it’s really not that difficult. You could just order 20 pizzas and have a queue of riders outside the union offices and talk to them.

I think a bigger issue is that if you are a big mainstream union, the resourcing of a campaign like this is incredibly risky. You’re organising a set of workers who are by the nature of their work very precarious, probably unlikely to pay large amounts of subs, they are organising in unconventional ways that could potentially raise legal issues. So mainstream unions perhaps don’t think it’s worth the investment.

In that vacuum these alternative forms of organising have emerged, whether its alternative unions or worker networks just based around WhatsApp groups. I think there’s a real question of how do the two get connected. How does the experiences of platform struggles get put into the conversation in the mainstream trade union movement. Because what’s happened with Uber and Deliveroo, those kind of things will come to the sectors which are the core of mainstream trade unionism, including in the public-sector.

So I think there’s a lot of catching up for the mainstream trade union movement to do, and I think part of it is about not seeing platform work as this unique, new technological work. Instead, just see it as part of a broader tendency of how capital is trying to rearrange work, which is relevant way beyond platforms.

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