Mathew Lawrence – Data and Work

WORK is one of the areas of life that has been most obviously and profoundly re-shaped by the pandemic. We have experienced an unprecedented global experiment in working from home, one that employers are treating as a “living laboratory for a permanent – and highly profitable – no-touch future,” as Naomi Klein has argued.

Mathew Lawrence is founder and director of UK think-tank Common Wealth and a former senior research fellow at the IPPR. He is co-author of ‘Beyond Barbarism: A manifesto for a planet on fire’, which will be published in 2021 by Verso books. In July, Lawrence co-authored CommonWealth paper ‘Data and the future of work’ with Hettie O’Brien, the assitant opinion editor at the Guardian. Writing for The Gig Economy Project, Lawrence introduces the key themes of the paper.

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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What could this future look like? It’s one where our every action is trackable and traceable, with bosses monitoring our keystrokes and GPS co-ordinates, and where gig work rebranded as “self-employment” becomes normalised. 

We have already seen digital platform giants like Google and Apple capitalise on the crisis to leverage access to public data under the auspices of tackling a deadly threat, which it can then extract and utilise in various ways to extend its own IP monopoly power. Far from being weakened by the pandemic, these platform have consolidated their vice-like grip on data.

Digital platforms have deepened long-standing shifts towards outsourcing and the weakening of labour protections, while also allowing for the deployment of new technologies to monitor worker output. This is changing work at a rapid pace: 11 per cent have already earned an income from digital labour platforms in the UK, and by 2025 that is estimated to rise to one-third. A new platform is currently being proposed for the NHS where nurses would bid for shifts, rather than receive more stable contracts. 

Just as Thomas Piketty argued that falling inequality in the post-war period was an aberration in the longer history of inequality, we may find that employment in the long twentieth century was an exception, with 21st century work increasingly akin to the piece-work, craft-work, and self-employment of the 19th century. 

In exploring data and work, we need to think in terms of power: as trade union researcher Victor Figueroa has argued, the ability to collect, monitor and manipulate all and every form of data “threatens to massively boost the already overwhelming power of employers in the workplace”. But there is nothing pre-ordained about corporate algorithmic control; that is a social determination, not a technological one.

It is possible to imagine a future where power relations are somewhat different: where data is collected and stewarded in common based on consent, where the purpose of technologies is democratically discussed and their limits collectively agreed upon, and where workers use data to build shared power and solidarity.

The report makes a series of specific policy proposals for how to tackle issues around data and work, based on three foundational principles: 

1) That we must overcome power imbalances through a new deal for work.

2) That we need to tackle the background inequalities which under-pin the platform economy.

3) That the company is re-shaped as a social institution, where democratic rights within the firm are re-allocated.

Policies include:

  • A new set of labour rights: A new worker definition to end bogus self-employment should be the centre-piece of a series of changes to strengthen the rights of workers in the platform economy, with the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work embodied in national law.
  • Bolstered trade union rights: Collective bargaining at sectoral and enterprise level, and giving unions right of entry to workplaces, would bolster the capacity for organising gig workers. This should include sectoral ‘data trusts’ to provide workers and unions with the information needed to bargain and organise effectively.
  • A minimum income for all: A minimum income guarantee, where every worker not covered by furlough or the self-employment scheme would get £221 per week, would act to strengthen the bargaining power of gig workers relative to capital.
  • Democratise the firm: Company law should be reformed so that boards are 45 per cent represented by workers, 45 per cent by shareholders, and 10 per cent by broader social and environmental interests. There should also be co-determination in capital markets. This would act to fundamentally alter decision-making incentives of firms.
  • Democratising algorithmic controls: A series of measures are required to end the “black box” of corporate algorithmic control: AI systems should be made transparent and their data easily accessible; workers should have rights to determine how data collecting technologies are introduced in their workplace, and to co-design algorithmic systems; and rights should be established on limits to management intrusion in workers lives, include the right to disconnect from e-mails and apps, and the right to ban certain forms of data collecting on workers. 
  • Towards a data commons: Public investment in digital infrastructure needs to go beyond the market orientated ‘regulatory state’ to lay the foundations for a democratic economy. A new public infrastructure company should lead 5G roll-out in such a way that harmful forms of surveillance are eradicated and a proper digital industrial strategy should be developed based on open software licensing, open standards to prevent IP monopolies, and support for alternative business models including co-operatives.

While the paper’s proposals are levelled at the UK level, the majority of the measures proposed are equally applicable elsewhere in Europe, where similar challenges apply. We have drawn on DIEM25’s proposals for “technological sovereignty”, and a European Parliament paper proposing a governance framework for algorithmic accountability and transparency in developing our own proposals. We have proposed a new ILO instrument setting out minimum rights and protections for platform workers internationally. The platform giants are transnational, so we need a symmetric response from activists, organisers and progressive think-tanks.

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