Excerpted from Mark Graham, a researcher on digital labor conditions for the Oxford Internet Institute:

“What, then, can be done to improve the state of digital work for the millions being enrolled into it? How do we counter the structural transfer of risk and responsibility from firms onto precarious workers?

The strategies that both Guy Standing and I point to, recognize that there is no going back. We are never going to be able to recreate the ‘labourist’ model of the mid-20th century. We may never again see lifetime jobs. But, what is it that we should then be striving towards?

Firstly, we need appropriate data. Guy rightly noted that our current statistics are unfit for purpose, and we need data that more carefully measures, who, where, and what is happening in the digital economy.

Second, and relatedly, I pointed to the need for more transparency in the value chains of digital work. Over the last few decades, we have seen how the Fairtrade movement has shed light on previously hidden parts of commodity chains, encouraging companies to curb distasteful work practices in factories and farms. We could thus similarly imagine a ‘Fairwork’ movement to make sure that the Googles and Facebooks of the world are held accountable if digital sweatshops enter into their own virtual production networks.

Third, we could perhaps re-envision what digital ‘spaces’ of resistance might look like. Even though a lack of physical co-presence inhibits the ability of workers to identify one another, the same networks that are mediating their work can be harnessed to create digital picket-lines.

So, much in the same way that geographically co-present picket lines aim to disrupt the ability to conduct business as usual, digital ones could be formed to disrupt the digital presence of employers (think, for instance, of the ability to ‘Google-bomb’ the web-presence of employers).

These are also potentially fruitful conditions for the creation of some sort of transnational digital workers union or trade secretariat. This would need to be an organisation with more ambitious aims that the current Freelancers Union (which helps workers to navigate unstable networks of work rather than attempting to change them in any significant way). But none of this gets us past the issue that workers still end up competing with each other in digital markets to sell their labour power. There is a keen sense amongst workers that if they withdraw their labour, someone else on the other side of the world will quickly take their place.

Fourth, the geographically dispersed nature of digital work marketplace has also made it hard to regulate effectively. But it’s worth remembering that only a few countries in the West are home to the vast majority of clients, and it is potentially in those places that regulations could be enacted or enforced about how clients should treat, and interact with, their workers.

Think, for instance, of ensuring that public bodies like the Gangmasters Licensing Authority have a remit that includes digital work. Or Guy Standing, relatedly suggested requiring taskers to have written contracts, curbing the power of customer ratings, and banning exclusivity clauses. In short, we need the State to intervene if we want workers to have more bargaining power.

Finally, it is worth remembering that it isn’t the existence of marketplaces themselves that are creating demand for digital work. Marketplaces simply offer a bridge between the supply and demand and allow it to be realised. In doing so, they extract rents from every transaction and set key rules that govern how workers and clients interact with each other.

(Fifth). But other kinds of geographic bridging of the supply and demand for digital work are possible. Just as there have previously been both consumer and worker-led pressures to transact with cooperative building societies and supermarkets, we’re seeing the beginnings of moves to create and work with cooperatively owned digital platforms.”


[Lead image credit: Justin Morgan (cc)]

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