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Workers Must Unite Against Digital Empires

Just as historical rulers clung to power, the leaders of today’s digital empire are unlikely to willingly empower the disempowered. Without multinational worker organisations and legislation spanning jurisdictions, we may witness a race to the bottom in the global labour market

The platform economy, characterised by the rise of digital platforms, has revolutionised traditional modes of work and consumption. Platform work offers workers flexibility and autonomy, allowing them to choose when and where to work. However, it often lacks employment benefits like health insurance, paid leave and job security. Furthermore, there are rising concerns over worker exploitation, the impact of algorithmic management and the erosion of labour rights.

Our interviewee, Professor Mark Graham, a Professor of Internet Geography at the Oxford Internet Institute, is one of the leading experts in researching the intricacies of digital labour and the gig economy. His research sheds light on how workers on the economic margins are integrated into global value chains and a planetary labour market, examining the impact of their networked and geographic positions on their working conditions.

Professor Graham is a driving force behind the Fairwork Foundation, a groundbreaking initiative launched in 2018 that’s aims to establish minimum fair work standards for the gig economy worldwide. To date, the project has released scorecards in 39 countries and influenced numerous platforms to implement pro-worker changes, totalling 300 improvements in minimum wages, fair contracts, anti-discrimination policies and recognition of worker associations.

On 22nd May, Professor Graham will deliver the opening speech at the Regional Reshaping Work 2024 conference in Belgrade, marking the beginning of the largest event of its kind in this region, organised by the Serbian think tank Public Policy Centre.

The conference is dedicated to exploring the transformative shifts in platform work and their impacts on workers, businesses and societies in Eastern and Southeast Europe. It will host more than 100 members of the research community, businesses, unions, start-ups and policymakers from the region and across Europe and beyond.

In this exclusive interview, Professor Graham shares insights into the future of digital labour ahead of the conference.

Now that the final version of the EU Platform Work Directive is agreed upon, what should we say about its promise to set the minimum standards to improve working conditions for people working through digital labour platforms? What are the positive aspects of this new regulation; is it transposable in other jurisdictions? Which critical improvements are required if we want to set standards of decent work worldwide?

— The most important part of the discussion is that everyone is waking up to the notion that there is a problem. We might disagree about how to solve it. And, indeed, corporate lobbyists may try to craft a solution that isn’t really a solution, but the fact that so many platform workers have low-paid, dangerous, insecure jobs is indisputable at this point. However, there are improvements needed to the Directive for it to be held up as best practice. First, there should be a universal standard on employment classification. Second, there should be more clarity on where liability sits in cases where subcontractors are used. I see a lot of promise in the provision that platforms should establish channels for workers to communicate with each other. However, the devil will be in the detail here.

You are one of the founders of the global Fairwork project. How successful has it been in breaking the silence on this type of work? What’s the next frontier you’re setting for the new stage of this project?

— What we’ve achieved at Fairwork is beyond what even my wildest imagination could have conjured up five years ago when we started it. Since we started, we have expanded the project to 39 countries, spoken to over 5,000 workers and had over a thousand news stories cover our work. Most importantly, through our research, we have persuaded 64 companies to make 300 pro-worker changes to their policies. These changes range from introducing minimum and living wages, providing sickness insurance and implementing anti-discrimination policies, to agreeing to engage with trade unions.

We have a system in which capital alone has the power to see all of the nodes in a planetary network of production, and it alone can command the spatial division of labour within that network

The next frontier we are looking at will be trying to get lead firms in digital supply chains to take more responsibility for the working conditions ‘upstream’. Over the last five years, we have assessed numerous upstream workforces: such as online remote workers and data workers in business process outsourcing and content moderation centres. Our work now will be to get lead firms in tech and AI supply chains to take responsibility for those workers. One way they can do this is by embedding stronger minimum standards into their supplier agreements. Fairwork is embarking on an international multi-year project to help them do that.

Among researchers, the rise of platform work has long been considered a pioneering stage in the development of a planetary labour market. What will this market look like in the future and what would be its main characteristic?

— Without either global agreements or the enactment of accountability laws on the demand-side (e.g. the proposed European Corporate Sustainable Due Diligence Directive), it will be exceptionally difficult for any one group of workers in any one place to extract any meaningful amount of value or concessions from the system. Just as kings and emperors didn’t willingly surrender their power, the rulers of today’s digital empires are unlikely to choose to empower the disempowered. Therefore, without worker organisations that have truly multinational reach, and without legislation that similarly can stretch across jurisdictions, we are likely to see ever more of a race to the bottom in the planetary labour market.

The rapid rise of large language models is both mesmerising and makes us shiver when thinking about the human mind’s capacity to compete with generative artificial intelligence. What are the lesser-known facets of AI or large language models addressed in your new book?

— The main one is just how much human labour it takes for ‘automation’ to work. In the book, we trace a truly global network of workers: from data annotators in Uganda and content moderators in Kenya to artists in Ireland, data centre operators in Iceland and engineers in the UK. All these workers collaborate in a system that brings AI solutions into being. And yet, most of them know very little about each other. We have a system in which capital alone has the power to see all of the nodes in a planetary network of production, and it alone can command the spatial division of labour within that network.

The book outlines the ways AI is an ‘extraction machine’. When we engage with AI products as users or consumers, we only see one surface of the machine and the outputs it produces. The extraction machine draws in critical inputs of capital, power, natural resources, human labour, data and collective intelligence, transforming them into statistical predictions that AI companies, in turn, transform into profits. This, then, explains what we need to do to rewire the machine so we can develop less exploitative and fairer futures.

If the places that we live in are increasingly digital, then what are the most important questions we must ask ourselves when entering this digitally-augmented and digitally- mediated world?

— I always turn to Tony Benn’s five questions. He stated that these questions should always be asked to those in positions of economic, social and political power. In our age in which our world is increasingly mediated and augmented by the digital, we should be asking those mediators the following: “What power have you got?”; “Where did you get it from?”; “In whose interests do you use it?”; “To whom are you accountable?”; and “How do we get rid of you?”.