The Cheat Sheet

Digital unions for the sharing economy

JINOY JOSE P | Updated on January 27, 2018 Published on January 25, 2017

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You mean online trade unions?

Not exactly. These are not your run-of-the-mill dyed-in-the-wool old-school trade unions simply going online. They’re a new formation of tech-savvy social innovators who build digital platforms to address the concerns of workers in the digital economy, mainly in the sharing economy, or gig economy.

Digital unions for the digital economy!

Recently, Gavin Kelly, chair of the Living Wage Commission in the UK, wrote a much-discussed essay on Wired. ‘Digital trade unions will empower tomorrow’s sharing economy employees’ argues that the insecurity brought about by sharing economy jobs can be offset by digital trade unions.

Interesting. But why not regular unions?

For many reasons. Mainly, sharing economy defines the worker in a strange fashion. As many have pointed out already, an Uber driver is not just a worker. S/he wears many hats: entrepreneur, partner, facilitator and more. This makes matters suitably complex for traditional unions because they often get confused about where to place this new-generation worker and ascertain strategies to mitigate her/his problems.

Isn’t sharing economy cool capitalism because workers are no longer workers but partners?

Maybe. But some scholars tracking labour have said that companies in sharing economy shift risk from corporations to workers, weaken worker security and cause decline of wages. So, thanks to their confused state of identity, workers in the emerging (booming, rather) gig economy are not able to organise like their peers of the 1970s or 80s, or even the 90s, and end up getting their rights increasingly diluted.

That’s worrying. Trade unions are already losing their edge.

You said it! In fact, what makes matters cumbersome is lack of data. There are no concrete estimates available on the size of the workers ‘connected’ to the sharing economy. In the US, according to some reports, more than 2.5 million people work in the sharing economy. In the UK, according to the organisation Sharing Economy UK, a million people are in the sharing economy. In India, no estimates are available, but Uber-like companies are growing at a fast clip.

Yes. It’s phenomenal.

Uber became the fastest-growing startup in history in just five years and is now valued at more than $60 billion. That is a striking pointer to the way the digitally-powered sharing economy is growing.

So, protecting vulnerable workers in the digital age should be done digitally, right?

That gives optimum results. Unions are starting to engage with the “new employment”. Kelly gives the example of UK’s GMB trade union which went to court against Uber in July. Similarly, the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain sued four courier firms. The US also sees similar struggles. The “Fight for $15” campaign for a substantial rise in the minimum wage was supported by Hillary Clinton. But New Labour demands New Age union solutions, and that’s where digital trade unions such as Coworker.org makes sense, according to Kelly.

Interesting.

These platforms use digital technology to gather support for low-paid sectors. The “Our Walmart” campaign in the US in 2012 was a good start as a major campaign rooted in social media, to effectively organise a large workforce. There is a browser extension called Turkopticon, which helps freelance workers rate their employers. There’s FairCrowdWork in Germany. Coopify is a co-operative of domestic workers in New York City whose app puts workers directly in touch with clients. Such platforms will boost workers’ welfare in the gig economy.

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Published on January 25, 2017
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