An interesting study on Microwork in the UK by the Autonomy think-tank was published last week.
Microwork is the completion of short tasks online, in which workers are a paid a very small sum per task. This work is what Amazon, which runs one of the biggest microwork platform's (Amazon Mechanical Turk), calls "artificial artificial intelligence": it's doing human work either to train automated processes or because it's still more efficient to get humans to do it rather than robots. A typical microwork task would be to identify what is contained in an image; easy for a human but potentially beyond the capacities of a cheap robot.
As microwork is both easy-to-do and can be done by anyone with an internet connection at any time in the day, it is on the lowest rung of the global labour market. Hence, the pay-per-task is extremely low, and there is a lot of unpaid time while waiting for another task. Thus, the global centre of microwork has quickly gravitated to the global south, with India, Kenya and Venezuela being three hot-beds of the industry. However, there are still microworkers in the global north, and this study has surveyed 1,189 of them and conducted 17 in-depth interviews with workers on three platforms: Clickworker, Prolific and Amazon Mechanical Turk.
The picture that emerges is very different from microwork in the global south, where for most it is their main source of income. In the UK, it is only the main source of income for 13%, with 50% engaged in other full-time work. Only 10% of microworkers worked more than 10 hours per week on the platform, with one in three working an hour or less per week.
For many of these semi-casual microworkers, the motivation is what the authors of the study, Philip Jones and James Muldoon, call a "hustle culture": the idea that we should be commodifying as much of our time as possible. This culture intensified in the pandemic, when we were locked in our houses thus making many forms of leisure difficult or impossible. One participant said microwork made them feel "productive" outside of their normal working hours.
This emerging work culture of "productivism" is worrying enough, but it's also important to point out that just because this is extra work for most of those surveyed, they are by no means people who are economically comfortable. Twenty-seven per cent earn under £6,000 per year in total, while almost half have an aggregate income of under £17,000. While most of the participants did not seem to feel like they deserved better pay and conditions for microwork, with many not believing it to be a real form of work, the pay rates - where 39% earn less than £2 an hour and 95% earn under the minimum wage - is still a source of shame. For the one in five who work many hours on the platform and have "suffered extreme forms of precarity and economic insecurity due to their reliance on such low-paying work", microwork has few upsides.
Jones and Muldoon, who have both authored interesting books on platform capitalism in the past year, make a series of proposals to improve microwork for the worker, including changes which would make all time 'on the job' remunerated; ratings systems for the platforms, not just for microworkers, to introduce some level of accountability; mandatory messaging systems so microworkers can share information with one another; and the right to collective bargaining. That would be a good start to bringing some dignity and respect to a form of gig work that is largely invisible to the public eye.
Ben Wray, Gig Economy Project co-ordinator
Gig Economy news round-up
- WORKERS' COLLECTIVE LAUNCHED AT FLINK IN BERLIN: Grocery delivery workers at Flink, a Berlin-based platform which launched last year, have set-up a workers' collective, just the latest to be established in the German capital over recent years. Workers' collectives are an informal form of union organisation, and have proven effective at Gorillas in Berlin, where a series of strikes took place last year and a Workers' Council, which gives them legal rights of representation in the workplace, was established. That has inspired workers' collectives at Lieferando, Getir, Dropp and now Flink in Berlin, making the city the European centre for this type of organising, as the Gig Economy Project explored earlier this month. In announcing the new workers' collective, the Twitter account tweeted that "whether its random terminations, unpaid wages or too few shifts given, reasons to fight back are numerous". They are organising an assembly of Flink workers on July 22 with the view of establishing a Workers' Council. Read more here.
- DELIVEROO RIDERS IN LONDON WIN VICTORY AT WINGSTOP RESTAURANT: Deliveroo riders in the Dalston area of East London have won a big victory after a restaurant conceded to all of their demands. The riders were angered by the restaurant owners refusal to allow them to use the toilet, long waiting times for orders and other disrespectful actions towards them, including closing the door on a rider's foot for trying to come into the restaurant and check if the delivery was ready, which they were not allowed to do. The restaurant initially denied all their demands in a meeting which the workers, who are members of the IWGB union, said was "confrontational". But after boycotting the restaurant since 29 June for 5-6 hours per day, Deliveroo sent them an e-mail saying the restaurant would cede to all of their demands. The workers can now use the toilet, a waiting area is being developed and they will even receive free soft drinks on Fridays and Saturdays. Speaking in a video after the victory, the workers said that they now intend to boycott the local Nando's restaurant. "If other drivers had the same problems we had, you should know that you can get all the rights we deserve," the riders said. Watch the video here.
- LIEFERANDO RIDERS PROTEST EXCLUSIVE SUMMER PARTY FOR OFFICE WORKERS: Riders in the Lieferando Workers' Collective in Berlin protested at the company's exclusive summer party in the German capital, which was for head office staff only. A tweet promoting the party said "only Lieferando employees (from Germany and Austria, with the exception of drivers and temporary workers) are invited to the event". The party follows complaints from workers about a lavish, all-expenses paid trip to the Alps for senior Just Eat (Lieferando's parent company) staff across the world, at a time when the company has been cutting pay and jobs across Europe. The Berlin party is described as being “one of a kind" with a "breathtaking event area”, and including a DJ and pool. "They're shamelessly throwing an all-inclusive party while we can't even pay our rent," the Lieferando Workers' Collective said in a Tweet promoting the protest. "We're coming anyway." Read more here.
- FAIRWORK FRANCE PLATFORM RATINGS REVEALED: The FairWork academic-action project has revealed its first ratings for the French platform economy. The lowest ratings were received by Deliveroo, Naofood, Stuart Delivery and Uber Eats, which all achieved scores of just four out of ten on meeting minimum standards for fairness. The best rating was received by Just Eat, which employs its riders either directly or through sub-contractors, and got a score of eight out of ten. The study finds that "working conditions on bicycle delivery platforms are clearly better for people who have an employment contract than for self-employed workers", but criticises the French Parliament for "refusing to establish a legal presumption of their status as employees", which "leaves workers in a precarious situation". French President Emmanuel Macron has long been seen as an ally of the platforms. Click here to read the report (in French).
- ELITÉ TAXI SUSPEND MOBILISATIONS AS AGREEMENT NEARS ON NEW VTC LAW IN CATALUNYA: Elité Taxi Barcelona, the taxi union which has successfully resisted Uber's attempts to establish a significant presence in the Catalan capital, has said it will "suspend all mobilisations indefinitely" as talks with the Catalan Government over a new law for private hire drivers (VTCs) appear to be nearing a conclusion which is satisfactory to the Taxistas. Elitè Taxi shutdown Barcelona city centre for hours in June with a 'slow march' of taxis through the city in protest at what it considered to be an attitude towards a VTC law which could open the door to Uberisation. A new law must be in place before October as that is the date when Spanish-wide regulation expires, meaning if there is no new law in each of Spain's autonomous communities by then it will be illegal for VTCs from the likes of Uber and Cabify to circulate. In Madrid a new VTC law was agreed in June which was condemned by taxi leaders, but the Catalan Government has a closer relationship to the taxis and after an Elité Taxi closed assembly of the taxistas on Thursday, they voted to stop mobilisations until negotiations over the law are concluded. Read more here.
Have we missed important news on the gig economy in Europe this week? E-mail Ben at [email protected] to help us improve our news round-up.