When Workers of the Digital World Unite
Is the tide beginning to turn for the so-called digital gig economy?
One out of 10 workers in the EU is employed by a digital platform such as Deliveroo or Uber. It’s a colossal figure, and one that would’ve been unimaginable only 10 or so years ago.
But alongside their meteoric rise, these platforms have become notorious for their questionable approach to workers’ rights. The digital age has brought with it new means of exploitation and responsibility-shirking by employers, from hidden algorithms to dubious new working models.
Now, however, the tide is starting to turn. In a handful of recent cases, we’ve seen workers successfully rise up against these platform giants to demand their digital rights.
Yaseen Aslam is the eponymous claimant on the recent landmark case, Uber BV v Aslam. In a judgement that made headlines around the world, the UK Supreme Court decided that Uber must pay its drivers a living wage and give them paid holidays.
It may seem basic — but these are things that Uber drivers have often been deprived of, until now.
Aslam has been working as a taxi driver in London since 2006. He remembers vividly when Uber first landed in the city, and the many benefits the shiny new platform brought to drivers.
“When they first land in the area, they’re so nice to you. They give you bonuses. You make money. The fares are a lot higher. It’s their way of getting into the market,” he explains. “But then later on, you start seeing the issue.”
“When they first land in the area, they’re so nice to you. They give you bonuses. You make money. The fares are a lot higher. It’s their way of getting into the market,”
Zero-hour contacts and unstable work may not be anything new, but “platformisation” has exacerbated these problems in unprecedented ways.
In the digital age, the oft-interlinked issues associated with transparency, algorithms, and surveillance rear their heads again and again. In the so-called digital gig economy, things are no different.
Algorithms make critical decisions about workers’ lives, and due to the lack of transparency, challenging these decisions is no easy feat. “The terms of the algorithm — how it works, what it’s looking for — is proprietary,” explains Dalia Gebrial, PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “That means nobody, including the worker, knows how it operates.”
Workers are persistently monitored, but how this data is being used is usually opaque — though, in many cases, it’s clearly to workers’ detriment.
In the case of Uber, workers’ performance is evaluated not by a manager, but by an algorithm. That same algorithm also doles out punishments, often for indiscretions the driver is entirely unaware of, or that are beyond their control.
“…if you drop off a customer who’s had a bad day and they rate you just 4 stars, that can have real consequences for you”
Take the example of the rating system used by Uber. As soon as a ride ends, an Uber customer must rate their driver out of 5 stars. “If you fall below a 4.4 average, you lose your job,” Aslam explains. And, as he points out, if you drop off a customer who’s had a bad day and they rate you just 4 stars, that can have debilitating, real-life consequences for you.
“People don’t understand there is an algorithm making decisions about their life,” says Aslam. “The biggest problem we have with this digital technology is that, because it’s all hidden, it’s all anonymised, people don’t know about it. People think it doesn’t exist.”
The employment model offered by these companies is, by its nature, precarious. Often pitched in positive terms — the chance to “be your own boss” — the dubious classification of these platforms has exempted them from obligations such as sick pay, parental leave or holidays.
“This is all while being controlled like a workforce, and sometimes, even more so than traditional workforces, resulting in a ‘worst of both worlds’ model of employment,” says Gebrial.
Like most workers’ rights issues, these problems also affect some groups more than others. Many who rely on these platforms accept their imperfect terms because they feel they have no good alternative to carve out a living. This includes many immigrants, whose opportunities to join the traditional workforce are often limited.
Many who rely on these platforms accept their imperfect terms because they feel they have no good alternative to carve out a living
Aslam sets the scene of drivers in London. “Out of the 110,000 private hire drivers [including Uber drivers], 94 per cent of them are from BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic), people from deprived communities. From the 25,000 taxi licensed drivers, 84 per cent of them are white British.”
Things may be starting to turn a corner. So far in 2021, we’ve already seen two huge triumphs for platform workers in European courts.
The first of these cases took place in Italy, where a court ruled that Deliveroo’s ranking algorithm was discriminatory. The algorithm ranked riders based on their supposed “reliability”, with cancellations negatively affecting their rating within that system, even if due to illness or emergency. A lower ranking meant fewer job offers in the future.
Because the algorithm didn’t take into account the reasons for workers cancelling, the court deemed it discriminatory. Deliveroo was ordered to pay €50,000 to the applicants.
“Because the algorithm didn’t take into account the reasons for workers cancelling, the court deemed it discriminatory”
“[The case] was very significant, because it helped burst the bubble of ‘neutrality’ that shrouds public understandings of what algorithms are,” says Gebrial. “Algorithms are designed by people, and often reflect, re-animate and automate inequalities that already exist in society”.
The second huge victory was Aslam’s case. The momentous decision in February of this year deemed Uber drivers as “workers”, dealing a severe blow to the precarious model of labour upon which the digital platform depends.
The judgement made waves and set a key precedent, and we can already see its impact rippling through the world.
Aslam’s win didn’t come without a cost. As he points out, he and his colleague first took Uber to court back in 2015. That’s years of fighting, and also years without remedy.
“If you’re rich enough — a company like Uber that’s got money to burn — then you can drag the process on,” he says. “It’s so easy for someone to just get burnt out and walk away from it.”
“It comes to a stage where it drains your life out… The mental side of it, people won’t ever see that.”
“It comes to a stage where it drains your life out… The mental side of it, people won’t ever see that”
Indeed, Aslam’s situation is unique: not all workers on the losing end of this agreement will be in the position to stand up and take part in a protracted legal battle. That’s why the responsibility must ultimately fall on the regulators, on the governments.
For Aslam, the gap between communities of workers and those with the power to help must also be bridged.
“I see a lot of people talk about it, you know, lawyers, barristers, all these people that are there in a position to help,” he explains. “And they want to help them. But the problem they have is they do not have the reach in the community.”
Hands-on community engagement, he believes, is key — and too often, it’s missing.
“This is where other unions of people are going wrong. They might have all the answers and everything but until they engage with the community, they’re not passing on their resources to them.”