Tech and the low-wage workforce: friend as well as foe?

Resolution Trust launches new WorkerTech partnership with Bethnal Green Ventures to develop tech based innovations that support the low-wage workforce

Uber. Amazon. Hermes. The steady drumbeat of stories that raise concerns about how — one way or another — companies are using tech to change the nature of employment continues. Whatever the legal rights and wrongs of these individual cases few would contend that there is a wider trend of digital technology being used, both in traditional sectors as well on new online platforms, to shift risk onto workers.

At the same time it should be obvious to all that the rise of digital tech has all sorts of vastly positive effects. Not just in terms of labour productivity and brilliant (never mind hugely popular) services for consumers; but also — potentially at least — in terms of improving the nature of employment and making it more flexible in ways that could improve the lives of the workforce. As with many big social shifts, digital technology in the workplace has the potential to cut both ways.

Yet, in the UK at least, too often it seems to go the same way. There are relatively few examples of tech being harnessed to improve or strengthen the position of the workforce. And, related to this, there is little in the way of a union agenda, or indeed one coming from wider civic society, for making this happen.

Which in some respects is odd. Digital technology has collapsed the cost of people communicating: it is easier than ever before for groups, such as workers, to pool information and organise in ways that may strengthen their hand (points that are nicely made in this piece by Stian Westlake). It should be easier than ever to verify — in real time — whether various employee rights (like the minimum wage) have been respected. And, potentially at least, there is more scope to bring together workers and consumers in ways that would lessen reliance on intermediaries who often eat up a large slice of meagre wages. The general flow may be towards employers deploying technology so as to reduce their workforce obligations, increase control or transfer risk. But it doesn’t have to be a one way street.

If this all sounds a bit abstract, it needn’t. There are a fast growing number of concrete examples of unions or groups of workers innovating using tech to improve their plight. Our new reportPutting Tech to Work: the urgent need for innovation in how the low-wage workforce is supported — highlights cases from around the world of digital platforms being used to pool and deploy information on bad employers, improve security over working hours or offer new support to freelancers and the self-employed. The examples are scattered but important.

In the UK, however, we currently see relatively little of this sort of thing. Some unions, like GMB in the Uber case, have scored major victories over recent months; but we haven’t seen that much by way of real innovation in the types of offer being made to low-wage workers (though the TUC, to its credit, is now prioritising new approaches to recruiting young workers). The recent wins we’ve seen have been more about the application of traditional employment law in new settings, rather than new ways of organising.

But the wider context makes clear the urgent need for change. Union membership rates have been steadily falling: among those in their late twenties membership rates are currently 18 per cent compared to 27 per cent two decades ago. Moreover, overall workforce trends conceal huge inequalities between private and public sectors and high and low earners. Consider this: a highly paid public sector worker is now 13 times as likely to be in a union as a low-paid worker in the private sector.

If we already have a big workplace representation gap, then we can be confident it is set to grow. Our projections show that demographics alone will see membership rates fall steadily — from 22 per cent now to 17 per cent of the overall workforce by 2030 (if we just look at employees, the fall is from 25 per cent to 19 per cent over the same time period) as baby-boomers retire and fewer millennials sign up. That would translate into fewer than one in ten workers in the private sector being in a union.

Among the many issues this raises is how to create new energy and creative spark in pursuit of practical, pro-worker innovation. That is one reason why tonight a hundred and fifty hackers, programmers and tech developers will be getting together with various union figures and labour advocates (including from the US and Germany) to discuss a new generation of ideas that might work in the UK. It marks the launch of a new partnership between the Resolution Trust and Bethnal Green Ventures (home of the ‘tech for good’ community) that will develop and launch civic ventures using tech in innovative ways to bolster the low-wage workforce. It is a small, first step in our wider goal of creating an institutional home for pro-worker innovation in the UK.

There is a risk that those schooled in 20th century unionism might dismiss new initiatives like this as niche; or indeed think it can all be worried about tomorrow. Let’s hope not. It’s time a range of bets were placed on attractive ways of supporting a new generation of workers — it should have started years ago. If the labour movement opts to play safe it should have no surprises about what is in store. But if it embraces experimentation and invests in new ways of working it might just be surprised by how receptive a new generation of workers could be.

Learn more about WorkerTech including how to apply here

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Gavin writes on politics, economics and public policy in a personal capacity. He is also Chair of the Resolution Foundation and Chair of the Living Wage Commission.

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