Those funny little things called algorithms are transforming our lives. They are being used to counter the spread of antibiotic resistance. They are also transforming relationships in the workplace and not for the better, many believe.
It is algorithms that have given birth to digital platforms like Uber which are helping canny entrepreneurs to clean up financially.
The gig economy has created a new working ‘precariat’, workers who are at the beck and call of the platforms, often forced to work for poor wages. Styled as ‘independent contractors’, they lack the sort of social benefits that unionised workers now take for granted.
As University of California Professor, Martin Kenney, puts it: ‘Work is being reformatted.’ He believes that workers will require new skill sets, including an ability to deal with platforms and apps. Heavy investment in science and technology subjects may not be the answer. Greater emphasis on design and creativity may be preferable.
Trade unions, educators, lawmakers, judges — all these will have to adapt to this fast-changing labour market. Our labour laws are often rigid. Our lawyers and judges often lack an understanding of the technologies laying waste to traditional working relationships.
Regulators and governments are slowly realising the implications for housing policy of Airbnb. Unions are scratching their head over the explosion in platform-driven independent contracting which is reducing flows of income into the social insurance fund and leaving many workers exposed to a future without a private pension or health insurance.
Dr Damien Thomas of the National Economic & Social Council has studied the phenomenon of the digital platform. He points to a lack of Irish data.
The CIPD, which represents HR professionals, estimates that 4% of UK workers earn their living from platform-based work.
Increasingly, platform work is ‘enmeshed’ with traditional businesses as the digital world expands.
Many ‘gig’ workers are professionals, often highly paid. For some, platforms offer the chance to work flexibly and even remotely. Platforms like Uber have allowed people on the margins, such as immigrants to access work otherwise closed off.
But the overall picture remains bleak, with workers often denied access to social protections and insurance.
The platform economy is leading to a new form of globalisation as work is farmed out to low-cost locations on an individual basis.
As a result, rates are squeezed. People work from home doing basic IT tasks for a pittance.
The revolution is being resisted. Just as city governments are waking up to the threat posed by the uncontrolled spread of Airbnb, so incumbents like taxi drivers are fighting back against the platform-driven contractor.
Fortunately, solutions are being devised. Some are legal or regulatory. The European Union has brought in a Directive on Transparent & Predictable working conditions as part of its pillar on social rights. The European Trade Union Institute views this as ‘positive’ but not yet adequate.
The GMB union in Britain has reached a collective arrangement with Hermes/ Parcelnet allowing the option of a negotiated pay rate and holiday pay for all workers opting in. The Danish union, 3F, has negotiated a collective arrangement with cleaning services platform provider, Hilfr, under which its 450 employees gain employee rights.
We need to both look overseas and back into our recent history for answers to a series of questions that have been raised by the unexpected spread of a digital economy that favours the few over the interests of the many.