When we use a product, a service, or even an algorithm that was brought into being with digital labour, there is no way to know whether an exhausted worker is behind it; whether they get laid off if they become sick or get pregnant; whether they are spending twenty hours a week just searching for work; how precarious their source of income is; or whether they are being paid an unfairly low wage. This proposal envisions a way of holding platforms in the gig economy more accountable through a programme of research focused on fair work, a ‘Fairwork certification scheme’, and a ‘Fairwork platform ranking.’ It operates under a governing belief that core transparent production networks can lead to better working conditions for digital workers around the world.
There are now over seven million digital ‘platform workers’ that live all over the world, doing work that is outsourced via platforms or apps in the “gig economy”. Lacking the ability to collectively bargain, platform workers have little ability to negotiate wages and working conditions with their employers who are often on the other side of the world. This project undertakes innovative research that focuses on these workers, their experiences, labour processes, and the organisation of their work. The platform economy is rapidly expanding, particularly in developing and emerging economies. With this, the future of work is becoming the present and there is an urgent need to engage with its consequences. Contemporary researchers, as well as existing political and regulative frameworks, lack the appropriate methods and conceptual approaches to make sense of the phenomena.
This is a state of affairs that is not just undesirable for workers, but also for client firms and end-consumers. Client firms will want to avoid the reputational risks of outsourcing to poorly-treated workers; and research has shown that consumers who are able to do so are often willing to pay a premium to ensure that products they buy were produced under good working conditions.
The main objective of the project is to set up a long-term structure to form a ‘Fairwork Foundation’ that will be committed to highlighting best and worst practices in the emerging platform economy. Selected stakeholders, including governments, platform operators, unions and donors will be consulted to engage in a dialogue to establish the Foundation. Much like the Fairtrade Foundation has been able to certify the production chains of commodities like coffee and chocolate, the Fairwork Foundation will certify the production networks of the platform economy. This seeks to harness ‘consumer power’, along with leverage from workers and platforms, to significantly contribute to the welfare and job quality of digital workers.
The overall aim of the project is to certify three kinds of online platforms:
- Location specific platforms: that require workers to be in a specific location; e.g. Deliveroo, Uber, or TaskRabbit
- Microwork: platforms for highly commodified work where clients never interact directly with workers; e.g., Amazon Mechanical Turk or Crowdflower
- Macrowork / online freelance platforms: platforms that facilitate a more direct relationship between client and worker; e.g. Upwork or Freelancer
The initial plan is to draw up an annual ranking within these three types, alongside beginning to certify platforms that achieve minimum ratings.