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The Gig Workers Fight Back

Precarious work expert Enda Brophy on today’s ‘techlash,’ digital labour wins, ‘green shoots of organizing’ and more. A Tyee interview.

David Beers 5 Sep

David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee.

The gig economy is neither new, accidental nor inevitable. For decades companies have relentlessly turned to temp work, outsourcing, offshoring and other ways of limiting their obligations to workers — the unravelling of “a very important pact” that used to exist between employees and employers, says Enda Brophy, an associate professor of communication at Simon Fraser University who focuses on labour issues. But he sees signs the tide may be shifting.

Brophy’s academic investigations have ranged from high-tech work to service work through digital platforms, to offshored call centre work. “My research looks at the relationship between work and digital technologies, how employers use technology to organize work and how workers respond through resistance and collective organization,” he explains. “In all of these projects my research tries to tell labour’s side of the story, and, where possible, to help workers build power in what are often very difficult circumstances.”

He’s also the author of Language Put to Work: The Making of the Global Call Centre Workforce, a book based on interviews in four countries that documents the industry’s exploitive methods while envisioning alternative forms of call centre labour.

Which is why, on this Labour Day, The Tyee turned to Brophy to map some challenges and opportunities in today’s landscape of work. Here is our conversation.

The Tyee: How has gig work and contract work transformed society?

Enda Brophy: We’re living the extreme consequences of the breakdown of a very important pact between employers and workers that shaped the post-Second World War era. The agreement was this: if workers stopped striking, stayed on the job and steadily increased their productivity then employers would give them a bigger share of the pie, steady employment, union representation, benefits and a salary which was enough to participate in the consumer society.

There were very important exceptions to this rule, and it relied on the unpaid work of women in the household and wealth appropriated from what was then referred to as the Third World, but that was the general arrangement. Employers turned their backs on this agreement in the 1980s by making work more precarious though the rise of part-time, contract, freelance, temp work, internships and, crucially, outsourcing and offshoring (which make full-time permanent employment precarious as well).

Gig work through digital platforms is the most familiar contemporary example of this process, but there are more extreme ones. Freshii’s use of “virtual cashiers” based in Nicaragua (mostly deportees from the United States) who serve customers at stores in Ontario over a video screen for $3.75 an hour shows just how far employers will go to gain the upper hand on their workforces through digital technologies. That post-Second World War pact is well and truly dead now. 

If you go to work for Uber, TaskRabbit, DoorDash or some other large gig employer, what hourly pay rates can you expect here in B.C. or Canada-wide?

We can’t really speak about average pay rates across the gig workforce with anything approaching confidence, but they’re certainly not high. Pay is based on single gigs (one food delivery, for example) and varies considerably by type of gig, time of day and across platforms and jurisdictions.

Tips are another important source of income which is also highly variable (tip your delivery workers folks!).

Gig workers on platforms like SkipTheDishes and Instacart we’ve interviewed here in B.C. report making anywhere between $15-25 per hour, although one needs to subtract costs for things like gas, car insurance and maintenance from that total. As one person working through a food delivery platform told us, “Some days you think you will not make money but end up making $30 an hour, other days you go in with the mentality that you are going to make money, but only end up with $10 an hour.”

Not only are pay rates entirely unpredictable, but how they are determined is totally opaque, generated as they are by the algorithms within the platforms.

And finally, pay rates can be lowered unilaterally, as has happened for Instacart delivery workers in the United States. Gig work platforms tend to suck workers in with higher rates when they arrive in an urban area, and once they’ve got an established workforce the pay drops.

A recent U.S. poll showed approval towards unions at its highest since 1965. How does Canada compare?

Conditions are very favourable for a wave of collective organizing here in Canada. Unemployment levels are at record lows. Studies suggest we’re in the midst of a really significant shift in the way workers are seeing the economy, the labour market and unions, and this is especially the case among younger generations of workers. There are green shoots of worker organizing across a wide range of sectors.

Workers at the food delivery platform Foodora organized through CUPW in Ontario a few years ago in a really innovative campaign which was only thwarted by the company’s departure from Canada. Digital media workers at outlets such as Vice, BuzzFeed Canada, HuffPost Canada and Canadaland have organized their workplaces in recent years. Starbucks workers at multiple locations in Alberta have been voting to unionize through the Steelworkers union, with more drives in the works. Amazon is the target of a Teamsters effort to organize warehouses in Ontario and Quebec.

We may well be on the cusp of an organizing wave like the one which overtook industrial factory settings in the 1930s, except this time it’s service workers, freelancers and digital labourers who are leading the charge.

Have there been any policy wins for gig workers we should take note of here in B.C. or beyond?

Governments across the world have allowed platform-based gig work to grow as a mostly unregulated sector of the labour market. The main problem for these workers has been their status, since they tend to be classified as independent contractors and so can’t access rights and benefits like a guaranteed minimum wage, vacation days, sick days or even the right to form a union.

582px version of EndaBrophyProfile.jpg
Brophy: ‘We may well be on the cusp of an organizing wave like the one which overtook industrial factory settings in the 1930s, except this time it’s service workers, freelancers and digital labourers who are leading the charge.’ Photo via SFU.

Where action has been taken, it has often been the courts that have decreed these workers to be employees rather than self-employed — this has happened in jurisdictions like California, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom. A court in Amsterdam overturned Uber’s dismissal of six workers because the decision was taken by algorithms governing the platform.

But these decisions are barely a drop in the bucket of what’s needed. Gig workers, and not just platform-based ones, at the very least need a new social contract which guarantees a dignified income, pay rate transparency, protections around their data and employer surveillance, and much more.

One struggles to find anything to point to along these lines in Canada. The Digital Platform Workers’ Rights Act passed recently in Ontario, one that was supported by both Uber and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, is utterly inadequate in all of these respects, and similar kinds of provincial legislation should be resisted forcefully by workers. My sense is that workers will need to force policy-makers to craft adequate policy rather than expect it be bestowed from above.

Do the entrepreneurial claims made for gig working — “Be your own boss!” — relate in any way to the labour shortage in retail and service jobs we've seen since the pandemic? Some on the right say lazy people just don't want to work, but many pro-capitalist voices spent the past 20 years telling folks they were foolish if they worked a steady job and didn't quit to found their own startup.

Silicon Valley has preached individualistic, entrepreneurial empowerment and doing things differently than the standard business world for decades now. Google’s motto — “Don’t be evil” — was the classic example of this narcissistic culture of high-tech corporate enlightenment. But a big part of the “techlash” that’s been happening — a real social reckoning where the sector has come under severe fire for its surveillance of users, its structural racism and sexism and its abhorrent labour practices — is that people have begun to see through the façade of these pronouncements.

What good is it to “be your own boss” on a platform like Uber if you get no benefits, no paid vacation and have an entirely inadequate, undependable income? This is the position of the independent union Rideshare Drivers United in southern California, which has recruited around 20,000 workers just in the last four or five years. And as workers have begun to speak up, companies like Google have shown what they really are about by hiring union-busting firms, firing workers and cracking down on their ability to speak out.

It’s no accident Google quietly ditched the “Don’t be evil” motto from the preface of its code of conduct in 2018. When the chips are down, tech companies are just like any other corporation.

You’ve looked closely at people who work for Google and other big digital platforms. What have you tracked and what picture emerges of challenges workers face in those settings?

People have tended to think of tech workers as high-paid, pampered, apolitical and even socially conservative. I’ve been researching tech work and collective organizing since the dotcom era when I was doing my doctoral work, and I find this image to be inaccurate. Employment has grown massively over the last three decades, and the tech sector has sucked in not only engineers and programmers but people with liberal arts degrees in subjects like communication, sociology and linguistics.

Just ask the workers with BAs in linguistics in Pittsburgh who work for Google contractors training artificial intelligence to recognize the difference between search engine inputs. When you ask them how much they make they give you a dollars per hour figure rather than a yearly salary, an amount which can't even pay off their student loans.

Or consider the people selling Apple gear in retail outlets at malls across North America, whose low-wage work is pretty standard service sector work.

Another example is outsourced content moderators in the Philippines, who need to be wading through social media videos of child porn, beheadings and random violence day in and day out to keep the internet safe for the rest of us. The reality is that tech is mostly creating working class jobs and that disenchantment is ripe across the sector.

And can’t it be said that in some way we all work for those platforms, which, after all, mine our creativity and behaviour to make a profit for a relatively very few?

There’s little question that our activities online are an immense source of profit for platform companies. Look at the list of the top 10 most valuable companies in the world over the last decade — most of them are platform-based companies. The precise way in which this profit happens, and whether our activities online can be considered work is a source of debate for scholars. But what seems fairly clear is that platforms like Google and Facebook have hit on a new and tremendously effective way to derive value from how we communicate to each other, one that is premised on algorithms, surveillance and outsourced workforces.

This also makes these platforms vulnerable to user behaviour, however. Let’s remember Rupert Murdoch paid nearly US$600 million for Myspace in 2005 and people abandoned the platform. That’s always a possibility for today’s titans of the attention economy.

What are the prospects for unionizing Facebook, Google and other big platforms?

Promising, and better than they ever have been. What’s happened in the last five to seven years in the tech sector has been truly remarkable. It’s included the workers speaking out against exploitative working conditions, employee efforts to block unethical projects at their companies, walkouts to condemn harassment and gender inequities, the formation of new unions like the Alphabet Workers Union and a fresh set of organizing drives at a range of tech companies. The initiative and the balance of power appear to be shifting toward labour in the high-tech sector.

The most prominent example of this so far is the formation of the Alphabet Workers Union at Google/Alphabet, an organizing project supported by the Communication Workers of America which has been aiming to make inroads among tech workers since the dotcom era. But organizing has happened at other companies as well. Workers at the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter unionized with the OPEIU [Office and Professional Employees International Union], and those at Google contractor HCL in Pittsburgh unionized with the Steelworkers in 2019.

These organizing efforts are still nascent and shouldn’t be made out to be more than they are, but they represent a really important development among workers at the cutting edge of capitalist development.  

We’re entering a municipal election season. A lot of candidates will speak of making Vancouver and other B.C. cities more “competitive” in luring multinational digital firms like Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Facebook. What would you say to that aim?

Vancouver is very attractive to tech companies and that really worries me. I’d suggest that candidates and voters look no further than San Francisco when considering what the possible effects of tech-led urban development could be.

San Francisco was one of the most culturally vibrant urban areas in the world. Since the rise of Silicon Valley, it has steadily ejected the communities which made that city such a special place, including LGBTQ2SIA+ communities, people of colour, recent immigrants to the United States and progressive communities more broadly. The metropolitan area has become a playground for highly paid tech workers (mostly white and male) at the same time as homelessness skyrockets and tent cities have grown.

The degree of social inequality in San Francisco today is shocking and offensive. I don’t think this is what anyone wants for Vancouver, or anywhere else in B.C. for that matter. We need, at the very least, major efforts to build and protect public housing to ensure equity in our cities.  [Tyee]

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