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Twenty Years After Seattle, Is There a New Race to the Bottom?

Technology will continue to transform industries, but it's actually weak labor protections eroding the quality of work.

A select few tech companies dominate the entire globe, and their CEOs are among the richest men the world has ever known. Many of their enterprises are virtual, allowing them to elude responsibility for everything from taxes to workplace conditions. (Photo: Monsitj/iStock via Getty Images).

A select few tech companies dominate the entire globe, and their CEOs are among the richest men the world has ever known. Many of their enterprises are virtual, allowing them to elude responsibility for everything from taxes to workplace conditions. (Photo: Monsitj/iStock via Getty Images).

Twenty years ago this month, I joined tens of thousands of activists targeting the World Trade Organization in the Battle of Seattle. Catalyzed in the late 1990s by the ‘future shock’ of increasing capital mobility, I was part of a collaborative project, Workers in the Global Economy, that sought to address the “race to the bottom” on labor standards in a world where capital was increasingly footloose. We were concerned with the outsourcing and offshoring of jobs to countries with low wages and weak worker protections, and with public policies that rewarded exploitative labor practices.

In subsequent months and years we converged on meetings of the World Bank, G20 and elsewhere. We critiqued rules for trade and investment that facilitated the race to the bottom, and promoted progressive alternatives. We recognized that the world’s largest corporations at that moment, companies like Walmart and Unilever, were using rigged rules to evade labor and environmental regulation.

Looking back, our demands remain salient and appropriate.  However, we failed to predict the end run that technological change would make around all of our efforts.  Now, 20 years later, we’re seeing major global policy institutions divert attention from the corporate-led globalization that’s eroded working conditions everywhere. Instead, they’re suggesting that somehow it’s the robots’ fault. Technology is a problem for labor rights – but not in the way many people think. The debate over robots taking our jobs is divorced from the reality of extreme capital concentration in the digital economy – which is far more responsible for eroding workers’ rights.

Capital concentration globally has vastly exceeded the levels we were protesting in the late 1990s. 

Capital concentration globally has vastly exceeded the levels we were protesting in the late 1990s.  A select few tech companies dominate the entire globe, and their CEOs are among the richest men the world has ever known. Many of their enterprises are virtual, allowing them to elude responsibility for everything from taxes to workplace conditions.

Companies like Uber and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk claim that they are neither employers nor service providers but merely intermediaries, matching clients who desire services with contractors to provide said service. But the platforms these companies run use algorithms to fragment work and pit workers against one another in new ways, forcing them to bargain against one another for gigs in a new, digitally-enhanced race to the bottom. From pedicab drivers in Cambodia to domestic workers in Tanzania, people around the world are learning that the only means to another gig is through an app. Even editing and design work are being offshored, and then ‘optimized,’ through unaccountable digital brokers like Rev and Upwork.

Journalist Steven Hill revealed the extent of this problem in Raw Deal, his expose on the industry. “In the name of hyper (market) efficiency, suddenly the ‘extraneous’ parts of a worker’s day are being eliminated,” Hill wrote. “Micro-gigs with job brokerages like TaskRabbit and Elance-Upwork are reducing workers’ value to only those exact minutes someone is raking the leaves, or on the computer, or banging the nails or mopping the floor, or engaged in a specific task, toiling away and producing.”

The digital economy also enables platform companies and their clients to amass incredible amounts of individual data about their workers. This can be used for “algorithmic management”—a euphemism for the use of artificial intelligence for data collection and continuous surveillance of workers.  Algorithmic management, as a recent report from Data & Society notes, enables platforms to control ever more fragmented bits of a worker’s time, agency and labor. Companies can use behavioral “nudges” to incentivize workers to work harder, faster, or provide labor on demand at all hours.

Penalties are also part of the machine learning.  Workers that choose not to accept certain jobs for on-demand delivery, domestic or ride-hailing services can be penalized by being put in “time out” or even “deactivated,” or banned from the platform, the Data & Society report finds. This fear of deactivation can coerce workers to accept undesirable gigs and hours.

And then there are the out and out ways in which platforms incentivize clients and workers to break labor laws.  One egregious example of this is the US-based household cleaning app Handy, which openly uses a system of imposed fees on workers leaving some in debt bondage. The listing of gigs at well below local and national minimum wage rates is a known feature of many of these platforms. The companies are able to openly flout labor laws because they have successfully argued that they are not employers.

In the future it isn’t robots or artificial intelligence we need to be worried about – it’s each other. Automation and technology will continue to disrupt and transform industries, but weak protections for worker rights are what’s really responsible for eroding the quality of work. That’s why initiatives like California’s recent Assembly Bill 5 are important – they offer a small step toward correcting the growing power imbalance between workers and corporate executives. However, in most parts of the world, workers always faced precarious conditions.  Reclassifying the work isn’t an option as these jobs were never part of the formal sector.  What, then, is needed?

Platforms are selling the ability for clients or employers to distance themselves from any responsibility for terms and conditions of work. If workers had sufficient bargaining power, would employers still find these platforms attractive?  Workers have used social media to organize with some limited success. Drivers in Indonesia and Kenya, migrant workers in Japan and Thailand, and other apparently isolated and vulnerable workers are building communities online.

Digital rights organizations can support such efforts, and build on the success of drivers who have successfully targeted Uber, Deliveroo and other services.  Groups doing creative online organizing like Coworker.org are also important to this fight, as are governments like France that are trying to capture a fair share of tax from the tech giants.  And finally, traditional labor movements will slowly have to find their role in an emerging movement to bring platform workers together around the world.

The pockets of resistance are small and woefully under-funded given the scale of the fight. As labor markets become defined around a new digital colonialism, workers need opportunities and resources to organize across borders. To determine not only the scope of the problem, but the possibilities for new forms of organizing and advocacy to address it, we need a new lens on workers in the global economy. In short, we need to reframe the debate around the future of work to centralize what we know about the effects of technology on the world’s most vulnerable workers – and center new social movements to harness collective worker power.

Bama Athreya

Bama Athreya

Bama Athreya is an Economic Inequality Fellow with the Open Society Foundations.

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