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Unpaid Labour in the Platform Economy: A Typology of Wage Theft in the Digital Age

With Dr Kelle Howson
28 Oct 2021
With Dr Kelle Howson

This talk – in discussion with Dr Kelle Howson – explores the dual nature of unpaid labour in platform work.

There are over 4.7 million gig-based platform workers in the UK. Many suffer from low-pay, poor working conditions, uncertain employment status, non-transparent management practices and a lack of collective voice. Additionally, most platform work falls outside of statutory employment protections or existing collective agreements afforded to employees. In this context, the legal basis for determining what is and is not unpaid labour is often obscured by the contractual classifications that platforms use, which allow them to abdicate their obligations, while evading what limited labour market enforcement exists in the UK. This leaves platform workers at substantial risk, particularly of wage theft and other forms of unpaid labour. Do digital platforms systematically rely on unpaid labour? Which platform policies, processes and practices facilitate unpaid labour?

Drawing conceptually from Marxist political economy, we argue that extant analyses of unpaid labour, in terms of unpaid overtime and the violation of labour laws, neglect not only the systemic dimension of unpaid labour under capitalism but also the emergent expropriation of workers’ data as it is transformed into an asset. Through a detailed study of platform workers experiences of work, we develop a novel typology of unpaid labour and how the organisation and governance of platform labour processes facilitate these experiences. This talk will explore the different forms unpaid labour takes, such as unpaid training time, unpaid waiting time, travel between jobs, externalisation of costs of production, and expropriation of worker data as well as offer some solutions to this problem.

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