Dr Kelle Howson
Dr Kelle Howson is a postdoctoral researcher on the Fairwork project. Kelle is a development geographer interested in how ethical certification is reshaping governance and power relations in global networks.
The authors work at the University of Oxford’s Fairwork Foundation, which scrutinises working conditions at digital labour platforms.
Every week seems to witness a new tragedy in the gig economy. Gig workers are injured and killed without the platforms that they work for acknowledging or shouldering any responsibility. Many workers take on these risks for below the minimum wage.
It is therefore noteworthy that the CEOs of Uber, Deliveroo and four other large platforms have come together to “strengthen workers’ rights” with a ‘Charter of principles for good platform work’ that they published at the World Economic Forum last week.
This kind of corporate strategy isn’t new, and similar tactics have been deployed in many industries. In 2017, Sainsbury’s announced that its own-brand teas would no longer carry the Fairtrade label. Once positioning themselves as the world’s largest retailer of Fairtrade products, the supermarket giant said they would be certifying their tea supply chain under a cheaper in-house scheme, ‘Fairly Traded’, which mimicked some of Fairtrade’s key features, but was less accountable to farmers. Sainsbury’s was betting that consumers wouldn’t have the time or inclination to scrutinise the difference.
Sainsbury’s strategy is part of a wider trend of corporate counter-mobilisation that researchers have observed in the world of ethical certification. Corporations are increasingly wise to the fact that, absent meaningful independent regulation, they can make their own rules: asserting ever-greater control over the less powerful actors in their supply chains.
Being familiar with these tactics in other sectors, we were not surprised by last week’s release of the ‘Charter of Principles for Good Platform Work’ by a group of powerful digital labour platforms,—or that the Charter bore the seal of the World Economic Forum, which has a long track record of diluting economic regulation in favour of elite interests. On first glance, the Charter resembles the Fairwork Foundation’s principles that we have developed and refined over years of consultation with workers and labour researchers. At times, it even copies text directly from the Fairwork principles. At each step, however, the document is a watered-down and inadequate response to the challenges faced by platform workers. Indeed, the danger of such corporate masquerades of fairness is that they serve to muddy ethical standards, legitimise the status quo and stave off meaningful reform.
Progress in decent work standards in the gig economy is certainly to be recognised and celebrated. However, progress is not possible unless it includes workers’ voices. We cannot leave it to companies who profit from undermining conventional labour protections, to define decent work. That this Charter was released at all suggests that gig worker activism and resistance, as well as advocacy such as our own, is finding more purchase in public consciousness and that platforms are feeling the pressure to respond. However, the WEF principles fall woefully short of a meaningful agenda for ‘good platform work’ in five core ways.
First, the companies should have brought workers, their representatives, and governments to the table and consulted with them in good faith to set benchmarks for ‘good platform work’. The Charter claims that “All stakeholders, including platform operators, governments and workers themselves, have a role in ensuring the wellbeing of people engaged in platform work.” This unashamedly deflects responsibility from the actors—i.e. platform operators—who overwhelmingly control the conditions of platform work. Platforms set wages, and use algorithmic management, as well as incentives and penalties, to control workers. The interests of managers often do not align with the interests of workers. Moreover, the Charter’s tone of inclusiveness belies the fact that it has been written without any apparent input from the other stakeholders it identifies. If, in addition to platform operators, governments and workers too bear responsibility for workers’ wellbeing, they should also be involved in defining its parameters. To develop an effective, multi-stakeholder pathway to action, platform CEOs should—instead of issuing a unilateral agenda—commit to genuine, tripartite dialogue involving worker organisations and governments at an independent venue such as the ILO’s International Labour Conference.
Second, platforms are unaccountable to the Charter’s commitments. What will be the penalties for non-compliance? Will they seek third party or independent verification that they are conforming to their principles? Both Uber and Postmates (another signatory) have fought tooth and nail to block and circumvent California’s AB5 legislation that would provide gig workers some of the protections they espouse in their Charter, including benefits and minimum wages. Deliveroo, another of the Charter’s signatories, recently failed to provide time off or injury cover for a driver who had suffered a horrific racially motivated attack at work, saying that he was ‘free to take a few days off’ (without pay). Only 72 hours before that, another Deliveroo and UberEats driver, Takieddine Boudhane, was stabbed to death while working in London. Deliveroo’s indifference to workers’ wellbeing casts their vague pledge to “help protect workers from health and safety risks, and […] endeavour to protect and promote the physical and mental wellbeing of workers”, in an even more superficial light. Safe in the knowledge that this Charter will not be officially policed, companies have signed on to pledges that they frequently flout.
Third, the Charter’s principles are startlingly permissive of practices we know to be harmful and unfair. One principle reads, ‘Where minimum wage thresholds exist, workers classified as employees should earn at least the minimum wage of their jurisdiction, proportional to the time spent actively working and accounting for reasonable expenses for their mode of work.’ Across the world, the vast majority of platform workers are not classified as employees. So, with their provisos about who can be entitled to fair pay, platforms are attempting to legitimise their practice of paying workers wages that can fall dismally short of the legal minimums for employees. Moreover, the specification of ‘time spent actively working’ means that much of the work day goes unpaid. A food delivery driver wearing the company’s logos, sitting outside a restaurant waiting for an order is clearly adding value to the platform. But the time they spend doing so is entirely uncompensated.
In another instance, the Charter reads, ‘Where non-payment for tasks by users/clients is permitted, it should be subject to clear rules.’ The problem here is that rules are normally already clear. They allow wage theft. Such rules allow workers to put time into a job and walk away uncompensated should the client deem something about the job unsatisfactory. Clarity alone will not solve this problem. What we instead need are rules that don’t place all of the risk of any job onto the backs of workers.
Fourth, many of the principles are overly vague. For example, the Charter recommends that ‘Contributions to public or private social protections and benefits could be made by stakeholders as appropriate, subject to employment status, jurisdictional context and local conditions’. By passing the buck to unnamed stakeholders, and attaching various qualifiers to these protections, they leave ample space for creative interpretation of their self-imposed responsibilities. In the eyes of the CEOs who created this document, social protection is optional, discretionary and selective.
Finally there are fundamental tenets of fair work which the Charter has conspicuously left out. ILO Conventions 87 and 98, which enshrine workers’ freedom of association, and their right to organise and collectively bargain, are binding on all 182 member countries of the ILO, by virtue of their membership. While the CEOs who drafted the ‘Charter of good work’ chose to copy text from some of our other principles, we’re not surprised that they didn’t touch the Fairwork principle which states that all workers have the right to organise and collectively bargain. Platforms are notorious for their union-busting tactics. Our research in India, for instance, shows that Uber workers who participated in strikes faced ID blocks, incentives being rolled back, and a decrease in the number of rides they were allocated. It is only through collective representation that workers enjoy many of the protections we take for granted today, and which are being quickly eroded by gig work.
Until it provides space for workers’ interests to be meaningfully represented, and sets out an accountable pathway to action, this document is nothing more than fairwashing. This is not, as the WEF proclaims, a ‘ground-breaking initiative’. It is an attempt to undermine the forces of resistance that have begun to chip away at the power of platforms.
As ever more jobs become subsumed into the gig economy, we must ensure that the future of work we are hurtling towards is one of fair standards, safe conditions, and decent wages. In light of this Charter’s release, activists and advocates for workers’ interests need to redouble their efforts to expose unfair labour practices, hold platforms accountable, and ultimately shape a fairer future of work. Letting CEOs unilaterally define ‘good work’, without any scrutiny into whether they even adhere to their own watered-down vision, undermines this mission.
This piece was first published on openDemocracy.net.