Gig workers find their e-voice
Online forums are providing an effective platform for gig workers to organise and agitate to improve working conditions, new research shows.
As union membership declines and the gig economy undermines workers’ rights, new research reveals social media platforms, online forums and other digital channels are providing alternative avenues for workers to organise and agitate to improve working conditions.
UTS Business School doctoral candidate Michael Walker examined how Uber drivers in particular were able to use an online forum to achieve improvements in working conditions. He recently presented his findings at the 6th Regulating for Decent Work Conference at the ILO, the United Nations labour rights body, in Geneva.
"The isolating nature of working for Uber means that drivers have little to no form of physical contact with one another making ‘e-voice’ an option of necessity," Walker says.
Systems that were built in the 20th Century are struggling to ensure decent working conditions now.
Michael Walker, PhD candidate
Walker interviewed Uber drivers in Australia about their use of online forums, and examined thousands of instances of worker-generated content in the online forum uberpeople.net, which was established in 2014 and has more than 2 million posts including more than 300,000 specific to Australia.
He found that online activity was not just a stepping-stone to real-world action, such as the Uber strike, but also provided the opportunity for workers to improve their material situation by sharing information and experiences, including how to take advantage of the system and earn more.
“For workers such as ride-share drivers, who do not have a union or an HR department to help them resolve workplace issues, digital technology can offer a new way to assist them to act collectively and have their voices heard,” Walker says.
More than 7% of Australians work in the gig economy, with ride-share drivers making up the greatest proportion. Workers are most commonly men aged 18-34, students, temporary residents, people with a disability, and those who do not speak English at home.
While unions were the way workers traditionally collectivised to force a change to unsatisfactory working conditions, union membership has declined more than 40% in Australia from around 2.5 million in 1976 to 1.5 million in 2016.
Companies such as Uber avoid traditional labour regulations, including a minimum wage and holiday pay, by classifying drivers as independent contractors. This undercuts labour standards and leaves businesses that pay full entitlements at a cost disadvantage.
“Systems that were built in the 20th Century are struggling to ensure decent working conditions now. Decent work is one of the global goals of the United Nations, and the ILO is the agency that is tasked with promoting it,” Walker says.
“Worker voice expressed through electronic media is an important phenomenon because of the potential for peer-to-peer communication without formalised, institutional structures such as unions,” he says.
Walker encourages those working in a situation where there is no union present to check out online forums and share experiences with other workers, as these forums not only provide support and advice, but also the opportunity to improve working conditions and earning potential.
He also encourages unions to embrace digital technology as a way to strengthen worker voice, either through co-operating with forums that already exist, or creating new online platforms to assist workers and support decent working conditions.