Next Generation Technology Workforce—Precarious Work and Platform Regulation
By Dr. Lutfun Nahar Lata, Institute for Social Science Research, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
Today’s workforce has an abundance of computing resources. Cloud Computing, Digital Platforms, Big Data, and Computation Intensive automation have changed the traditional labor markets, and the rules that regulate the workforce. Companies such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, Airbnb, Uber, and Deliveroo use online structures that have opened up new forms of activities, and these structures tend to replace the traditional labor market relations. In particular, the ‘platform,’ ‘gig,’ ‘sharing,’ and ‘on-demand’ economies have become increasingly important focuses of research, particularly on how intermediary platforms build, connect, and reconstruct the social relations among laborers, consumers, and businesses.
A. Technology and work: The rise of the platform economy
The emergence of the gig economy is situated under broader discussions about the future of work . Work conducted in the gig economy typically has four characteristics: it is platform arranged and/or facilitated; schedules are flexible and based on customer demand; the capital (cars, bikes, automobiles, etc.) and insurance is fully, or partially, provided by the workers themselves; and the payment is piece-meal . Underlying the success of the gig economy is the shifting of managerial responsibilities from humans to machines, which has led to the rise of ‘algorithmic management’ . New platforms such as Uber, Didi, Deliveroo, Menulog, and DoorDash utilize digital surveillance to monitor workers through their smartphones and mobile devices. While the price contours of algorithmic regimes vary according to the type of platform, in all cases, this management strategy has reduced the gig workers’ agency to resist or challenge the rules established by these firms.
B. Platform work, Discrimination, and regulation
The platform economy has introduced new economic opportunities for workers, including immigrant workers. These platforms offer flexible jobs and lower levels of institutional restriction and surveillance. However, existing research shows that in Australia, temporary migrants are three times more likely to participate in platform work than Australian citizens . This is also the case for other developed nations. Workers must negotiate a fair balance between economic opportunity and economic exploitation. Most of them are classified as independent contractors, not as employees. They are not entitled to receive employment benefits such as minimum wages, superannuation, and/or workers compensation. On average, food delivery workers earn only $10.42 an hour, which is lower than the national minimum wage in Australia for casual employees. This compares unfavorably to other casual employees in Australia who earn an average of $24.80 an hour . The wage discrimination is closely tied to the characteristics of the food delivery platforms which are typically comprised of low-skilled, young workers with a migrant background. In a recent survey of 250 rideshare and food delivery workers in Australia, it was found that 45% of migrant rideshare and food delivery workers were unaware that they were not entitled to workers’ compensation insurance when they signed up . Yet, as we have tragically seen in recent years, some migrant workers risk their lives by working in the food delivery platform. For example, on Saturday 24 October 2020, a thirty-six-year-old Malaysian man, Chow Khai Shien, died in central Melbourne delivering for DoorDash. One month later, on the morning of Saturday 21 November 2020, a twenty-seven-year-old Bangladeshi, Bijoy Paul, was hit by a car in Rockdale while delivering for UberEats. These were not isolated incidents. In Australia, from 24 September to late November in 2020, one food delivery driver died on average every 11 days .
In addition to wage discrimination, one of the major areas in platform economy research revolves around regulation. Within this literature, the regulation of the gig economy is identified as a major challenge for governments . Regulation around taxation is a major issue as platform owners often operate businesses from overseas, and their ‘employees’ are often contractors working from one gig to the next. Firms have always been one step ahead of regulators in avoiding, or loosely complying with, consumer protection, labor, safety, and tax laws . For example, many Australian cities have struggled with the question of how to regulate the platform economy. The Queensland Government initially imposed restrictions on ride-sharing services, but now these services are supported on a limited basis. Meanwhile, the Country Court of Victoria in Melbourne has appealed the Transport Act to target Uber drivers .
There are still ongoing concerns about food delivery platforms, but some food delivery services, such as Menulog in Australia, have agreed to recognize their couriers as employees rather than treating them as independent couriers. However, it is not clear whether Menulog plans to make all couriers employees or keep some couriers as contractors. As food delivery platforms are not legally bound to offer employment benefits such as superannuation and paid leave, other food delivery platforms have not made any move yet to recognize their couriers as employees. However, due to a lack of regulation in the gig economy, many migrants and less-educated workers are provided an opportunity to find work. In addition, existing literature suggests that deregulation enables firms to do the best that can be done to produce goods and services desired by members of the community by encouraging maximum efficiency, facilitating progress and innovation, and fostering responsible conduct .
It is estimated that with the rise of the platform economy, 47% of the work force will be displaced . This indicates that the nature of work will be transformed and reorganized in the future. For example, the long-term plan for Uber might involve the introduction of driverless cars. This would displace drivers and prevent disputes related to employment law . This trend will negatively impact the labor market by increasing the rate of unemployment. However, this trend will be beneficial to the existing firms as they will be able to recruit workers at a lower wage due to the imbalance between the supply and demand of laborers. This will further exacerbate the physical and mental well-being of future workers. It should be further noted that all countries might not follow a similar path in transforming the nature of work and introducing automation technologies to replace people. It will depend on several factors, including the development of technologies and their applications, as well as how countries value workers–whether workers are considered as assets or liabilities. However, governments need to find a way to regulate platform companies to ensure equity for platform workers.
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Dr. Lutfun Nahar Lata is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Social Solutions research group within the University of Queensland (UQ) Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR). As part of her PhD and post PhD research, she has developed an impactful program of research into the key social policy topics of precarious work, poverty governance, urban marginality, housing and place-based disadvantage. She is a mixed-methods researcher with extensive experience in conducting and publishing qualitative, quantitative and digital research, and working with multidisciplinary teams that include stakeholders from academia, industry and local and central governments. She is particularly interested in conducting impactful social science research through collaborative, evidenced-based, outcome focused and mutually beneficial partnerships between researchers and end-users. s in national conferences, published papers in Scopus and SCI indexed journals and filed/published/granted various patents.
Dr. Mohammad Saud Khan is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in the area of Strategic Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Before taking up this role, he was positioned as a Postdoctoral researcher at the University of Southern Denmark. Having a background in Mechatronics (Robotics & Automation) Engineering, he worked as a field engineer in the oil and gas industry with Schlumberger Oilfield Services in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom. In addition to several consulting assignments, his corporate experience includes a project on “Open Innovation” with Agfa Gevaert, Belgium. Saud’s research has largely been focused on investigating entrepreneurial teams within high-tech business incubators. His work has appeared at several reputed conferences (such as the Academy of Management Annual Meeting and Babson College Entrepreneurship Research conference) and journals (such as Creativity and Innovation Management and Management Decision). Currently, his research interests include innovation management (especially managerial implications surrounding novel technological paradigms such as big data, IoT, and 3D printing), technology, and digital (social media) entrepreneurship.