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Towards a Fairer Platform Economy: Introducing the Fairwork Foundation
fairwork.jpg

This month, I started work on a new project together with my new colleague Jamie Woodcock: The Fairwork Foundation. With generous funding from GIZ, we will get to spend the next year and a half figuring out how to certify online labour platforms - using leverage from workers, consumers, and platforms to improve the welfare and job quality of digital workers.

Today we also have a new article about the project out (in a new issue of Alternate Routes focused on 'Social Inequality and the Spectre of Social Justice'). The article explains some of our initial strategies for the project. The specifics will undoubtedly evolve, but you can get a sense of our direction of travel.

Graham, M. and Woodcock, J. 2018. Towards a Fairer Platform Economy: Introducing the Fairwork Foundation. Alternate Routes. 29. 242-253.

Summary

This proposal envisions a way of holding platforms accountable through a programme of research focused on fair work. It operates under a governing belief that core transparent production networks can lead to better working conditions for digital workers around the world. The establishment of the Foundation and a certification scheme will provide demonstrable impact for digital workers, customers, and platforms. For digital workers, it addresses the twofold structural weakness that they face: first, the lack of ability to collectively bargain due to the fragmentation of the work process; and second, the asymmetry of information between workers and platforms. The certification process provides an important means to address these two challenges, along with building and developing connections between workers and institutions like trade unions and regulatory bodies. New kinds of work require innovations in organising techniques and regulations, and the Fairwork Foundation provides an important starting point for developing these in practice. 

As millions of people turn to platform work for their livelihoods, it is no longer good enough to imagine that there is nothing beyond the screen. Our clicks tie us to the lives and livelihoods of platform workers, as much as buying clothes tie us to the lives of sweatshop workers. And with that realisation of our interwoven digital positionalities comes the power to bring into being a fairer world of work.

Introducing a FairWork Foundation
A picture I took at a training programme for digital workers in Nairobi. The workers are being taught how to transcribe an audio file that says: "Nobody had any idea 30 years ago what the world was going to be like now, and how these tools were going to be used."

A picture I took at a training programme for digital workers in Nairobi. The workers are being taught how to transcribe an audio file that says: "Nobody had any idea 30 years ago what the world was going to be like now, and how these tools were going to be used."

When we use a product, a service, or even an algorithm that was brought into being with digital labour, there is no way to know whether an exhausted worker is behind it; whether they get laid off if they become sick or get pregnant; whether they are spending twenty hours a week just searching for work; how precarious their source of income is; or whether they are being paid an unfairly low wage.

I therefore want to propose a way of holding client firms in virtual production networks more accountable through the development of a ‘FairWork Foundation.’ The proposal operates under a governing belief that core transparent production networks can lead to better working conditions for digital workers around the world.

Today, there are 48 million workers globally who are registered on online labour platforms, cumulatively doing work that according to the World Bank consists of 5 billion dollars’ worth of transactions this year . We still know very little about where these workers are, what sorts of work they are doing, and – most importantly – the conditions under which they labour.

However, my research group at the Oxford Internet Institute, and a few others around the world, are starting to chip away at these gaps in knowledge. In my case, we are engaging in two multi-year, multi-continent research projects (geonet.oii.ox.ac.uk and oii.ox.ac.uk/projects/microwork-andvirtual-production-networks) which aim to better understand the benefits and risks that may be associated with digital work (here is an initial report and paper).

From our own research, and the research of others, it is clear that there are ample risks. Many workers have jobs characterized by long and irregular hours, intense work, low income, and tedium. The combination of highly commoditized work, and a global market for this work, means that many digital workers feel that people in other parts of the world will undercut them, and take their jobs if they request better working conditions or higher wages. Work also tends largely to be done outside of the purview of national governments, with very few clients paying attention to rules that are on the books in either their home countries or the worker’s home country. Lacking the ability to collectively gather and withdraw their labour, these workers increasingly need an effective way to improve working conditions.

Because transnational flows of commodities and labour frequently involve long, complex, mediated, and opaque production networks, a range of intermediaries have emerged to critically analyse working and production conditions in upstream nodes on supply chains. Consumer watchdog magazines like Which?, Consumer Reports, and Stiftung Warentest seek to reveal information that sellers of end-products often wish to conceal. Organizations involved in certification schemes (such as Fairtrade and The Rainforest Alliance) attempt to ensure that minimum standards are adhered to, and activist organisations like Sourcemap aim to increase informational transparency in supply chains.

The idea underpinning all of this work has been a belief that information and communication technologies (ICTs) could be used to not just facilitate the easy geographic movement of products and services, but also to facilitate a more transparent geographic flow of information about those products and services. If consumers or buyers have more information about products and production practices, then it becomes less likely that firms would be willing to engage in ethically dubious practices.

While consumers of products from companies like Starbucks and Cadburys have pressured those companies into ensuring that the entire chains of production are certified as Fairtrade, users of Google or Microsoft have no similar way of persuading those firms to behave ethically. Users of Facebook, Google, and other digital services, sites, apps, and algorithms currently have no idea if the workers that help to create and maintain those services are treated fairly or paid living wages. In many cases, users may be unaware that there are actually any human workers at all behind those services. But, the fact that the act of tracing production networks of digital services and products is a challenging task should not deter us from trying.

I have therefore put the below document together as a first step: hoping to outline what may be possible in a 'FairWork Foundation'.

Graham, M. 2017. A FairWork Foundation. Oxford: Oxford Internet Institute.

If there is interest, any of these ideas can be further expanded upon. It is important to remember that many of the millions of digital workers who are embedded into global virtual production networks currently have little bargaining power. Their ability to collectively bargain is limited, and they are often not protected by existing rules and regulations. As ever more people come online looking for jobs, the prospects for workers collaborating instead of competing look bleak. A FairWork Foundation offers viable strategies to change that by pressuring employers to improve wages and working conditions.

Open Development: Networked Innovations in International Development

The book, Open Development: Networked Innovations in International Development, has just been released under an open CC-BY license. The book emerges from a stimulating conference organised by Matthew Smith and the IDRC in Ottawa a few years ago.

The volume also contains a chapter by Håvard Haarstad and myself:

Graham, M. and Haarstad, H. 2013. Open Development through Open Consumption: The Internet of Things, User-Generated Content and Economic Transparency. In Open Development: Networked Innovations in International Development. Eds. Smith, M. L., and Reilly, K, M. A. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 79-111
    You can download the full book here.
    New paper published: Transparency and Development: Ethical Consumption through Web 2.0 and the Internet of Things

    A paper that I co-wrote with Håvard Haarstad has just been published in a special issue of ITID on Open Development.

    Commentators are now pointing to the potential for a globalization of knowledge and transparency that will harness the power of the Internet to allow consumers to learn more about the commodities they buy. This article discusses the potential for emergent Web 2.0 technologies to transcend barriers of time and space, both to facilitate flows of information about the chains of commodities, and to open up potential politics of consumer activism, particularly to influence the way goods that originate in the Global South are produced. We argue that these prospects are ultimately tempered by a number of persistent barriers to the creation and transmission of information about commodities (infrastructure and access, actors’ capacities, the continued role of infomediaries, and intelligent capture and use by consumers).

    You can download a copy of the paper from the link below:

    Transparency and Development: Ethical Consumption through Web 2.0 and the Internet of Things