Sunday, 9 August 2015

The Real World Meets the Gig Economy


Apologies for such a long delay between this post and my last - reporting on another great CWU BME  Leadership Weekend - but I have been away teaching a tremendous amount, with little time to reflect and write. (Also, this post has been finished when on holiday in St Davids, Pembrokeshire, so apologies for apparent brevity towards the end of this post)

I have though just landed back from a wonderful week of teaching at the ILO's International Training Centre in Turin, Italy (20-27 July). I was invited to teach by MA ILTUS alumni Ariel Castro (who was at Ruskin full-time 2008-09) and is now head of Asia and the South Pacific region for worker's/trade union education, having been based at the ILO's Delhi office for some time, after he had graduated from the MA.

The course, Trade Union Organising Strategies for Inclusion and Development ran from 20-31st July, and all training materials/resources can be found here, including a detailed list of participants and the course programme.

The students (pictured above) comprised highly experienced trade union officers and activists, many of whom combined wider political/social campaigning as their brief. Countries represented included the Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Maldives, Morocco, Sri Lanka, Jordan, Thailand, India, Nepal and Myanmar.

Thus some of the countries represented comprised the worst violators of human and trade union rights internationally,  and without wanting to sound overly fawning, it is quite humbling to listen/hear from international trade unionists talk of the day-to-day social and political dangers of carrying out their trade union work, when positioned in the relative advantage of the UK.

Whilst the course focused on how colleagues could apply and embed various ILO conventions and other technical instruments, a key emphasis was around the role of the ILO's supervisory mechanism to encourage the reporting of systemic abuse of workers' rights. Whilst the ILO can appear toothless in sanctioning rogue states, there exists a real-politik within the UN system which - whilst not as aggressive and direct as we would wish - can nevertheless effect forms of change when allied to wider geo-political shifts around trade, aid, migration etc.

Of course the ILO will never be a substitute for independent, strong forms of organised labour, and where the course was most dynamic were the sessions led by Emily Paulin (Head of the ITUC's Organising Academy) on strategic organising and political campaigning and Elsa Ramos (writer/researcher/activist on gender, informal and domestic work) on the role of gender in trade union organising strategy and in particular in activity with and for domestic workers. 
Here the teaching/learning was highly informative to observe, as it allowed for national/cultural differentiation, but also the sharing of ideas/experience to enable the articulation of new strategy/policy frameworks. The pictures reflect an energy and vibrancy which was a core feature of these sessions in particular.
I particularly enjoyed the insight provided by students of how different labour centres/unions were approaching some of the major challenges of trade unions globally. So, for example, it was of profound interest to hear from Michelle Wong (Hong Kong Domestic Workers General Union) and Sunil Shinde (of the Indian union Rashtiya Mazdoor Sangh (RMS)) to hear of their experience in organizing domestic workers, particularly where the union activity had to transcend ethnic/national divisions. This is hard-edged work and cuts across so many of the competing challenges facing trade unions globally.

The Gig Economy
The main feeling generated during the week spent with trade unionists undertaking the course, was that they represented the real-world exigencies of an untethered neo-liberalism. Where labour movements toiled in a political and economic landscape shorn of those historically protective structures garnered by movements of the global north, albeit understanding that that self-same neo-liberal tide is slowly (irrevocably?) generating a global equilibrium, according to the ILO’s World of Work 2014, of low-paid, precarious work:

As described earlier however, the week’s focus was around a means by which a multiplicity of forces, whether through the jurisdiction of the ILO, or more organic forms of mobilisation, could withstand, repel or mediate this tidal force: so there was no sense projected of an inevitability that labour movements were a spent force, nor that civil society more broadly did not have answers to on-going economic dislocation or social change.
On coming back to the UK, and reading the article by Arun Sundararajan in that Sunday’s Observer, it was if reading not only of a separate hemisphere, but of an entirely different world occupied the by ‘the gig economy’:

This notional, over-hyped ‘economy’ is nothing more than aggrandised self-employment mediated via social media or other digital platforms.
Although Sundararajan is careful to finely balance his writing between between the optimism on entrepreneurialism and the hazards of poorly remunerated small-scale tasks, his overall pitch for the suggestion that this economy is anything new and radical collapses with his opening sentence, “not so long ago, the only people who looked for “gigs” were musicians”.

False Self-Employment
Sundararajan spuriously suggests that, somehow musicians can somehow live without any of life’s requisite material and spiritual resources (food, housing, relationships etc.) whilst others find “real jobs”’.

In the time I have spent working alongside or observing the work of the Musicians Union (MU) and talking to the union’s members, I’ve never met anyone who actually revelled in, or could easily survive, what is in reality forced self-employment.
In reality parts of the the live entertainment market has created a vicious underworld which purely serves its own interests at the expense of those who are perversely a central feature of that market.

False self-employment is nothing new. In ‘Blacklisted’ Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain pain-stakingly chronicle the means by which the UK’s construction industry forced workers into a primal form of self-employment; therefater brutalising and blacklisting workers when they rightly challenged not only this form of employment but also the degrading working conditions with which it comprised.

When and if there is ever such a backlash from those dispersed legions of workers undertaking small-scale ‘assignment’s for Amazon et al within the ‘gig economy’ remains to be seen, although the ILO portends that the increasing scale of this economic activity requires a review of how such work can and should be subsumed within regulatory frameworks to ensure appropriate monitoring and subsequent regulation:
The Cybertariat

Some of the best analysis of the increase in forms of work embedded within new technologies has been written by Ursula Huws, and is all the more valuable for a gendered perspective. In ‘The Cybertariat’ Ursula Huws rightly suggests that we should see the ‘gig economy’as a new phase of capitalism, albeit one, I would contend, which poses massive challenges for organised labour, both to mobilise these workers (whether at one end of the spectrum essentially processors, and at the other so-called knowledge workers) but also to generate a systematic, uniform response to how these patterns of work are disrupting economic norms:

Huws updated her 2003 cybertariat thesis last year with the publication of Labour in the Global Digital Economy: The Cybertariat Comes from Age. Here, Huws maintains the theme of a new mode of capital accumulation, but one which projects a new vision of entrepreneurial freedoms, but which occasion such significant economic structural shifts (in particular the continued fragmentation of public sector service delivery and welfare/healthcare mechanisms) to pose seismic change to the quality of life:

 This, in essence, is the real danger of the gig economy, and one that Sundararajan acknowledges (although not forcefully enough I would contend) which is that the stability required by advanced (and emerging) economies rest, naturally, on the economic stability of those feeding into and off that economy. The peer-to-peer aspect of the gig economy (airbnb, Uber etc) are welcome aspects of a mixed economy, but their success (taking Uber in any major city of an advanced economy as an example) rests principally on profit derived from customers enjoying even relatively stable incomes of their own.

Nick Dyer-Witheford does a reasonably good in interpreting in its bleakest form what this means for workers, economies, and for movements (including organised labour) when/if the gig economy reaches fullest maturity, in Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex, published in May by Pluto Books. Pluto have made the introduction available here:

 It’s important to keep an eye on the writing/analysis of Huws et al as the gig economy is far too large and relentless to ignore, particularly from a labour studies perspective. The reality however, both in the global north, and in the countries represented by the trade unionists I met in Italy recently, is that the majority of work sits outside of this economy, but is exposed to the fragmentary, unstable nature, and it is this overlap that must be our continuing concern.

Similarly, the challenge for movements (particularly for organised labour I contend) is how to respond to the occupational and economic outcomes of the cybertariart, whilst at the same time determining its own place in the technologies themselves. Dyer-Witherfood poses the challenge well when we writes:

Proletarian movements against capital must make use of cybernetic communication, because they are in a profound way inside such systems, and indeed of them, formed under conditions of technological subsumption that have for generations shaped workplaces, subjectivities, and cultures: it would be difficult to riot, organise, or occupy without using networks. At the same time cybernetics, perhaps to a greater degree than any other technological system, has been imprinted with and implemented for capital’s dynamic of abstract value, to accelerate, amplify and intensify the circulation of commodities.

Invariably these are times I will be returning to in this blog, but I very much welcome comment and debate about the books/themes/ideas flagged up here.
In Solidarity


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