Good morning! As you know, I am currently travelling around the world with my family. We are now halfway through our 4-month journey and have started the final leg in southern Africa. It is a wonderful and intense adventure. In the meantime, I am not publishing a newsletter, although every now and then my fingers itch to write one anyway. There are so many great developments and also the debate around AI, which in my view is in many ways the biggest data heist ever, needs some more context as far as I am concerned. But no, wait a while longer. I do share the podcast and blog that I continue to create every month from my participation in the ‘WageIndicator gig team’. This edition is about the Fairwork project: a great action research project that aims to improve the conditions of platform workers. Below is the blog I wrote. You can listen to the podcast episode here. Have a great month!
Researchers in action: this is how Fairwork improves working conditions in the platform economy
Fairwork Project investigates and assesses working conditions for platform workers in 38 countries. And that’s not all: the organisation strives for real change and gets it done. How? That’s what Martijn Arets talked about with senior researcher and project manager Dr. Funda Ustek Spilda in The Gig Work Podcast.
Technology is increasingly influencing the world of work and the gig economy is leading the way, especially when it comes to platforms for ‘on demand’ and online work. People not only find jobs through platforms, they are also managed, rewarded, monitored and evaluated through this technology. Fairwork project studies this development and goes beyond ‘just’ research. “We are not only studying working conditions in the platform economy, we want to improve them at the same time,” says Funda Ustek Spilda, senior researcher and project manager at Fairwork. “We call that ‘action research’.”
The project is now running in 38 countries across five continents, and these studies have already yielded considerable results. Since 2018, 44 platforms have made some 156 changes to benefit workers. In addition, with more than 900 media publications, Fairwork has had considerable influence on the global debate around platform work. For The Gig Work Podcast from the WageIndicator Foundation, I travelled to Oxford to talk to Ustek Spilda about this exceptional project.
Benefits and risks
Fairwork is an academic project led by the Oxford Internet Institute and the WZB Social Science Center in Berlin. They research the working conditions of workers who find and perform jobs through online platforms. At the same time, together with the platforms and other stakeholders, they look for ways to improve these conditions.
“Digital development in the labour market has advantages, for example it creates more efficiency and new work opportunities,” says Ustek Spilda. “But there are also risks to digitalisation, especially for workers. Think low wages, dangerous working conditions and little protection.”
Investigate, collaborate, change
The research began in India and South Africa and has spread to 38 countries within five years. In each country, Fairwork works with local research teams. “We do not outsource the research, but become part of the local research team,” says Ustek Spilda. “That way we can quickly start in-depth research. After all, the local experts already know a lot about the culture, history and laws and regulations. They help apply our research framework to local realities.”
Research in any new area starts with exploration of that region’s platform economy. The experts compile a list of platforms and other relevant bodies and individuals, such as policymakers and trade unions. Then the research on working conditions for each platform begins.
Assessment based on five principles of Fairwork
Fairwork assesses working conditions based on five principles:
- Fair pay
- Fair conditions
- Fair contracts
- Fair management
- Fair representation
The project believes that these are principles that all fair work should be characterised by. Irrespective of how work is classified, organised, managed, and carried out, it should adhere to principles of fair work.Each principle consists of two thresholds. Platforms are given a score out of 10. Where no verifiable evidence is available that meets a given threshold, the platform is not awarded that point.
This seems a bit strange to me, because this way the scores do not always give a complete picture. But it has advantages. In fact, Fairwork wants to initiate change in cooperation with platforms. By rewarding platforms if they cooperate in the research, they motivate companies to get started on change and have a dialogue with Fairwork on how they can improve the working conditions on their platforms.
Minimum wage and contracts in understandable language
Although the rating system is not flawless, this method demonstrably leads to improvements. One example is that more and more platforms are giving their workers a minimum wage or living wage.
More platforms are also giving a clear contract. “Putting clear agreements on paper seems obvious, but unfortunately it is not always so yet,” says the project manager. “Moreover, contracts are often incomprehensible to workers because not all platforms translate the information to local languages.”
A new opportunity every year
The researchers assess the working conditions of platforms every year. “This is because the platform economy and platform companies are constantly evolving,” explains Ustek Spilda. “That is why we also update the principles and criteria every year. We want to make sure they reflect reality as closely as possible.”
A recent change in the assessment system revolves around risk. “On many platforms, workers have to continuously meet targets. To what extent does that lead them to risk their safety, for example by speeding? If a platform does its best to protect workers from that, it gets a better rating.”
Fairwork is making changes to the scoring system in close cooperation with all local teams, so that the criteria fit each market. “It’s a long process where we discuss with all the teams in our network,” says the project leader. “We don’t want to impose things on the national teams that don’t fit their local platform economy.”
Inclusive, objective and up-to-date
Fairwork is all about researching, listening and engaging stakeholders. According to Ustek Spilda, her team speaks to stakeholders with different backgrounds and opinions. “This is how we stay inclusive and objective. Our goal is to really understand how the platform economy is changing around the world. What values and norms are involved? How is artificial intelligence affecting workplace automation?”
If artificial intelligence becomes more influential in this process, it will also affect Fairwork’s research and assessments. “We need to keep up to make an impact,” says Ustek Spilda. “For me, making an impact is the most important thing. If I can help make the labour market a little fairer than it is, then that’s great, isn’t it?”
I like how Fairwork does in-depth research by working with local teams. This method has its challenges, but I think it is the only way to implement it on such a large scale and really make an impact. The challenge is in finding a balance between scaling up by copying the concept and at the same time developing this concept further.
Also interesting is the shift from the focus on platforms to the relationship between digital technologies and working conditions. Such a broader view is inevitable, in my view, because eventually the differences between platforms and other employers and intermediaries will become irrelevant. Already, it is far from clear when an organisation falls under the definition ‘platform company’.
In addition, technology is having an increasing impact on the world of work; the platform economy is simply leading the way. So it makes sense to broaden, but also a challenge. The platform economy was a clearly framed phenomenon. This made it easier for researchers to focus on certain parties and practices. I think that is part of the success. I am curious how they will tackle this in the coming years. I will keep following it.