What is fair labor, Mr. Graham?

The gig economy is considered the magic word of economic advancement: low entry barriers, flexible work. But there are downsides like unfair working conditions, poor pay and few rights. What can be done? Mark Graham of the Fairwork Project on a lack of transparency, the power of scaling and cooperation with GIZ.

Our principles are not gold-plated and utopian, but rather represent basic minimum conditions that all workers deserve.

Mark Graham, Professor, University of Oxford and Director, Fairwork

How have digital labor platforms like Uber, Gorillaz or Upwork changed and challenged global and national labor markets and what impact do they have on workers?   


It is important to think about two different kinds of digital labor platforms – there are cloud platforms that operate pretty much everywhere on the planetary basis; they have workers from anywhere and they have clients from anywhere. And then there are more geographically or localized platforms that tend to operate in specific cities or local labor markets. Both types of platforms centralize market power. The geographically tethered platforms are like an operating system for the city, they have the infrastructure for the transaction of these labors – and this gives them an immense power to shape how those jobs are carried out. And the planetary platforms have created a planetary scale labor market. They are putting workers into competition with one another all around the world – these platforms set the rules, which impacts the rates and working conditions. If there is an oversupply of labor power, that will necessarily drive down wages and working conditions. And these platforms cannot be that well-regulated because, in a way, they are outside of the domain of any country’s ability to regulate them either on the consumption side or the workers’ side.


In how far are these challenges similar across countries and how do they differ, notably between high- and low- and middle-income countries?


That is one of the things that we are trying to cover in the Fairwork project. Platforms tend to not to be very willing to share data about their workers. There are no public databases about wages and working conditions. Hence, at Fairwork we try to understand the workers conditions. Some of the challenges that workers face are similar across different platforms and different places, and many of those challenges emerge from the independent worker classification that most workers work under. If they are sick, they will get no income. If jobs dry up on the platform, their income will also dry up. And they don’t have the benefits of employed workers like the ability to contest decisions or collectively bargain. Platform workers therefore tend to work in a system in which there is a huge imbalance of power: A large platform is dictating terms to an individual worker rather than bargaining with a union or collective body.


Given these challenges, what is Fairwork’s approach and can you tell us about some of Fairwork’s impacts?


We wanted to start with minimum standards of fair work that we would maintain that all workers deserve. The idea is: Let’s come up with some principles. At an initial multistakeholder tripartite workshop at the International Labor Organization we brought together a range of stakeholders and we discussed: What is fair work in the gig economy? They defined an initial set of principles and then we took the workshops around the world where we invited gig workers themselves, companies, trade unions and policy makers; from that we created the five principles of fair work. We evaluate platforms in every market against those principles and give each platform a score of up to ten. Only a score of ten of ten points means that a job satisfies minimum conditions of fair work.


Any platform got zero points?


Many. We haven’t had a platform with ten, but several with nine. The way that the project drives impact is by comparing one platform against another. We encourage them to do better. We create an incentive for a change that moves towards fairer conditions. We don’t have utopian demands for them, but we show them actually-existing implementations of key minimum standards of fair work – often amongst their competitors. Some of the platforms see the value that we can add to their business and choose to work with us in a proactive way. We follow this approach all around the world, in rich countries and in poor countries.


Discussions about labor standards have always been accompanied by comments such as “bad jobs are better than no jobs”. Do digital platforms leapfrog structural barriers to local job creation?


To me, it is not so black and white. With a lot of the services we are talking about – moving people around in cars, transportation, food delivery, cleaning or homecare – there will always be demand for them. These services are not going to disappear. It is unethical to say: Either we set this up with an exploitative, underpaid and dangerous job or we don’t have it at all. Our principles are not gold-plated and utopian, but rather represent basic minimum conditions that all workers deserve.


Taking a policy perspective, which policy or regulatory options are most promising in protecting workers’ rights and fair work vis-á-vis globally operating platforms? Can you think of existing best practices from countries around the world?


If we had best practices that we could point to already, we wouldn’t exist as a project. For a lot of this work, regulation is not fully there yet. The low Fairwork scores that we see around the world show what happens when the market is left to itself under current regulation: and in most cases, we see the market still falling very short of these minimum standards. That does not mean that there are no examples of better regulations: The legislation at the EU level is maybe one of the better ones. It tries to force platforms to start from the starting point of recognizing workers as employees. But there is still a lot of work to do to ensure minimum standards of fair work for workers. The scores that we produce speak for themselves. Nowhere does regulation fully make sure that all workers have jobs that provide decent standards of paying and working conditions.


How does collaborating with the BMZ and the Gig Economy initiative support you in reaching your goals?


The GIZ has really enabled the whole project. They fund the work we are doing in dozens of BMZ partner countries around the world. So, we wouldn’t be able to do the kinds of work we are doing in countries like India, in Nigeria, Brazil and Indonesia. Thanks to this support, there have been a significant number of platforms in these countries who have made significant changes to their policies. Take a country like India where some of the platforms that we are working with – they have literally hundreds of thousands of workers. If one platform makes a change, it will impact so many workers.


Speaking of international representation, the Fairwork Summit on 14 Sept. brings an impressive range of key stakeholders together. Can you tell us more about the objective of the Summit?


The point of the summit is just to bring together a high-level discussion, a global discussion in order to raise awareness for the opportunities and the challenges faced by workers in the gig economy. What we really want to do is think through different policy options and strategies to improve work in the platform economy. Hence, we bring together a range of voices, from the workers’ side, from the private sector and from the policy side.


Do you have already a certain solution in mind?


That will really emerge best from the workshop itself. Our mission is to bring together opinions from the different stakeholders to listen to workers, to listen to trade unions, the private sector and regulators in order to understand what they think fair work means. Obviously, there will be different opinions, but I think we work best when we sit in the middle of these actors and then try to bring them together and try to evaluate and study the gig economy based on what we are hearing from all of them.


Detached from your key topic and giving your imagination a free run, is there a particular digital solution you would like to introduce to solve one of the bigger problems of our time?


It is a good question, but I am afraid it does not have a good answer. I don’t think that a lot of the bigger problems of our time will ever be solved with a digital solution. To imagine that is sort of missing the messy politics of all of it. A lot of negotiation, politics and struggle has to be done by negotiating between competing actors and listening closely to those who are suffering from these bigger problems. In other words, the solutions are always political rather than digital. However, if I had to name something specific that could be useful: One thing regulators could do more of, is insist on more data transparency from some of the companies that are operating in the markets and which they regulate. They could for instance make it a condition of having a license to operate. Knowing more about the conditions of workers is a necessary pre-condition to even begin talking about how to improve them.


Learn more about the Gig Economy initiative and register for the Fairwork Summit here.