The Invention of the Future. Does ‘Platformisation’ Redefine the Notion of the Firm?
Presented at the Sixteenth International Conference in Commemoration of Professor Marco Biagi Assessing Worker Performance in a Changing Technological and Societal Environment: An Interdisciplinary and Multifaceted Perspective, Modena, Marco Biagi Foundation, 19–20 March 2018
23 Pages Posted: 28 Feb 2018 Last revised: 21 Mar 2018
Date Written: February 15, 2018
Radical changes have occurred in the field of labour law, social security and industrial relations over the past decades, fuelled by globalisation, trade and enhanced technology. Such structural changes have remodelled the structure of the firm, the organisation of the work and, perhaps more importantly, the concrete employment relationships. Shifts occurring in the labour market differ in their legal implications, yet most of the time they can be disentangled and interpreted by looking at the interplay between new organisational patterns, contractual arrangements and, not least, working conditions. As has rightly been pointed out, the study of employment has to be situated within the context of changing forms of organisation.
In this context, labour intermediation via digital intermediaries can be understood as the ultimate blatant showing of a long-lasting process of dissolution of the firm and “disorganisation of labour law”. The hallmark of the on-going transition is that technological channels are being used to distribute small jobs through a local/global assembly line, in a very inexpensive way. Understandably, services provided “just-in-case” and compensated on a “pay-as-you-go” basis have a strong influence on the nature and organisation of the employing entity and, above all, on the relationship between employers and employees (or between workers and clients).
According to critics, the rise of “digital matching firms” could be read as a slice of an intentional business strategy aimed at developing and implementing drastically new staff policies in conditions of uncertainty, while retaining traditional and even more pervasive managerial prerogatives. The most that can be agreed is that the last few decades have seen a transition from large manufacturing enterprises to the ICT-based companies where different derivations of the Fordist scientific building blocks are still in place. This model has remained intact despite the recent transformations: a tentative conclusion seems that Taylorism is, contrary to earlier optimistic opinions, very much alive.
The truth is that technology and algorithms allow abandoning the pure Fordist method and embracing a stronger version of the same logic of “the watchfulness of management”. The lack of direct interaction is promptly replaced by a greater reliance on electronic communications, workers are monitored more closely, strictly and intimately than they ever used to be. Instead of entrepreneurial autonomy, self-determination is a fantasy. Whether this is a threat or an opportunity for labour law remains to be determined. More importantly, this leads to the question how far the traditional notions of firm and worker are still appropriate to cope with this unstable working reality, whether minor or major adaptations might be applicable or whether a total “re-invention of labour law” is needed in order to accommodate new models properly.
This article will provide a theoretical compass to assist in navigating the reinvention of the company. In the same vein, the seismic movements that have fractured the firm, hence redrawing labour law’s borders will be investigated. The exploration is organized as follows. First and foremost, attention will be devoted to the doctrinal debate on the fragmentation of the firm and the decentralisation of the production cycle. In the following paragraph, the “fissurisation” of the workplace will be presented as a complementary way to interpret the advent of platforms. Concomitantly, theories on relational contracts will be examined in order to offer a theoretical framework for platform-enabled working arrangements. In particular, in an effort to update the incomplete dichotomy between “market” and “hierarchy”, building on the enduring legacy of the work of Coase and Williamson – but especially on Powell’s adaptation – an alternative model combining pre-existing schemes will be presented in order to portray the most common business model(s) in the on-demand economy.
Keywords: Cerberus Firm, Business Mode, Uber, Platform Economy, Gig Work, Sharing Economy, Misclassification, Dependent Contractor, Employee, Dependent Contractor, Parasubordinate Worker, Employee-Like Person, Trade
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