Platform Workers, Data Dominion and Challenges to Work-life Quality
33 Pages Posted: 10 May 2021
Date Written: May 3, 2021
Originally this short reflection was intended to explore the relationship between the under-regulated labour environment of gig workers and their appreciation of work-life quality. It was never intended as a comprehensive governance critique of what is variously known as independent, franchised, or autonomous service delivery transactions facilitated through platform providers. Rather it was to represent a suggestive snapshot of how workers in these contested employment contexts viewed the relevance of regulation (or its absence) and the impact that new forms of regulation might offer for work-life quality.
By exploring secondary source commentary on worker experiences and attitudes it became clear that profound information deficits regarding how their personal data was being marketed meant that expecting any detailed appreciation of regulatory need and potentials was unrealistic from such a disempowered workforce. In addition, the more apparent was the practice of the platforms re-using and marketising this data without the knowledge or informed consent of the data subjects (service providers and customers) the more necessary it seemed to factor in this commercialisation when regulatory possibilities are to be considered.
The platform providers have sheltered their clandestine use of worker data (whether it be from pervasive surveillance or transaction histories) behind dubious discourse about disruptive economies, non-employment responsibilities, and the distinction between business and private data. In what follows we endeavor to challenge these disempowering interpretations and assertions, while arguing the case that at the very least data subjects need to know what platforms do with the data they produce and have some say in its re-use. In proposing these basic pre-conditions for labour transactions, we hope that work-life experience can be enhanced. Many of the identified needs for regulation and suggestions as to the form it should take are at this point declaratory in the paper, and as such require more empirical modelling to evaluate their potential influences in bettering work-life quality.
In the spirit of snapshots, the paper initially progresses through features of platform/worker relations, service evaluation, and data management (as well as control responses), and worker surveillance with secondary data production that impact work-life quality. In so doing we do not explore the deeper theoretical dimensions of datafication through worker surveillance which the Centre has explored in later works. The paper then moves to a more general discussion of surveillance data production, worker privacy, and the muddying of legitimate and illegitimate data access and accrual in terms of the service delivery exigencies of platform economies. Herein lies concerns regarding information deficit and data subject disempowering. The motivations for and the nature of platform work relations, the market inequities, and the institutional disempowerment that features, as a result, are reflected upon. Worker self-determination is unmasked. The paper goes on to speculate why platform operators have vigorously opposed worker organisations, if at the same time they advance the benefits of worker self-determination. After a summary of recent victories for workers seeking conventional protections through organized labour the warning is posed not to lose sight of the novel characteristics of gig work such as the commercialization of reused personal data, that court decisions are yet to specifically address. The challenges posed in marketing the mega-platforms and their exercise of market oligopolies is the backdrop for speculating on difficulties in regulating the reuse of personal data. In the context of market dominance, the paper looks at the manipulation of customer/provider data to reduce more natural competitive forces and thus advantage the powerful positioning of the platform. In this respect, secondary data is not only marketable to third parties but provides an internal market benefit for the platforms themselves, and remains insufficiently influenced by anti-competition regulation. Finally, the main contentions that can negatively influence work-life experience for gig workers are put to a pilot opinion survey to test some underlying research assumptions and exercise a possible methodology for later research. It becomes clear that prevailing and pervasive information deficit concerning personal data reuse in particular may undermine the veracity of opinion survey approaches.
Keywords: gig economy, gig worker, platform worker, data dominion, data privacy
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