On-demand … and organized!

Christopher Land-Kazlauskas, Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining Specialist and Hannah Johnston, Technical Officer, Research Department

Pick up a magazine, access a blog or scroll through your Facebook feed, and you’re likely to see some reference to the gig economy. From Uber advertisements to advice on how to thrive – or avoid pitfalls – in the gig economy, digital labour platforms have made a bold entrance into the world of work.

Web-based platforms harness technology to connect workers with one-off, on-demand jobs, or ‘gigs’. While some see on-demand work as a way to improve efficiency for firms and create more flexible earning opportunities for workers, the gig economy has also been associated with unstable earnings, unpredictable scheduling and poor opportunities for development and advancement for workers, as well as a source of unfair competition for companies.

It should come as no surprise that – just like millions of other workers all around the world – gig workers are organizing. For generations, organizing and collective bargaining have been used to level the playing field between workers and employers. As a recently-published ILO working paper notes, despite legal and logistical obstacles, gig workers are organizing through both traditional and innovative means. They are joining trade unions, many of which are reaching out to workers in new sectors; they are establishing or joining cooperatives; and they are using new technologies to build community and collective voice.

These efforts have already started to pay off. Workers are coming together to identify common interests and demands, develop strategies to leverage their collective voice, and take action to achieve more equitable distribution of power in the gig economy. Delivery couriers halted pay cuts through mobilization in the UK, and in Austria they formed a works council to address key working conditions. In Belgium, a cooperative provides gig worker-members benefits associated with an employment relationship. In Germany, gig workers have worked in cooperation with unions and employers to develop a conflict resolution protocol. An innovative agreement in Australia established working conditions above the minima provided for in modern awards.

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Gig workers are joining trade unions, cooperatives and using new technologies to build community and collective voice.

Despite these gains, the research identified systemic obstacles to achieving fully-fledged collective bargaining in many contexts. This is due in part to the treatment of gig workers as independent contractors; in many countries collective bargaining among self-employed workers runs afoul of anti-trust or competition laws. Persistent conflict between collective organizing and competition law raises questions regarding the compatibility of current practices with ILO principles on freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, intended to apply broadly to all workers irrespective of their employment status.

Despite the portrayal of many platforms as modern, innovative and cutting-edge “disruptors”, when the question of collective bargaining is raised in connection with the gig economy, antiquated stereotypes tend to dominate. In light of its institutional flexibility and adaptability, collective bargaining provides the best way to ensure that conditions of work balance the needs of both workers and firms. Technological innovation and collective bargaining are not mutually exclusive; an inability to conceive of their coexistence is nothing more than a failure of the imagination.

Indeed, the report notes that sectoral agreements – establishing terms and conditions across an entire industry – could be particularly well-suited to the gig economy. This may point to why Sweden, with a strong tradition of social dialogue and a high prevalence of industry-wide collective agreements, has been successful in extending collective bargaining to workers and firms in the gig economy.

You can read more about how workers in the gig economy are building collective voice and power, and what type of policy reforms are required to fully realize the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining in the gig economy, in our new working paper: Organizing on Demand: representation, voice, and collective bargaining in the gig economy.

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