Exploring digital opportunities to switch the gig-economy to fair and just work

Project Lead

Dr. Ben Kirman
Lecturer in Interactive Media, Theatre, Film and Television Department, University of York
Contact: ben.kirman@york.ac.uk


Dr Oliver Bates, Lancaster University

Supporting Partner(s)

Co-operatives UK, Miralis Data, Future City Logistics

Project timeframe

Start: September 2019
End: February 2020

Technology in the best interests of workers

In the UK, 2.8 million people work in the ‘gig-economy’ – a way of working, usually via digital platforms, where freelance workers do temporary jobs or piecework rather than working for an employer.

In this growth industry, software platforms provide value and efficiencies to employers and customers but little transparency around the impact on workers. Gig-workers are not afforded the same protections and rights as those in ‘traditional’ employment. Inequality, risk and the casualisation of gig-work continues, work is assigned by opaque algorithms, workers are isolated, and wages and benefits are eroded.

The growth of gig-working is enabled by technology that automatically distributes work and payment. However, there is an imbalance of power and a lack of transparency around how algorithms manage workers that is a cause for frustration and concern.

This project aims to …

… explore the opportunities for the industry’s technological innovations to be used to support workers, switching the current gig-economy focus to one of equality, just work, and power for workers. This will lay the groundwork for technologies capable of transformative change in the experience of broader gig-working industries.

Switch-Gig will generate data, use cases, speculative design concepts and prototypes to demonstrate meaningful ways in which gig-working can be supported by grass-roots technology projects. These may take the form of projects that help raise public awareness, connect gig-workers to combat isolation, or provide access to legal advice and support.

Specifically it will …

… organise a series of co-design workshops that bring together courier gig-workers and partners in three cities, as a practical and productive approach to engage stakeholders. The initial focus will be on workers involved with delivery of parcels and food, and aims to gain deeper understanding of their needs and identify challenges and opportunities they face around their work.

The workshops will be followed by co-design activities that creatively explore how technology can better support workers in the contexts and situations that have been identified.

Recent union actions, platform co-operative movements, worker perspectives, and reviews of working practices highlight a need for technology to work in the best interest of workers. Groups such as the IWGB (Independent Workers union of Great Britain) and the Fairwork Foundation continue to make strides in supporting workers by providing advice and support for co-organisation, increasing transparency and challenging the industry in its treatment of gig-workers.

Switch-Gig will also identify opportunities for technology to support grass-roots efforts by gig-working couriers. Just as technology is used by corporations to manage workers, this project will support workers to identifying opportunities for tech to help them understand their rights, connect with others, and raise public awareness.

This project’s social impact is …

… to build an understanding of issues facing the millions of gig-workers in the UK by bringing together gig-workers, academics, technologists, and 3rd sector organisations

The outcomes of this project include gaining a direct, broad understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by gig-working couriers in the UK. This will help increase transparency around issues faced by workers in this industry, for the community of gig-workers, their employers, 3rd sector organisations, policymakers and the general public.

In addition, the collaborative workshops will generate ideas and concepts for using emerging technology to support them in their work.

A set of prototypes for grass-roots systems and organisations – projects owned and operated by and for the community of workers in this space – will be built. These will be fully documented, recorded, and freely provided online in forms such as blueprints for co-operative organisations, kits for building fair systems, and subversive design provocations.

It is innovative because …

This project engages with gig-workers to give academia, industry and 3rd sector organisations meaningful and practical insight into the variety of issues they face. They will gain the tools to explore how technology can be used to increase fairness and address the current imbalance of power.

The novelty of Switch-Gig is in recognising the power and opportunities technology provides, but empowering workers to be owners and stewards of these systems, using a ground-up approach that prioritises fair work and welfare.

What’s next?

As a pilot project, the initial focus is on gig-workers in the UK courier sector, however Switch-Gig will lay the groundwork for further developments to ensure just and fair work in the emerging technology-mediated industries more broadly, both in the UK and internationally, and will engage employers directly in addressing the real issues exposed by workers.