Precariousness and surveillance: digital platforms, ever richer thanks to Europe’s poorest regions

Precariousness and surveillance: digital platforms, ever richer thanks to Europe's poorest regions

Faced with economic and employment instability, ever more workers are juggling traditional work with online work as a second source of income.

(María Crespo, ET; Riccardo Milani/Hans Lucas, via AFP. Composition: Fátima Donaire)

Technology permeates our everyday lives. It creates new job opportunities but also new traps that perpetuate the precarious conditions of the most vulnerable workers. A recent study by the European Trade Union Institute, Juggling online gigs with offline jobs, reveals how workers living in the least favourable local labour markets in the European Union combine digital platform, online or gig work with precarious real-world (offline) jobs.

It is an everyday scene in which the protagonists – from surveilled platform-based delivery drivers to creatives working through the internet – perform their tasks under unstable working and economic conditions.

If we take a closer look, “on the map of the regions with the highest proportion of internet work, we find, for example, Normandy and Burgundy in France; central Poland; Bremen, Saarland and Saxony in Germany; central Bulgaria; eastern and central Ireland; central Slovakia; the Aegean Islands and Crete in Greece; eastern Spain; southern Italy; western Austria; north-western and central Romania, and Transdanubia in Hungary,” researcher Wouter Zwysen, co-author of the study with Agnieszka Piasna, tells Equal Times.

Statistical analysis shows that people living in an area with very high unemployment (13 per cent), as opposed to an area with very low unemployment (2 per cent), were 25 per cent more likely to engage in online work. The data is from a cross-national study carried out in 14 European countries, representing 84 per cent of the working age population in the EU-27, measuring the scope of online work and work via digital platforms.

Poor-quality online work, more prevalent in EU regions with fewer opportunities

The results reveal a close correlation between the quality of traditional work and the concentration of online work. Faced with economic and employment instability, ever more workers are juggling traditional work with online work as a second source of income. “While the digital labour market does create job opportunities to an extent, our interpretation of the situation is that the problem lies more in the quality of the traditional jobs available, which need to offer better conditions. What we were not able to address, however, is the extent to which platform work may serve as a stepping stone to more traditional jobs. Other projects are looking at this, using longitudinal data, and so far there does not seem to be a clear link: these jobs do not seem to provide a way into better jobs for the most vulnerable workers,” says Zwysen.

The study shows varying degrees of integration between traditional and online labour markets across EU countries. In Central and Eastern European countries (Estonia, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia), the vast majority of online workers also have offline jobs, whereas in France and Greece less than 60 per cent of online workers are also employed in the traditional economy.

Different platforms, different struggles

“Platforms both produce and reproduce trends, from the deregulation of the labour market to the precarisation and misclassification of workers in the gig economy to newer trends of algorithmic management upon which workers’ productivity is measured and their labour is surveilled. It is crucial, therefore, to analyse them, given how they can intensify and reproduce inequalities,” Sarrah Kassem, lecturer and research associate in political economy at Tübingen University’s Institute of Political Science, in Germany, tells Equal Times.

When we talk about working through digital platforms, it is important to look at two dimensions. The first is the nature of the platform itself, whether it is location-based, as in the case of Amazon warehouse workers or Uber drivers for whom location is key to performing the tasks, or whether it is a web-based platform, such as Amazon Mechanical Turk, where workers do microtasks from their screens and from anywhere in the world.

The second dimension is the nature of the work, or how workers are paid: more traditionally, with an hourly wage, as in the case of warehouse jobs; or per gig, as in the case of Uber drivers, for example.

The way these two dimensions come together has implications for the way workers are organised by the platform and alienated at work (for example, the length of the employment relationship, whether they know their colleagues and the generally low-paid working conditions), but also for how workers organise themselves, according to Kassem.

“While workers face exploitation and surveillance across platforms, we see how the platform economy is an example of quite diverse forms of resistance and labour organisation. This can be more traditional, such as unionisation, union drives and industrial action, like strikes. We have seen this especially in location-based platforms, ones that pay traditionally, like Amazon warehouses, and gig ones, like food delivery,” says Kassem, author of Work and Alienation in the Platform Economy – Amazon and the Power of Organization published at the beginning of 2023.

What happens when workers are spread around the world and do not know each other? “Digital gig workers like those on Amazon Mechanical Turk push us to think of more alternative forms of labour organisation. Once we take a closer look at Amazon Mechanical Turk workers, we can see how they make use of the infrastructure of the internet to form solidarity links online and give tips to each other, whether on Turkopticon, where workers rate the requesters that post tasks, or on Reddit, where workers start discussions on how to best navigate the platform,” she explains.

She insists on the need to look more deeply into the specific features of each technology without forgetting the reality of the people who use them. “The political-economic and national context in which workers are located also plays a crucial role. The platforms operate in these contexts and are therefore connected to the industrial relations and laws existing there, which can support their platform model but potentially also regulate them. Workers are not detached from the contexts they find themselves in and their gendered and racialised labour markets,” she tells Equal Times.

The importance of proper regulation

Should platform work be considered a separate segment of the labour market just because digital innovation now makes it possible for labour supply and demand to connect online at record speed? For Ilda Durri, a postdoctoral researcher at the Labour Law Institute of the Belgian university KU Leuven, the answer should be no, as there are many similarities between the working conditions for those doing platform work and casual work, “which has been with us since the nineteenth century”.

“Both work arrangements are characterised by very short (and in some cases very long) working hours, combined with their unpredictable nature. This impacts the job and income stability of these workers, who can’t be sure whether they’ll have any work or income for the following day, or even hour,” Durri, who specialises in platform work, informal work and the future of work, tells Equal Times.

These shared features are an indicator that platform or internet-based work are part of broader labour market trends, such as casual work. It is important to include platform work within this framework, according to Durri, as “there is already a template available for the regulation of casual work that can also be used for digital platform work. The latter has so far only been partially regulated (such as in Spain) or is the object of legal initiatives that have not yet been approved (in the European Union, for instance).”

Focusing our attention on this issue (the nature of digital platform jobs and their implications for workers’ lives) brings to light the challenges ahead, such as the need to develop specific regulations and policies to improve working conditions and labour relations for platform workers, to support their rights to organise and freedom of association, or to ensure greater transparency in the use of the technology.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Louise Durkin