This is the second of our two-part series on how the public sector is positioned in the digital paradigm. The previous post was a selected extract of a report by Public Services International (PSI), Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) and IT for Change that looks at the public sector’s legitimate role in the new digital context and highlights the necessity for a framework that defines data as a public good and pushes for community ownership of data.

As a follow up to this (forthcoming) report*, we spoke with Daniel Bertossa, Assistant General Secretary of PSI, about the role of the public sector and public sector workers in navigating the digital era, how PSI’s strategies are evolving to meet new challenges, how existing models can be leveraged for better redistribution of wealth in the data economy, and how the Covid-19 crisis is precipitating an organic build-up of solidarity among various worker movements.

Q: What is your assessment of the Covid-19 crisis in the context of public sector workers, and the precarious conditions under which they are working?

Daniel: We really are seeing a tragedy – much of which was avoidable. The pandemic is already affecting different countries in different ways, depending on how quickly they respond and the level of development. Most public health systems are insufficiently developed to deal with the crisis. Where there were strong, universal public health systems, these have been undermined over the last few decades. So we’re seeing health systems that are not able, or don’t have the capacity, to respond to the surge in infections. Workers face a shortage of personal protective equipment, which is not only a tragedy in terms of the ability to keep workers safe, but is also undermining the ability of already stretched healthcare systems to deal with the pandemic. We’re seeing doctors and nurses becoming sick, dying, and being taken away from their workplace.

So we’re seeing a real crisis of public health and, frankly, a crisis that was completely avoidable. You hear politicians saying nobody could have predicted this. But, in fact, the World Health Organization was warning about the likelihood of a pandemic. Others, including trade unions and Public Services International, have been saying that we need to build capacity into our public health systems to ensure that everybody gets access to quality, universal public healthcare. What we’ve seen from the global financial crisis, the Ebola and the SARS crises is that countries have ignored the need for better public provisions and regulations. They have continued to outsource and privatize healthcare systems. As a result, we are now seeing healthcare workers, carers, transport workers, retail workers being put at risk unnecessarily because of the prioritization of profits over people in the last decades.

Q: How has the digital turn in the economy exacerbated some of these problems?

Daniel: The development of digital technologies have allowed a fragmentation of the production process. Instead of building a car in one country, the work process is dispersed across the globe. This has driven down wages, forced countries to lower environmental and labor standards as they compete for investments. This also meant that governments have lost control of vital production processes needed to ensure the wellbeing of the population. The digital economy has accelerated this process – and trade agreements have made them permanent. It has also extended them to public services. In the Covid crisis we are seeing the devastating consequences of this lack of control in shortages of ventilators and even simple things like masks and protective gowns.

The rules of the market are no longer being set by democratic governments but by massive unaccountable global corporations.

But digitalization is also fundamentally changing this process and has reached a new level with the introduction of artificial intelligence. Now we are not only seeing a disruption of markets, but also the use of digital technologies to escape market regulation. For instance, a company like Airbnb can claim they are not a hotel company and laws and regulations that cities put in place about the way in which hotels should be run, don’t apply. They don’t own any hotels or buildings. So can they be regulated by us as a hotel provider? You’re seeing this with Uber. A number of cities have tried to regulate Uber, both for consumer safeguards and to provide labor rights to drivers. And the response from Uber was that they are not a transport company. How do you regulate them if they don’t own any cars nor employ any drivers?

These companies often claim to be tech platforms that just match people who are providing a service with people who need a service. But if you want to use these services you have to follow the platforms’ rules. So the rules of the market are no longer being set by democratic governments but by massive unaccountable global corporations. And that is just the latest iteration of a hyper-globalized, hyper-free market world that has accelerated processes that were already ongoing, and is setting back both governments’ ability to provide for their citizens, but also the attempts of communities, unions and civil societies to protect people, human rights, and public interest.

Q: You’re a union federation that represents public sector workers across various domains. How do you see the digital turn impact your focus areas like education, sanitation, health, social care, energy, etc?

Daniel: In many areas we’re seeing increased surveillance, work intensification, de-personalization of work and hyper connectedness. In areas like home care, for example, workers can be monitored, and their routes tracked as they visit from home to home. The types of Taylorist management tools that we saw in the 1920s and 1930s around production lines, that we saw pop up again in the 1980s around telemarketing and call centres, we’re beginning to see these being introduced into the care sector. The demand for efficiency and cost cutting drives this sort of surveillance. This has enormous effects on the quality of the care provided, but also the wellbeing of the worker. It takes a toll on people’s quality of life and increases stress. Combined with the increase in precarity, elevated stress levels are becoming serious health and safety issues for workers.

We’re seeing it also in other areas that people might not be aware of, such as utilities. For example, we’re hearing more and more about this idea of smart cities where there are monitors embedded in various processes. For instance, Germany has introduced smart pumps into the water distribution system. These smart pumps have sensors in them, which monitor the flow of water and send messages back to a central control area about maintenance and so on. And that sounds like a positive outcome, but raises a whole range of questions that government and citizens are just not grappling with. Like, who owns the data produced by the sensors? If the contract is not renewed does the city lose access to the data? Is there a human back up in the case of failure? Who’s liable if there was a failure in the sensor system? Is it the provider of the technology, or the manufacturer? Is it the city? Is it the workers using that technology? If there’s a maintenance issue, then who has the rights to maintain that piece of technology? Does the company that provides the smart pumps have exclusive right to provide the maintenance? Because if they do, then they have a monopoly on the water provider and can extract further profits. If they don’t, and it’s maintained by a different company and there’s a problem, who’s liable? What happens in an emergency? These impacts on the provision of public services are not fully understood when the technology is introduced, but have massive consequences.

The types of Taylorist management tools that we saw in the 1920s and 1930s around production lines, that we saw pop up again in the 1980s around telemarketing and call centres, we’re now beginning to see these introduced into the care sector.

This is quite separate from the issue of jobs and the way in which decent work in the public sector or state-owned enterprises is now being outsourced and turned into precarious work through the contracting out of a lot of this technology. Quite apart from the difficulties in providing quality public services with a precarious workforce, this process has disastrous economic effects. We used to talk about automatic stabilizers in the economy – how having a certain number of people in secure jobs provides some stability in the economy during an economic shock – such as we saw in the global financial crisis and today with coronavirus. But what we’re seeing is a hollowing out of even those jobs. More and more sections of the economy are now vulnerable to cyclical swings, and this has a massive, procyclical effect on the economy. Most of these things are are not understood by policymakers when they introduce them, and people are not always aware of the meter until something bad happens.

Q: How do you see this digital turn impact the global North versus the global South?

Daniel: The level of development of the economy is quite critical in the impact of digitalization, and it does play out differently in different regions. But it also plays out very differently within countries depending on which parts of the national economy are developed, and which class you’re in. In a large economy like Nigeria or India or Brazil, digitalization plays out very differently for the  working class, as compared to the upper classes, the professionals or the owners of capital. So it’s a development issue, but it’s also a class issue. In general, what we’re seeing in more developed parts of the economy is work intensification. We’re seeing more surveillance, a loss of control of work, outsourcing, and driving down of wages.

But in developing countries or developing parts of the economy, it’s a mixed bag. Part of the reason is that technology does have the potential to create development. It has the potential to automate, get rid of bad jobs  and nobody should be afraid of getting rid of bad jobs. And so in the developing world, there is the allure, the promise of this. The problem is that the introduction of most of this technology is dominated and monopolized by large international corporations, usually from the developed West, and highly concentrated in the US, Europe, and increasingly in China. When these companies come in and promise these things, they rarely come without a cost. The ability of developing countries to understand these costs and protect themselves against these costs is not high. We see large corporations promise, for instance, cheap internet infrastructure in return for monopoly rights, or the right to collect the data that flows through that infrastructure. To begin with, this looks like a good deal. But very quickly, the country realizes that the value of the monopoly on the provision of that service allows those companies to drive up costs, control vital sections of the economy, and hold the government to ransom. Ultimately, the ability to capture, own, and control the data that flows through that infrastructure is an enormously valuable asset. By controlling this data, some of the largest corporations have gained control over large sections of the productive economy. Because of trade agreements and investor-state dispute mechanisms, governments, including democratically-elected governments, find it very difficult to take back control of their digital future.

Ultimately, the ability to capture, own, and control the data that flows through infrastructure is an enormously valuable asset. By controlling this data, some of the largest corporations have gained control over large sections of the productive economy.

Q: How is PSI’s strategy evolving to meet some of these new challenges in the data era?

Daniel: Trade unions have dealt with the introduction of technology for decades. In some ways, the response to the introduction of technology in the workplace is nothing new. We need to ensure that workers are well unionized, well organized, and can exercise power in the relationship with their employer so that they have some control over the introduction of technology. This essentially means joining a union and collectively bargaining over the introduction of that technology. PSI has been working with affiliates to provide them with tools and best practices for how the collectivizing process can be used to do that. But a lot of it is specific to the location. The way in which a teacher might introduce technology into the classroom is very different, for example, to the way in which a care worker might be forced to introduce technology into their work, or the way in which an electricity maintenance worker does. However, workers need to understand the risks and threats, and the importance of acting early. Once the technology has been introduced, it’s very hard to then roll it back. It’s also important that they safeguard their ability to monitor and review, because sometimes even the providers of the technology don’t fully understand the implications for the worker, the company, or the users of those services. Collective bargaining is one of the most important ways to do that.

We also need to be asking ourselves, who owns the data? Who has access to it and can exercise some control over it? Workers and the public sector produce an enormous amount of data that is the most valuable commodity at the moment. Yet, so much of this data is being allowed to flow into the hands of the private sector. We’ve seen in the Covid crisis, that the private sector owns a lot of the data needed to produce vaccines and treatments. The private sector owns much of the data on people’s movements that epidemiologists need to track and model the way in which the virus spreads. The private sector owns much of the data that can inform the way in which governments need to deal with the lockdown. If the private sector owns and controls this data, and the public sector needs it, then they have to pay a premium. Or sometimes they’re locked into using the monopoly provider of this data, and that has consequences for workers. We need to be working with governments to protect and safeguard the rights to public data and for the government and public sector to use that data, when needed.

The public sector, if it hopes to control big data and the process of digitalization, must regulate. We need to build public institutions to understand the process of digitalization, the disruption in markets and the effects of globalization on workers.

The last area I think that’s vitally important is democracy. We’re seeing a concentration of monopoly power in markets, massive accumulation of wealth, and avoidance of taxes by large digital firms. And we’re seeing the use of data to manipulate and undermine democratic processes and institutions – whether it’s the Cambridge Analytica scandal, or the way in which Facebook does and doesn’t allow political activity, or the enormous amounts of money being stashed in tax havens by digital companies, that then use that money to lobby the political process.

The public sector, if it hopes to control big data and the process of digitalization, must regulate. We need to build public institutions to understand the process of digitalization, the disruption in markets, the effects of globalization on workers. This will create the capacity to regulate the digital economy in the interests of people. If we don’t regulate, these enormous monopolies will use their monopoly power to control the economy, and we will see profit being put over people.

Q: How do we build new models to redistribute wealth generation that already exists from data?

Daniel: There are some generic models that that have always been there that can be adapted to deal with the new technology and the data economy. For instance, taxation. If a company is making monopoly profits, it should be taxed like all other corporations, and that money should be used to provide quality public services. Because of the current global rules around corporate taxation that allow and facilitate profit shifting, digital companies are able to shift almost all, in many cases all, of their profits into tax havens. So national governments can’t tax those profits. We need to ensure that companies pays their taxes and that those taxes are paid in the countries where the value is created – but at the moment digital companies are creating and extracting the massive amounts of value from data and not paying tax on it. If the global corporate tax system isn’t working, then countries should be introducing digital services taxes.

Second, governments need to build the capacity to regulate these companies, and to ensure that they aren’t able to step outside of the regulatory frameworks. That involves building institutions that can do this, and having a political mandate to control these companies and not being afraid to control them.

But we also do need some specific measures to ensure that this new form of value is used in a way that benefits everybody, and that the wealth and power that comes from the creation of this value is equitably distributed. We need to start looking for new models of public and community data. The reason why these data sets are appropriated from workers and their community is because, individually, your data is worth very little. It’s only when all of the data is collected and put into one place, that it has enormous value. Workers or communities who collectively produce this data should have some form of collective ownership over their data, in order to draw collective dividends from the profits that this creates, have collective control over the way in which it affects the lives of workers, consumers, or members of the communities, and be able to control the data itself and the purposes for which it’s used.

We need to create new forms of collective and public ownership of data that allow governments and workers and community to have some property rights over that data, at the point at which is created.

For example, Uber drivers and other drivers carrying mobile phones collectively create data on traffic flows, and should have some say in the way in which that collective data is used. To the extent that that’s a publicly created resource, and has public good characteristics, governments should have some say and control over the way in which that data is used. Governments shouldn’t have to then pay a private company if it needs that data to regulate traffic flow in a city. The only reason those people are moving around is that they are on public roads, controlled by public police and designed by town planners – it’s not the case that this is a solely private production process. If there’s data produced about publicly funded vaccine trials which governments need to produce vaccines or treatments – for example, in the Covid crisis – they shouldn’t have to buy back that data.

We need to create new forms of collective and public ownership of data that allow governments and workers and community to have some property rights over that data, at the point at which is created. It doesn’t always need to be complete ownership – but if the data has public value then the public should have some ability to access and use it for public good. Because once it’s been created, and you cede that control to these enormous multinationals, it then becomes very hard to get that that data back, either to own it or just to use it.

Q: What kind of changes in strategy do you think are needed for mobilization and solidarity building among workers movements?

Daniel: I think there is a massive need to educate and provide information to workers. Five years ago, workers were not really critical of the introduction of digital technology. As consumers, they were positive about it. I think the last five years has seen a shift in the consciousness of most workers. They’re now skeptical about these technologies but that has not translated into a full understanding of the way in which they operate. And this often leads them to become very reactionary. Part of the reactionary right wing and authoritarian politics we’re seeing is because workers and the community know that they are getting a bad deal, but don’t fully understand what they need to do about it. So education and provision of information is essential, as is the formulation of clear demands. PSI is working with civil society, users of public services, precarious workers, and governments in developing countries to develop simple demands.

We need to build a culture of solidarity, so that workers and communities understand that their fight can’t be one individual fight. It needs to be a collective fight.

Second, we also need to build solidarity. We are all being affected in similar ways by technology, digital corporations, and big data, but it feels very different. It feels like the forces that a public sector nurse is under are very different from the forces that a worker in a car factory is under, very different from the forces that a street vendor is under or a deregulated taxi driver is under. Yet, in fact, the forces are very similar. We need to build a culture of solidarity, so that workers and communities understand that their fight can’t be one individual fight. It needs to be a collective fight. We need to make demands of governments as well as employers. And finally, we need to continually reiterate the importance of democracy and the way in which these digital changes are undermining democracy.

With Covid, you are seeing this kind of solidarity building happening very organically, as people begin to realize that the health and safety of public sector workers and their ability to have non-precarious jobs helps everybody. There are also very specific examples of this. For instance, Amazon workers protesting about their work conditions are receiving a lot of support from the public. And communities in which Amazon warehouses and distribution centers are being placed are joining in. In New York, there was a popular movement against the introduction of these warehouses that five years ago would have been impossible. We are also seeing collectives of informal taxi drivers, both in developed and developing countries coming together. It is not always a formal union but it is a union in that workers are coming together to negotiate better conditions of work, also bringing in users of taxis. We have seen women’s and feminist groups protesting against unregulated taxis for personal and sexual violence reasons, because you can’t be sure that those taxi drivers are accountable for the services they provide. If this drives out better regulated services, then we are left with the monopoly of unsafe services. In these ways, you are beginning to see workers’ groups, feminist groups, and consumer groups coming together.


*Update: The full report is now out here. You can listen to the webinar organized to launch this report here. This interview is part of our Labor in the Digital Economy series.