What Data has to do with Labor’s ‘Sentiment of Dependence’

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought us to a crossroads. The utopia of connected capital and its planetary market has had to contend with its emperor-in-new-clothes moment. But the pause does not necessarily imply a reset. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, lockdown opportunism has actually seen billionaires getting richer in these few weeks, even as a new precariat joins the ranks of the old. In these times of social distancing, delivery, logistics and warehouse workers who have held up the backbone of retail commerce are working without protection equipment, sick leave or health insurance. Platform workers in on-demand services and crowdwork sectors find themselves completely bereft, without any unemployment insurance or social protection.

Capital always has an exit option. It’s labor that is left behind.

Capitalism is about how social relationships are managed so that the worker ceases to be able to control her own conditions of labor or employ that labor to enrich herself. Capitalist accumulation therefore depends on creating and maintaining an unbridgeable distance between the worker and the means of production. Without this, to borrow Marx’s evocative phraseology, the ‘sentiment of dependence’ that binds the worker to capitalist exploitation cannot be sustained. In the 1840s, Edward Wakefield, a British colonial administrator, lobbied for the English government to keep the price of land artificially high in New Zealand, so that immigrant labor brought in to service settler-farmers could be prevented from making enough money to leave waged work. Wakefield’s idea of colony, Marx observes, aimed to kill two birds with one stone – keep immigrant wage workers in artificial poverty and perpetual dependence, while ensuring that money extorted from their wages through sale of land can import more wage labor for the capitalists.

Wakefield’s proposal may not have gained currency in British government circles in the 19th century, but serves as a pretty good theory for the colonies of the platform age. Big Tech capitalism in a hyperglobalized world operates to kill two birds with one stone. It amasses data from economic and social interactions – laboring workers and hapless consumers – that is for keeps. The intelligence from such data – privatized by default – is locked away in high value algorithms akin to the commons that Wakefield lobbied be commodified with a fancy price tag. The wealth of data then becomes capital’s optimization apparatus par excellence to sustain extraction of labor time (creating perpetual dependence), expand surplus value (through extortion), and planetize Big Tech’s monopolistic control (to colonize).

The world of platform work is thus built on the fable of data as private wealth; data that is generated in the process of laboring, only to be locked-up by Big Tech. Ruthlessly cultivating workers’ social dependence on itself, digital capitalism expropriates not just their labor, but also dispossesses them of the data generated through laboring. That is, laboring data is usurped, over and above labor time, to accumulate intelligence capital and enclose value. In this social order, algorithmic intelligence is the new factor of production.

A Labor Rights Agenda for the Platform Age

What the Covid moment has unraveled is that the role of remote crowdwork, digitally delivered services, and e-commerce is going to be key to economic revival. The digital economy is not a fringe phenomenon; data value chains are reorganizing the real economy with real implications for labor. Platform work of all shades is therefore central to the concerns of labor.

The colonizing tactics of platform behemoths are indeed global. Armed with the material technological power to marketize everything and everyone, Big Tech operates on a planetary scale. However, it must not be forgotten that platform value chains build on a global division of labor deeply entrenched in faultlines of geo-economic and geo-political power. Historically, the global trade paradigm has flourished on labor arbitrage – a phenomenon where global capital is in perpetual search of cheaper and cheaper labor. China made half the world’s masks before the outbreak. The acute shortage of masks in the US at the beginning of the pandemic was simply because it was cheaper to pay workers in China less per day than US workers’ earnings per hour. This is not about China or the US. It is about how labor comes cheap and has been immiserated through the systemic, near-monopolistic control transnational corporations have over the global labor market. Platform-age capitalism appropriates this legacy – enslaving laboring bodies on the basis of class, race, and gender, reproducing global social hierarchies. Undocumented migrants (for example in Uruguay and South Africa) and racial minorities (for example in the UK) form a disproportionate percentage of workers in platform-mediated services sectors such as ride-hailing and on-demand delivery. Domestic work platforms are known to reproduce the feminization of degraded care work.

The international labor movement needs to urgently explore new political and economic pathways to wrest power back from platform capitalism. We propose a three-point action agenda to secure the rights of platform workers in the current conjuncture.

1. Upending the Data Game of Platform Capitalism

The surveillance regimes of platform work have dehumanized workers, engulfing them into app cultures of unending tyranny. Platform workers across the world report anxieties about the always-on predicament and the totalizing panopticism of apps that denies them the smallest of micro breaks. But dataveillance is not the only problem. The extreme opacity adopted by platforms about payment terms and conditions has meant platform workers – especially in the Global South where legal protections fall behind – are completely in the dark about the wage that is rightfully due to them. The app proposes and disposes.

Institutional trade unions and the platform cooperativism movement in the Global North have brought to the fore ideas of data cooperatives to counter platform capitalism’s predatory data extractivism. They draw attention to data ownership and control as key to new-age production and propose possibilities for public value generation from voluntarily pooled data.

An expansive legal definition of ‘platform worker’ is especially important in the Global South, where the back-end logistics and delivery operations of platform companies have spawned a wide range of subcontracting arrangements that are currently not traced back to the concerned platform firm.

Right now these alternatives are localized responses that are yet to gain traction in the wider economic paradigm. And they cannot be real options insofar as the dominant, winner-takes-all platform model is not dented. For workers in the Global South, radically different worker-owned, platform models may even be unattainable. Platform companies position themselves as messiahs creating jobs and despite evidence of worker exploitation in sectors such as ride-hailing and food delivery, as well as the demise of small enterprises owing to big e-commerce, national policies have done little to assuage the concerns of workers.

A bigger plot in the data story is about data in global flows. The current rules on data flows in the platform economy allow a de facto theft of data resources from the South by transnational platform corporations, mainly from the North. Just as in the initial phase of capitalism the South lost valuable means of production to colonial conquest, in the data age, they may lose the ownership and control of the most critical economic resource today – data – to Big Tech platforms. This will mean that the domestic data economy can never take off and developing countries and their workforce will, for all time, be forced into the low value parts of the data economy. This is a double whammy for workers in the South. On the one hand, the loss of valuable data resources to platform companies of the US (and in the case of some countries, to China) leaves their governments without the means to create a domestic data and AI economy. On the other hand, their integration as the dispensable foot soldiers of global production networks of transnational Big Tech has narrowed the access to decent work.

Trade unions in the Global South are cognizant of this data injustice – but their calls for ‘data sovereignty’ have not gone far enough. The big fight for data ownership is a highly contested terrain. And most Southern governments are barely beginning to understand data value chains. To make good their individual and collective claims in the commons of their laboring data, worker organizations in the South need policy support. Big Tech needs to be reined in and worker organizations and social enterprises financed to explore alternative data models that bring value to workers. As governments limp back out of the current crisis, data and data-based intelligence cannot be treated as free-for-all, open access resources. They need to be identified and governed as the commons, with recognition of the primary rights of particular groups and communities over specific commons.

Labor needs to challenge the hypocognition – missing discourses arising from missing words – about workers’ rights in laboring data. Platform workers from the South must move the needle, leading the international labor movements, demanding that new legal frameworks oblige platform employers to share data for social justice projects and compensate workers for their data contribution.

2. Forging a New Social Contract

In the Global North and South alike, concerns have been expressed about the intensification of informality in the platform economy. But the contextual experiences of informality are historically grounded. In the EU, the movement towards ‘gig’ work reflects a reversal of labor and social protection guarantees for workers enshrined in the post World War social contract. Yet, the robust traditions of labor law and worker rights have given platform workers’ struggles a strong foundation to organize. Workers have mounted legal challenges against platform employers, building on the breadth of labor rights guarantees provided by traditional laws. In 2016, the French legislature passed the El Khomri law, which provided self-employed platform workers with several labor rights, including the right to strike and organize. Late last year, France adopted a new Mobility Law that extended the right to disconnect – switch off the driving app without retaliation – to platform workers. Crucially, the law also requires platforms to notify drivers about the distance of a proposed ride and the net minimal payment to the driver, prior to accepting a fare.

The social contract has eluded the majority in the Global South, which is home to 93 percent of the world’s informal workers. Here, platformization has meant nothing more than the formalization of informal work. It has not brought any additional rights or guarantees to workers. On the contrary, it has removed the socially embedded mutualism (albeit exploitative) of feudal work relationships.

Labor rights for platform workers hinge on the pivotal issue of legal status. The reality in the Global South is that platform work constitutes the livelihood on which workers depend. Yet, the laws today stand where they were, cushioning platform employers from their obligations. The absence of personal data protection laws in most of the countries in the South also makes it harder for platform workers to challenge needless and disproportionate workplace dataveillance.

The reality in the Global South is that platform work constitutes the livelihood on which workers depend. Yet, the laws today stand where they were, cushioning platform employers from their obligations.

The obligations of platform employers extend across the entirety of the data value chains they control. That is, all categories of workers are implicated in supply chains of platform firms, visible and hidden, in direct delivery and in enclosed warehouses. National laws need to be updated so that basic labor rights (adequate living wage, limit on working hours, safe and healthy working conditions, collective bargaining, freedom from dataveillance) and access to social protection is guaranteed to all such workers.

An expansive legal definition of ‘platform worker’ is especially important in the Global South, where the back-end logistics and delivery operations of platform companies have spawned a wide range of subcontracting arrangements that are currently not traced back to the concerned platform firm. As the principal employer, the platform firm needs to be held accountable to the workers at the farthest ends of its transnational supply chain.

The Covid moment represents a crack in capital’s platform edifice that workers can push apart. It is also an opportunity for a new internationalism defined and led by workers from the South; a framework that can acknowledge the limits of hyperglobalization and concretize the benchmarks for human development and wellbeing in the twenty-first century, placing public investments in care at the center and ensuring that Big Tech pays up.

3. Building Worker-Owned Platform Businesses

The sharing economy in the North, with its links to responsible consumption and de-growth movements, has gained currency over the past decade. Worker cooperatives/collectives have experimented with localized small-scale platform business models, based on affordances of the internet for peer-based communities. Some of these enterprises have adopted ‘data minimalist’ approaches – zero data retention and a complete disavowal of consumer profiling – serving a niche social segment invested in sustainable consumption lifestyles.

Can such a model eschewing data processing for market intelligence find business viability in the South? The short answer is – yes, but only if consumers are willing to support such businesses. The long answer is that building a supportive consumer base may not be easy for traditional cooperatives that decide to set up an online marketplace. Upwardly mobile social classes in the Global South are not exempt from unsustainable hyperconsumerism, and e-commerce has only exacerbated the problem.

Cooperative organizations in the Global South have not really relinquished extractive data models. Our research reveals that many follow the mainstream model to expand market reach, using transactions data to build consumer profiles and big data analytics for business development. The choice that these worker organizations have made relies on algorithmic profiling and targeting strategies, trying to beat mainstream platforms at their own game.

As Rosa Luxemburg put it, when workers enter the field of production, they face a stark contradiction – how can they pursue the necessary strategies for market success without ending up mimicking the very capitalist enterprises they seek to break free from or end up liquidating the business because of failure to play by the rules of the predominantly capitalist market forces?

The platform – as a digital infrastructure that brings networks together with data – could well be the answer to Luxemburg’s dilemma. But not in its dominant form. Today, as countries grope in the dark to find their way out of the Covid crisis, it is eminently clear that in its mainstream form, the platform business model has only serviced data colonialism. As Sven Hilberg notes, the United States and China account for 90 percent of the market value of the 70 largest platforms. Europe notches up 3.6 percent; developing and emerging countries have almost nothing to show, with Asia beyond China accounting for just 5 percent and Africa 1.3 percent. This state of affairs is clearly untenable. And Europe recognizes this. Calling for ‘strategic autonomy’, the EU has already put out its new vision for less dependence on other countries in the “global race to recovery” with a strong emphasis on digital transformation. The developing world is completely at a loss – still reeling under the pressure of the pandemic, and being told that much of the solution depends on the free trade agenda.

The plausibility of vibrant local economies in the South is predicated on the economic choices informing platform models. But this hinges on how the transnational data paradigm controlled by corporations can make way for a radically different data governance framework internationally, one that recognizes and nurtures the epistemologies and production systems of small producers and their collectivities in the South. Unless the international digital and economic policy regimes privilege worker-owned, independent modes of production now, the intelligence structures of capitalism will take us down, planet and people.

Responsible consumption cultures that encourage the solidarity economy can be incentivized by national policies. Worker organizations and cooperatives must be supported to use data-based intelligence in thoughtful and accountable ways for sustainable value creation and equitable value distribution. Public investments in dedicated connectivity, platform, cloud and data infrastructures for cooperatives and seed funding for worker run platforms can go a long way in enabling labor come out of its dispossessed dependence. Federated platform models that optimize demand and supply side economies of scale can present a wonderful alternative to the Amazon model, enabling cooperatives to leverage network effects and build mutual collaboration. On the road to recovery post-Covid, official development assistance and investments from progressive foundations could prioritize worker-owned and -controlled platform models, playing a decisive role in helping them take off.

What is needed is a groundswell. And labor must rise to seize the platform moment.

This article draws on findings of a (forthcoming) research study on platform workers undertaken by IT for Change and supported by the ILO. This article is part of our Labor in the Digital Economy series.