Edição 503 | 02 Maio 2017

Against the reductionist euphemism, the struggle for a just flexibilization

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Ricardo Machado

Jamie Woodcock analyzes how the occupations mediated by digital dispositives have transformed what would be the freedom of workers into slavery to the financial system

Jamie Woodcock holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of London and has his research focused on the digital economy and the transformations in the world of work.

IHU On-Line - What is the current labour scenario in England today?

Jamie Woodcock – The current state of labour in England is marked by a number of longer term trends. The first is the deindustrialization from the 1970/80s, which has mainly been replaced by low-paid service work. This has involved an increasingly precarious employment relationship, with an increase in temporary and part time work. In particular, this has involved the rise of zero-hour contracts (in which workers are not guaranteed hourly employment from week to week) and the so-called “gig economy”, in which work is organized via online platforms without traditional employment protections. This precariousness is increasingly reaching into further sections of employment, both within the private and public sector. The second important trend is the decline of traditional forms of trade unionism. Trade unions remain concentrated in the public sector, with an ageing membership profile. They have not been able to successfully organize in new sectors, although there are emerging successes like the IWGB organizing with Deliveroo workers.

IHU On-Line - How are startups transforming the world of work?

Jamie Woodcock – Startups are seeking to apply the “Uber for X” model to “disrupt” existing sectors and industries, but applying the platform model that Uber successfully used to compete with existing taxi companies. This involves a contractual trick, misclassifying the drivers as self-employed independent contractors, freeing the company from its requirements to things like minimum wage, holiday pay, and sick pay. This kind of work can remain flexible for workers, as there is an employment category in the UK for “workers” separate from “employee”, which retains more rights than the self-employed status. The legal status currently used creates precarious and difficult conditions, alongside a loss in tax for the government, leading to worse conditions in the world of work.

IHU On-Line - What are the fundamental issues concerning the world of work, behind the discursive marketing of fashion startups? Is it a smokescreen to workers’ precarization?

Jamie Woodcock – Flexibility is a powerful term. Many of us want more flexible employment relationship to fit around our lives and other commitments. However, too often this flexibility is offered via marketing, but the reality is flexibility only on the terms of capital, creating flexible labour that takes on the risks of the work. It is possible to fight precariousness without losing flexibility, but this requires creativity in thinking about what kinds of demands can be fought for an achieved.

IHU On-Line - How do the strategies of creating jobs on demand imply, for example, that there are workers who do not even receive the minimum wage?

Jamie Woodcock – The “creation” of jobs on demand is not meeting the needs of many workers following the economic crisis of 2008. Much of this is underemployment, with workers taking on multiple “gigs” in order to meet their needs. The growth of these kinds of jobs has been premised on low pay and lack of security, with many workers earning significantly below the minimum wage.

IHU On-Line - In the current scenario, how do workers mobilizations take place?

Jamie Woodcock – Worker mobilization are taking place in ways that are both new and old. For example, Deliveroo drivers meet regularly on the roads and near busy restaurants, swapping contact details and communicating on social media. The strikes last year were called in response to a change in contract that the company was trying to force through, met with a withdrawal of labour and a protest outside the headquarters. Its easy to forget that workers on these platforms share a geographic location and remain able to communicate and organize. These kinds of mobilisations take place almost entirely outside of traditional trade union structures in the UK and are experimenting with new modes of organisation that fit their own patterns of work.

IHU On-Line - How do new digital devices reorganize the way workers are mobilized for better working conditions? How does this occur?

Jamie Woodcock – The widespread use of digital devices to organize workers also provides a new channel of communication for workers themselves to organize. The traditional factory gates have shifted and dispersed, but capital still requires workers to communicate and cooperate, with new meeting points and possibilities for organizing. Many of these are experiments and will have successes and failures, but there is a process of recomposition as workers learn to organize in these new contexts.

IHU On-Line - How do these mobilizations contaminate different types of application-based services?

Jamie Woodcock – The campaign at Deliveroo was widely shared across social media, reaching workers on different platforms and a wide range of other people. This kind of increased visibility can help to build momentum and solidarity, spreading the news of actions much quicker than has happened previously.

IHU On-Line - What is the relevance of traditional unions within this new organization of work and workers? In which ways has the traditional form of mobilization become obsolete?

Jamie Woodcock – As a trade unionist, I believe that workers’ organisation is key. However, many trade unions are out of touch with the new conditions of work and not able to organize within them. In part, this is a reflection of the state of contemporary trade unions, with falling membership rates and concentrated within traditional sectors and industries. It is therefore not particularly surprising that trade unions are not taking the risk to try and organize in these new areas of work. Instead, what is necessary is to try and combine the best traditions of trade unionism with the new experiences of work, searching for methods of organizing that fit. The IWGB is beginning to do this, but more experiments are needed.

IHU On-Line - What impact has the decision of the Labor Court of England, when admitting that a Uber worker is not autonomous, but has an employment relationship, brought to Great Britain? What kinds of changes may occur in the relationship between service providers and startups? What can be the effects at a global level?

Jamie Woodcock – The legal cases that have happened in the UK are important, particularly because the misclassification of workers as self-employed independent contractors. However, there is also a risk that campaigns can be demobilized by relying on employment law, rather than allowing collective action to win changes. The strongest examples have been those that combine worker self-organization with legal challenges, that allow workers to more than wait on decisions. This undermines the basis of the business model that these startups have been using, relying on underpaying workers and leaving them to pick up the extra costs. For this to develop beyond individual countries, further attempts need to be made to argue for minimum standards and shared demands to improve workers’ conditions.
IHU On-Line - How do self-service startups inaugurate a new type of formal economy, the gig economy? Basically, what is this gig economy idea about?
The “gig-economy” as it has been termed is a new way to run companies by effectively outsourcing the labour needed for the work. This outsourcing takes place through the use of misclassification, claiming that workers are actually self-employed independent contractors. This makes the companies look more attractive to potential investors as they do not keep the workers on the company books, and allows the company to transfer the risk of demand onto workers, rather than themselves. It is not innovative, other than in the sense of finding a new way to profit from other people’s labour and work. The rise of these companies has been supported by an excess of investment money that needs to find outlets, and the “gig-economy” has become on place to invest, although most of the platforms are yet to turn a serious profit or return.

IHU On-Line - Given the current situation, what are the limits and possibilities for new organizations in the world of work?

Jamie Woodcock – Worker organisation is facing a range of new challenges in work. Work has been transformed, with workers finding themselves in different situations, sometimes without physical workplaces. However, there is a risk in overstating the new. Work has been continually transformed throughout history, with its technical composition changing based on new labour processes, use of technology, and management techniques. This has also involved new political compositions of workers as they resist and organize in new ways. The task of research is not to provide solutions to the new challenges of organizing, but to explore how workers are already experimenting with new forms themselves, and play a role in generalizing the successes.

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