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How can tech meet the needs of platform workers?

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  • Picture of Albert Cañigueral FRSA
    Albert Cañigueral FRSA
  • Future of Work
  • Employment
  • Technology

A new report by RSA Fellow Albert Cañigueral of OuiShare looks at how digital platforms are shaping the labour market and how solutions are emerging to meet the needs of workers in the gig economy. Here, Albert shares insights from the report. 

The labour market in the EU today is evolving fast. According to European Commission data, 40% of workers in Europe are in non-standard employment, rather than in a full-time permanent contract.

Too often, people think only in terms of traditional employment, ignoring the millions of people who combine different sources of income through many types of unconventional work. We need a new map for the digital labour market.

Workers on tap: whoever you want, whenever you want, wherever you want

The emergence of digital platforms – which have already changed the rules of the game in sectors such as tourism, education and finance – is also reshaping labour relations and the future of work. According to a recent study led by Professor Ursula Huws of Hertfordshire University, Spain is the European leader in platform workers, with 17% of the Spanish workforce carrying out work via digital labour platforms at least once a week.

What sort of work are we talking about? All sorts.

Today there are platforms for all kinds of talent and needs, from microworkers on platforms such as Amazon Mechanical Turk, to on-demand workers or gig workers on Glovo, Uber, MyPoppins or TechBuddy. There are platforms for blue-collar workers, like CornerJob or JobToday – which offer a digital alternative to temping agencies – as well as digital solutions for hiring freelancers and white-collar workers (designers, translators, coders, cybersecurity experts, etc.) such as UpWork, Freelancer or Malt. There are even highly specialised expert roles on platforms such as TopTal, Up Counsel or GLG. It’s a fast-growing global phenomenon.

Better protection for independent workers

These platforms open up a labour market built around intermittent relationships between workers and their employers. There will be more and more independent workers who will remain outside the protection and stability provided by a permanent, full-time employment contract. We therefore need to consider how to guarantee basic labour rights and how to meet the needs of this type of independent workers.

We define WorkerTech as a collection of digital service offerings that harness the power and convenience of technology to provide self-employed and independent workers with personalised benefits and greater access to protections and rights.

Among this new collection of solutions there are services which enable collective representation and action for independent workers (Organise, Coworker); provide insurance for sick leave or temporary disability (AXAWeMind); offer on-demand insurance (Zego, Dinghy); simplify access to work tools and spaces (LiquidSpace, LightShare, HyreCar); support the creation of communities (DNX Hub, FlyLancer); personalise financial support services (Hurdlr, Portify); improve access to social benefits when there are multiple employers (Alia); and manage reputation and credentials (Credly).

These services use existing and emerging technology to offer a more dynamic, flexible and responsive way of guaranteeing workers’ rights and fulfilling their specific needs.

You can see an extended list of WorkerTech services identified so far.

From this service offering, each worker can build his or her personal portfolio of WorkerTech services. In the following graphics there are examples of an Uber driver in New York City and a graphic designer who finds her clients through the Malt platform in Spain. The result is quite different.

These solutions allow them to combine the flexibility and freedom of independent or self-employment with the protections and benefits traditionally associated with salaried employees.

However, WorkerTech services are not only for platform workers. These solutions can provide valuable services to a wide range of independent workers, including those who don’t use digital platforms. In countries where a high percentage of employment is informal, these services can also help to formalise labour relations. In the same way, WorkerTech can also be useful for salaried employees in areas such as training or dispute resolution.

The future of workers will be built upon collectives of independents

Is a 'collective of independents' an oxymoron? Maybe. But one of the first things independent workers do is look for their peers: other people to share with, learn from and help each other. In the context of discontinuous employment relations, independent workers look to recover continuity by pooling together with other workers.

These groups will be a key element for the future of the labour market and the definition of a new social contract for the 21st century. Whether through organisations of a trade union nature, such as Riders x Derechos, or of a cooperative nature, such as Port Parallele, or through specialised coworking spaces in a given sector, such as Alma, the future will be defined by independent workers working together.


Read the report: The digital labour market under debate: Platforms, Workers, Rights and WorkerTechThe full report is in Spanish and the executive summary, conclusions and recommendations are available in English.

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  • Very interesting article. The future workforce is looking for flexibility and different ways of working. We have inherited a rigid working system that is not sustainable for the 21st century. Many of us (working parents) need flexibility, remote working and work-life balance solutions. The old system is forcing many of us to become entrepreneurs to establish our own rules 

  • Interesting stuff.  There's a broader context too: the number of very small businesses is rising rapidly, while the number of big businesses is falling almost as quickly.  95% of all UK businesses now have less than 10 employees – and 75% (3.5 million businesses) have no employees at all.

    We are seeing a 'hollowing out' of capitalism, driven largely by the still-uncharted impact of the internet: enabling take-overs and mergers into a tiny number of giant multinational corporations – which people increasingly dislike and distrust, and many think are unsustainable – alongside literally millions of vibrant new micro-businesses.

    Most interesting of all, perhaps, is that analysts of the open source software movement like Yochai Benkler have applied Coase's analysis of the emergence of firms in a market economy to explain what's really happening: that while transactional costs might favour big business under past market conditions, in future networked individuals and micro-business will win out if both inputs and outputs are nonrival (such as digital information – it doesn't get used up), communications reach enough people at near zero cost - which the internet makes possible - and the key resource, in our increasingly knowledge-based economy, is individual human creativity which cannot be reliably costed by big business, but which self-selecting individuals can easily estimate for themselves.

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