Digital Rights are Human Rights

The Digital Freedom Fund counted down to Human Rights Day 2020 with a series of short posts. Each post was written by a guest author and illustrates how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies in the digital age. The full series can be viewed here.

The right to work

UDHR Article 23

The so-called “gig economy” is truly a post-truth phenomenon that purports to have re-invented work through digital means. At the tap of an app, it promises to unleash us from the bonds of a fixed workplace, to offer us limitless flexibility to earn and the freedom of being our own boss. 

But the deceit at the heart of this gig economy rhetoric is the idea of a job as merely a “gig” – a take it or leave it side hustle. And it is this caustic casualisation of the idea of employment and attendant rights that is exactly the problem.

The reality of gig work is harsh. It is 90-hour work weeks on less than minimum wage with no rights or protections. It is often hazardous transport work where occupational safety protections are ignored by the employer and where fatigue is an ever-present threat. The gig economy workforce is disproportionately made up of people of colour and migrant workers who too often face assault and abuse on the job. In London, more than half of all minicab drivers have been assaulted at work and 83% have suffered abuse because of their racial or religious identity.

Prospective gig workers find themselves entering a veritable contractual hall of mirrors when they sign up to work for a gig economy app. Misclassification is the name of the game, and app employers use language carefully to create a new reality where no legally enforceable contract of employment exists. You are “on-boarded” as a “partner” for an “economic opportunity to earn” where your performance is “rated by customers” and a violation of “community standards” can eventually see you summarily “deactivated”.

Technology is deployed to keep the lie going with management control concealed in algorithms. System-generated profiles determine the quality and quantity of work offered, if any at all. Platform employers have abused their asymmetrical bargaining power over labour to depress wages and mostly refuse to cooperate with trade unions seeking to represent their workers.

Misclassification and algorithmic control has enabled platform employers to side-step legal obligations of employment such as the minimum wage, holiday pay, sick pay, paternity pay and pensions as well as protection from unfair dismissal and the right to freedom from discrimination. Many in precarious employment can never take a holiday or even a short break.

Perhaps the biggest lie of all is that technology has changed work and made employment law and its human rights underpinning obsolete. The opposite is true: never has it been more relevant. In passing the 1875 Employers and Workmen Act, the British parliament recognised that a category of workers might precariously lie between the boundaries of employment and self-employment, just as gig economy workers do today. They understood that such workers are vulnerable to exploitation and deserve protection. And so, we find nothing new under the sun. More than ever before, we must ensure that both technology and the law serve us, not vice versa.

By James Farrar, Founder of Worker Info Exchange.