As the economic and political power of platforms soars, platform workers represent an emergent labour movement.
Across the platform economy, we have seen collective labour organisation unfolding—from Amazon workers going on strike with their transnational Make Amazon Pay campaign to workers of ride-hailing and food-delivery platforms protesting and withdrawing their labour. On closer inspection, we see the ways by which these workers organise nationally and possibly transnationally can differ—whether through more traditional, top-down structures or more alternative, grassroots organisations.
The potentialities and the challenges faced are closely bound to the national contexts in which workers are located, with their particular political-economic conditions and industrial relations. While these inform the working realities, so too however do the ways different platforms organise their workers transnationally and how these define employment relationships. The platform economy makes for a fascinating case of contemporary labour organisation and its varying manifestations.
Alienation and organisation
My recent book addresses questions of alienation and organisation for two fundamentally different workforces in the platform economy, although beholden to the same vast company. They are Amazon warehouse workers (its e-commerce platform) and Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) workers (the digital-labour platform).
In the former case workers are convened within a warehouse and are thus location-based; they also receive a traditional wage for hours worked. By contrast, MTurk workers labour remotely from behind screens anywhere in the world and are paid by the piece.
An Uber driver has a physical location as with the warehouse workers, albeit a city, while sharing the ‘gig’ nature of working for MTurk. The two latter cases evoke the wider workforce of the gig economy and it will be interesting to see how this may adapt in light of the European Commission’s proposed directive on platform work. Generally speaking, however, these different ways of organising workers have crucial implications for the ways workers organise themselves.
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Warehouse workers at Amazon are organised in a similar division of labour across the globe. But the specifics of their working conditions differ, as well as the ways they can organise collectively, based on the warehouse’s location, with immense repercussions for labour organisation—not only within but across borders.
Germany demonstrates the complexity of mobilising, linked to high staff turnover. The fourth quarter of the year includes Black Friday and Christmas. This period sees the highest orders and potentially the greatest leverage for workers to disrupt the warehouses. But at this time Amazon relies on huge numbers of seasonal workers, amounting to hundreds within a single warehouse.
For workers to organise collectively—in Germany through the service sector union ver.di—rank-and-file efforts are crucial to gain new members, who can be mobilised when strike action is planned. Yet workers are most likely to unionise if, among other factors, they already have a permanent contract and thus do not risk their employment status.
Strikes are however not only undermined by workers on different contracts within a warehouse—let alone across the country—but also by Amazon opening warehouses over the border for its German markets. Amazon’s decentralised network means that orders can be shifted around; workers in Poland, for instance, have been used as strike-breakers in the past.
Accordingly, workers, national unions and transnational networks, such as UNI Amazon Global Union Alliance and Amazon Workers International, have time and again emphasised the need to mobilise transnationally as well as nationally, engendering the solidarity to grow labour’s power. Amazon navigates different national contexts while dismissing unionising efforts, unions or collective-bargaining agreements—unless required by law—and it is crucial to push back against this, from the shopfloor to the transnational level.
When it comes to online labour platforms, however, the transnational dimension is exactly what defines the interactions among workers. Workers on MTurk labour at their screens anywhere across the globe, although mostly in the United States and India. Labouring remotely means that they do not though encounter other workers while on the job, or their employer (the ‘requester’), as they complete what MTurk calls ‘human intelligence tasks’ (HITs), such as watching a video and listing what emotions one has felt or labelling objects on an image to produce data for machine-learning algorithms. Workers are paid by the gig—so only once they submit a task, as long as this is approved.
Given this is piece work mediated exclusively through the interface, workers cannot disrupt MTurk conventionally by striking. Forgoing tasks means forgoing wages—and, given there are workers elsewhere in the world who will then complete them, striking is unlikely to affect the platform.
Moreover, as workers are not direct employees of MTurk, or the requester, they are denied worker status and questions of unionisation become incredibly complicated. Yet if workers may not then organise in traditional terms, this does not mean they do not express solidarity or organise at all.
Instead, we see them coming together in online communities, where they post questions to each other, exchange tips and give advice on how to find the best requesters and the most reliable incomes. These communities are by default transnational.
We see them on reddit, with the subreddit Turker Nation, and the Turkopticon run by workers, which turns the surveillance panopticon on its head: rather than themselves being rated on MTurk, workers rate their requesters. These online communities push us to think of collective organising in alternative ways, mediated by the very infrastructure of the internet that mediates the platform economy.
The contrasting cases of collective organisation at Amazon warehouses and Amazon Mechanical Turk show the sheer variety and diversity of forms through which workers organise, traditionally and alternatively. If we looked even further into these cases and beyond them, we would also identify crucial grassroots efforts, organisation and unions springing up to organise platform workers.
The platform economy therefore shows that, while platforms crack down on labour organisation and on fair working conditions, workers push back in their own ways to claim their agency, show solidarity and organise collectively.
Sarrah Kassem is a lecturer and research associate in political economy at the University of Tübingen and author of Work and Alienation in the Platform Economy: Amazon and the Power of Organization.