articles

Automate This! Delivering Resistance in the Gig Economy

By Jamie Woodcock, 10 March 2017
Image: Flyer designed by James Delaney

In the workplace automation and technology have tipped the balance of power greatly in favour of capital but, as Jamie Woodcock explains, workers are contesting this situation, logging out and calling the shots

 

In my new book Working the Phones,1 I worked in a call centre to try to understand the labour process, management techniques, and new forms of resistance and organisation. This article connects the development of new managerial methods of surveillance and control, often tied up with automation, from the call centre to the new ‘gig economy’. The recent rise of Uber, and new ‘Uber for X’ type companies like Deliveroo, represents a new shift in employment relations, tipping the balance of power greatly in favour of capital. This is reliant on contractually outsourcing labour, a legalistic trick, backed up with new technological methods of surveillance and control. Call centres have provided an important site to understand these changes as they were at the cutting edge of both outsourcing and developing these technologies. What follows is an argument linking the call centre to the new ‘gig economy’, through an understanding of automation and technology, while also presenting some initial findings from a new project with Deliveroo workers.

 

Automation

 

Automation has become a particularly fashionable topic of discussion, both on the left and more broadly. Automation has the potential to transform work on a scale not seen since the industrial revolution, creating vast swathes of unemployment, seen for example in the claim that just under half of all jobs are at risk of automation.2 Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams have raised the importance of contesting how automation happens, arguing for a universal basic income as one response.3 The key to understanding automation is that it is not a neutral process: it can serve the interests of the powerful, or enable free workers to spend their time on other things. Much like the application of technology more generally it is a contested process. For example, automation first involved augmenting work in various ways. It has been altering tasks carried out by labour for a very long time, but most often it falls far short of the science-fictional future of sentient robots and frictionless interactions that it promises.

 

Call centres have developed over time with the increasing application of technology to the labour process. At first, workers manually dialled numbers from sheets of paper, but over time these environments have been transformed into workplaces deeply shaped by the integration of computers and telephones. Automatic dialling resulted in workers making many more calls, reducing to a minimum the time between calls. The scripting of phone conversations took away some of the mental labour involved in the phone conversation, rationalising and regularising it. These greatly boosted the productivity of call centre workers, augmented through technological speed-up. This was successful in call centres because the integration of telephones and computers makes the work particularly susceptible to this.4 Call centres also emerged at a time of deregulation, often in the financial sector in the UK, leading to a rapid growth of sales operations.5

 

The next stage of automation brought the possibility not only of augmenting how work is carried out, but displacing people from the process entirely in some sectors. This raises the possibility of mass unemployment as a result. But the history of technology in the workplace has been one marked by the contested introduction of new methods of managerial surveillance and control, involving a fight over how work is carried out and under what conditions. This next shift involves increased technological capabilities of automation. Marx makes an important distinction between the ‘tool’ and the ‘machine’ which is useful to consider here. The machine was ‘a mechanism that, after being set in motion, performs with its tools the same operation as the worker formerly did with similar tools.’6 This replication of labour often carries with it errors and mistakes, particularly as the real world is much more contradictory and messy than planning allows for. For example, robotic assembly lines tend to need workers on hand to correct misalignment and things falling out of place. This next wave of automation will be led by a new kind of automation: instead of just automating tasks on the basis of recreating the previous actions of the worker, it is automation assisted by artificial intelligence that can self-correct and learn in various ways.

 

The risk is considering automation in very general terms, thinking about it as a point of rupture that will trigger an epochal shift in human existence, a stepping stone to Ray Kurzweil’s ‘singularity.’7 However, as Michael Burawoy has argued, ‘in reality, machinery embraces a host of possibilities, many of which are systematically thwarted, rather than developed, by capital.’8 Technological progress is not linear, but its possibilities are deeply shaped by capital. In the workplace specifically, Harry Braverman has argued that technology was tied up with both efficiency and control, as ‘machinery offers to management the opportunity to do by wholly mechanical means that which it had previously attempted to do by organizational and disciplinary means.’9 This method of control is one that has had great success in call centres, creating conditions of post-industrial work that have ‘become not Daniel Bell’s dream, but Harry Braverman’s nightmare.’10

 

Platform Capitalism and the Gig Economy

 

The call centre can be understood as an archetypal form of contemporary work, coming to symbolise the shifts from manufacturing to service work. Workers are often outsourced, and generally employed in precarious conditions, with work that is stressful, difficult, and emotionally draining. In the absence of strong trade unionism or workplace organisations, management has had a relatively free reign to design and implement despotic methods creating, in effect, an ‘electronic Panopticon.’11 The high levels of surveillance have become synonymous with this kind of work, along with the pervasive use of metrics and perverse attempts at gamification. The call centre provides a powerful model for mangers to drive down costs and exploit workers, with its inspiration increasingly present across other kinds of work. The development of these technological methods of surveillance and control have provided valuable insights for how to manage the transformation of work following the 2008 financial crisis, in what Paul Mason has described as a jobless recovery.12 The growth of the ‘gig economy’ has been driven by the ‘lean platform economy’, growing within a context which ‘ultimately appears as an outlet for surplus capital in an era of ultra-low interest rates and dire investment opportunities rather than the vanguard destined to revive capitalism.’13

 

These platforms claim to bring together people needing a service with those prepared to provide it: taxi journeys in the case of Uber, while for Deliveroo it is food delivery. The workers at Deliveroo and Uber are currently misclassified as self-employed independent contractors, despite having to pay a deposit for a uniform that they are expected to wear, and employment relations that are much like that of a worker, but shorn of most responsibilities for the employer. It is therefore a deliberate choice in this article to use the term ‘worker’, as opposed to the long-form legal construct that currently supports the business model of these platforms.14 This process of contractually outsourcing the workers has been described as ‘digital black box labor.’15 This captures how organisations try to obscure the labour that is key to their business models, reducing the liabilities of the company and making it look like a more attractive investment opportunity. Therefore, it is an important task to reveal the conditions of this kind of work, along with challenging its false categorisation.

 

At Deliveroo, the electronic panopticon of the call centre is being adapted to a geographically dispersed context that is mediated online. This results in workers taking on and internalising the pressures of management, often backed up by direct punishment or the precariousness of insecure contracts. In call centres this has resulted in high rates of turnover and a near-universally reviled workplace experience – both for workers and the people being called. For workers in the gig economy, whether driving Uber taxis or dropping off takeaways for Deliveroo, this pressure is manifested via an online app. Workers are monitored in great detail, noting the exact times and routes taken, while customers provide their own ratings. But unlike the call centre, the contact between a Deliveroo worker and management is extremely limited. The contractual outsourcing not only establishes precarious employment conditions, but it also operates within a setting in which workers may only have physical contact with the company when they sign up – and this contact is with other precarious workers assigned to the recruitment centres – or with call centres workers when something goes wrong. Instead of the physical supervision and management found in the factory regime, or the augmented supervisor in the call centre, there is management by the algorithm panopticon. In the interviews I have conducted so far, Deliveroo workers have detailed how ‘there isn’t that person telling you what to do, it’s the algorithm’ and that ‘the algorithm is the boss. They work on the algorithm, we work on the algorithm, they just interpret the numbers that we come out with.’16 The management function comes mainly in the form of emails that rate performance. Although these don’t tell workers the actual targets, only whether they were meeting them or not. This introduces that demand to self-regulate found with the panopticon, inculcating the feeling of being constantly tracked and watched, despite the lack of a physical boss or supervisor.

 

Rather than eliminating the possibility of resistance, this new incarnation of the panopticon creates a twofold precarity on the Deliveroo platform. The lack of employment rights and the dangerous nature of the work means that workers are left with little protection. As one interviewee explained:

 

I am young, I don’t have any family to care for, it’s not all that bad for me short term. But long term you’re scared, you’re scared. If I want to go holidays I need to keep money, if I crash or broke my leg so I can’t work. If I can’t work I can’t pay the rent, I can’t go holidays so it’s a process that’s quite hard.17

 

These conditions create clear structural difficulties for organising, but also mask a precarity for the platform itself. The management function that is found in other workplaces is also mostly outsourced in this lean platform model, meaning that the organisation has relatively few tools at its disposal to deal with organised resistance.18 

 

How Workers are Resisting in the Gig Economy

 

My interest in the ‘gig economy’ began from a similar starting point to the project with call centres: here was a new and rapidly growing form of work, which had clear grievances but no signs of traditional workplace organisation. Just like in call centres, the possibility for workers in the ‘gig economy’ to organise has been written off too quickly. The refrain with Uber drivers was that they had no physical workplace, no way of meeting up, so could not form the networks needed to organise. It is perhaps more accurate to say that these doubts were held by people thinking they could not reach Uber drivers to organise them, a defence from the perspective of existing trade unions about why they could not justify campaign resources. Instead, what Deliveroo shows is that often these platforms require workers to collect at various points – meeting points – so that workers are in the prime position to start a delivery. Even without this, Deliveroo drivers meet at various points around the city, from popular restaurants to busy junctions, now a ubiquitous sight across London. Uber recognised that it was easy to find Deliveroo drivers, with multiple reports of Deliveroo orders to the Uber headquarters, where managers tried to recruit drivers to the rival service. These workers are not completely fractured across digital platforms, but remain embedded within the streets and roads, very real parts of the city. It should also be noted that Uber drivers also have to present documents, and the offices where this happens provide an important point of potential contact, despite the fact an Uber driver is only ever a short drive, and a request on an app, away in London.

 

Image: Deliveroo workers striking in London, August 2016

 

Unlike the call centre project, where I worked undercover for six months, I’ve been involved in an activist ethnography with Deliveroo workers since last year. This has meant taking part in some campaigning before the strike, along with more activity that followed the wildcat action. As I have detailed elsewhere,19 the self-organisation of the Deliveroo workers, along with the support of the couriers’ branch of the IWGB, has been hugely inspiring. The six-day strike was a spontaneous response to Deliveroo’s unilateral attempt to remove the hour rate of pay and replace it with only per-drop payments. This action was organised primarily on WhatsApp, building on pre-existing networks, some of which were formed at the meeting points assigned in each area by Deliveroo. What followed was a lively campaign which was widely circulated on social media.

 

At the UberEATS strike, which followed soon after the strike at Deliveroo last year, a similar approach was attempted. There was a special offer for the Uber service that meant the first order received a £5 discount. The workers on strike, along with some from Deliveroo, realised they could take advantage of this offer. They started making orders for less than £5 worth of food, getting both a free meal and another driver who could be convinced to join the wildcat action. Those on strike crowded around the driver cheering and chanting ‘log out’ – the ‘gig economy’ equivalent of downing tools – in a spontaneous picket line. Uber, who were well aware of the action taking place, found a workaround to stop orders to the demonstration, preventing any further drivers joining that day. As one of the drivers I interviewed about this explained, as well as the entertainment the strikers got out of the action, they also showed they could ‘occupy the system in a way... if it’s a wild cat strike... it’s like a sit-in.’20 This was followed by discussions of how the platforms could be used against themselves, similar to the use of ‘call attacks’ in inbound call centres in Turkey, where activists organise mass phone calling to call centres in order to spread information and try to organise them.21

 

The campaign at Deliveroo is continuing to build, with the IWGB now fighting for trade union recognition. This would mean a huge change in conditions for Deliveroo workers if it is successful, since, if the bogus employment status is overturned, workers would be entitled to holiday and sick pay amongst other rights. This has been followed by campaigns in Leeds, Bristol, Brighton, and an increasing number of places where Deliveroo is setting up. There was also a recent strike of Italian workers at Foodora, a similar food delivery company.22 These events are proving that it is possible for workers to organise in the ‘gig economy’, experimenting with new ways to organise while adapting older techniques.

 

Automation in Transport and Delivery Work

 

Class struggle in call centres takes a particular flavour and form due to the widespread refusal of work and (perhaps necessary) lack of a more positive vision for what a sales call centre could be used for. There is a different dimension with transport and delivery work, given that an alternative way of running these is currently being forced onto the near-horizon. Uber has made it very clear its aim is to automate its services with driverless cars, already testing services with Toyota, Volvo, and now Mercedes Benz, that will see the company ‘run a network of driverless cars that can be booked through Uber’s app.’23 At Deliveroo this remains a possibility, although rival company Just Eat had already begun testing a robot delivery vehicle in London. As an analyst at TCC Global remarked, ‘It’s a laudable and adventurous idea, but I also wonder how this could be rolled out at scale when there is already a very low cost human alternative.’24 Despite this, autonomous vehicles and drones are falling in price, and are much more cooperative than human workers, meaning the automation of these sectors is rapidly becoming a possibility. From a purely academic perspective this can create a sense of inevitability and defeat – these sectors are going to be automated anyway, so why should we be concerned with the emergence of struggle here?

 

Automation, like the technology that facilitates and develops it, is not neutral. Rather it emerges from particular sets of social relations, reflecting the context from which it emerges, and going on to be used as part of an intervention into those social relations. The contest over automation needs to be considered from the perspective of workers who are currently doing this work, resisting its reorganisation, and thinking what alternatives might look like. As Marx observed:

 

The special skill of each individual machine-operator, who has now been deprived of all significance, vanishes as an infinitesimal quantity in the face of the science, the gigantic natural forces, and the mass of the social labour embodied in the system of machinery, which, together with these three forces, constitutes the power of the ‘master’.25

 

The ‘master’ is now greatly augmented by new technology, holding the threat of automation over increasingly broad groups of workers. This threat makes it even more important to find ways to fight to make machinery no longer serve the ‘master’, seeing these not as losing battles but part of an alternative. Rather than uncritically accepting or rejecting new technology, we need to start our analysis from these questions. This means thinking about who designs this technology and under what pressures, what new forms of organisation and exploitation emerge from their use, and how technology is transforming work and everyday lives more generally. From call centre to the ‘gig economy’, technology has been used to dominate and exploit workers. However, it is worth remembering that computers and automation once promised exciting possibilities, but this creativity and potentiality were twisted and re-worked into the platform capitalism of the present. Through work we can understand that despite the dystopian indications, this present remains contested, and that a new kind of politics can once again force the liberatory potential of technology back onto the political horizon.

 

Jamie Woodcock <j.woodcock AT lse.ac.uk> is a fellow at the LSE and author of Working The Phones, a book about control and resistance in call centres. His latest project is about Deliveroo and the 'gig economy'. He is also currently doing research on digital labour, technology, management, and videogames

 

Footnotes

 

2 Carl Benedikt Frey & Michael A. Osborne, ‘The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation’, 2013, available online at: http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/academi...

3 Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, London: Verso, 2015.

4 Phil Taylor and Peter Bain, ‘“An Assembly Line in the Head”: Work and Employee Relations in the Call Centre’, Industrial Relations Journal, Vol.30 No.2, 1999, pp.101–17.

5 Peter Bain and Phil Taylor, ‘Ringing the Changes? Union Recognition and Organisation in Call Centres in the UK Finance Sector’, Industrial Relations Journal, Vol.33 No.3, 2002, p.246–261.

6 Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy, London: Penguin, 1990 [1867], p.495.

7 Ray Kurzweil, ‘The Law of Accelerating Returns’, 2001, available online at: http://www.kurzweilai.net/articles/art0134.html

8 Michael Burawoy, The Politics of Production, London: Verso, 1985, p.53.

9 Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capitalism: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, London: Monthly Review, 1999, p.134.

10 Enda Brophy, ‘The Subterranean Stream: Communicative Capitalism and Call Centre Labour’, Ephemera, Vol 10 Issue 3/4, 2010, p.474.

11 Sue Fernie and David Metcalf, (Not) Hanging on the Telephone: Payments Systems in the New Sweatshops, Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics, 1998.

12 Paul Mason, PostCapitalism: A Guide to our Future, London: Penguin, 2016.

13 Nick Srnicek, Platform Capitalism, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p.91.

14 Brishen Rogers ‘Employment Rights in the Platform Economy: Getting Back to Basics’, Harvard Law and Policy Review, Vol.10, 2016.

15 Trebor Scholz, ‘Think Outside the Boss’, Public Seminar, 2015, available online at: http://www.publicseminar.org/2015/04/think-outside...

16 These interviews have been conducted as part of an ongoing collaborative research project with Deliveroo workers and the IWGB union.

17 Deliveroo interview.

18 Srnicek, 2017.

20 Deliveroo Interview

21 Şafak Tartanoğlu, ‘The Conditions and Consequences of Informal Organisation in Turkish Call Centres’, ILPC 13-15 April 2014, London, 2014.

22 Arianna Tassinari and Vincenzo Maccarrone, ‘Striking the Startups’, Jacobin, 2017, available online at: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/01/foodora-strike-...

23 Pete Campbell and Leslie Hook, ‘Mercedes and Uber plan network of self-driving cars’, Financial Times, 31 January 2017, available online at: https://www.ft.com/content/49866534-e7cb-11e6-967b...

24 Quoted in BBC ‘Takeaway app Just Eat to test delivery robots’, BBC News, 6 July 2016, available online, http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-36723089

25 Capital, op. cit., 1990, p.549.