Friday, 13 April 2018

Start-ups and Platforms: Regulating Labor in the Gig Economy

Panel discussion

Advocates of the platform economy present it as a new way of organizing work and value creation and as a fundamental and efficient alternative to the “old economy”. Traditional workplaces and employment are replaced by platforms organizing crowds of formally independent freelancers. There are huge platforms like Upwork which organize markets for freelancers in a large number of sectors. There are dedicated platforms which focus on specific markets. Companies like Uber or Deliveroo, for instance, offer mobility and transport services and compete with traditional transport providers. 99designs and similar platforms organize freelancers in the creative sector. There are platforms for medical services as well as for so-called microtasks, like categorization of images or writing of short texts.

While the services provided in the platform economy are very diverse, the platforms share several characteristics. They are multinational companies which offer their services in a number of countries. They all claim that they are not employers and present themselves as neutral mediators between customers und service providers. Workers in the platform economy have no employment relationships and therefore no social security and no entitlements like annual leave, sickness pay etc. Despite refusing responsibility for the workers, the platforms fulfill typical roles of employers like organizing and controlling the labor process.

The potentially disruptive effects on labor markets and welfare systems lead to the question of how to regulate the platform economy. Is it possible to require the platform companies to become employers? Should we develop welfare systems which are not bound to the employment relationship? How can we avoid a polarization of the labor market between a secure but shrinking core of traditional employment and an increasing precarious “margin” of platform workers?

We invite to discussing these questions together with:

  • Steven Hill, journalist, lecturer and political professional based in the United States, is currently Journalist in Residence at the WZB. He is author of several books, with his latest being Die Startup Illusion: Wie die Internet-Ökonomie unseren Sozialstaat ruiniert (published in German) and Raw Deal: How the “Uber Economy” and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers, which was selected by The Globalist as one of the Top Ten Books of 2015.
    Steven Hill will open the discussion with a short presentation about “The Future of Work: Managing Disruption to Ensure Society Benefits from Technology and Innovation”.
  • Sabine Pfeiffer: professor of sociology at the Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nürnberg. Her research deals with the relationship between technology and labor, in particular with the impact of the internet and digital technologies on workers, work organization, and skills.
  • M. Six Silberman, project secretary, IG Metall. He is currently responsible for the trade union‘s projects aiming at organizing platform workers. He was one of the creators of Turkopticon, an online system supporting workers of the „Amazon Mechanical Turk“ platform.

The discussion is organized by the Project Group in cooperation with the Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society and the sections Labor and Industrial Sociology and Science and Technology Studies of the German Sociological Association (DGS). It is part of the Science Year 2018 “Working Worlds of the Future”.