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Trade unions need to take data and algorithmic management seriously

What are trade unions doing about the algorithmic management of work? AlgorithmWatch, a German non-profit research organisation, has published a report, commissioned by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), examining exactly this topic. The report looks at 26 countries and 250 trade union activities related to algorithms .The research was conducted between December 2021 and March 2022. 

The report shows that trade unions have got a long way to go to provide effective worker representation in the context of algorithmic management practices. Unions are primarily still at the stage of discussing the issues at stake, rather than taking action to address them.

Over 60% of trade union activity on algorithmic transparency and accountability is made up of analysis, awareness-raising and developing strategies/principles. Just under 15% constitutes policy positions and regulatory demands, 12% is union organising and campaigning, and just under 10% is training and capacity-building. Not one example could be found worldwide of a collective bargaining agreement which "explicitly reference[s] algorithmic transparency and accountability".

Furthermore, where there is worker organising going on around algorithms "it is often outside of traditional trade union structures". This is something the Gig Economy Project's experience bears out: the three main cases of worker organising and court challenges around algorithmic management we have seen have been in the UK, Switzerland and Spain, and none have been led by traditional unions.

One explanation for this is that in public sector workplaces and the parts of the private sector where unions are still strong, workers still do not necessarily experience algorithmic management, or if they do it is not in a way that is as pertinent as it is for Deliveroo couriers or Uber drivers. AlgorithmWatch's report, which does not only look at the platform economy, finds that "in general, it seems like workers place less relevance on automation than trade unions and their representatives do...Algorithms and automation at work is so far a topic for experts, but that should not continue." 

Part of the challenge is to change the way workers think about data: rather than it being something that is done to them, it should instead be thought of as something which makes up what they are as workers. A food delivery courier or a private hire driver is also a data worker; they work with data and their labour leaves a data trail. That hardly any gig workers currently think in this way is because there are so few examples of workers accessing and using their data to defend their rights and interests.

Union organising will be key to making workers think about and act on their data, but as AlgorithmWatch's report argues, that means unions have to provide workers with "concrete tools" that will help them challenge algorithmic management in very practical ways.

These tools are already out there. On Tuesday [21 February] the Gig Economy Project attended an online tutorial for Uber drivers by 'Digipower Academy' titled 'What is your data and what can be done with it?'. You can watch the recording of the event here. The tutorial explains how workers can get access to their data, how they can use Digipower's online tools to understand their data, and various ways in which that data can then be used.

The Swiss organisations which are behind the Digipower Academy, and, have already proven in Geneva that this can actually deliver results for workers. These organisations run on a shoe-string budget and their outreach is mainly done through word-of-mouth. Unions should either be funding this work or employing data scientists to do it directly. 

When talk of algorithms and automated decision-making processes was still largely confined to speculative discussions about 'the future of work', it is understandable that unions would not want to commit precious resources to addressing it. But now that it is a fact of life for tens of millions of European workers (and will soon be for hundreds of millions) there is no excuse for not investing in the capabilities workers need to defend themselves. As the AlgorithmWatch report concludes: "There is an urgent need to move from principles and theoretical discussions to implementing these principles in practice."

Ben Wray, Gig Economy Project co-ordinator

Gig Economy news round-up

  • COUNCIL OF THE EU DEADLOCKED ON PLATFORM WORK DIRECTIVE: The member-states which make up the Council of the EU are struggling to find a compromise on the Platform Work Directive which would be capable of winning a two-thirds majority. The Council met for the first time under the Swedish presidency to discuss the Directive last week, and 'Euractiv' reports that there is "little appetite for a compromise". A 'blocking minority' of states, including Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, opposed a proposal in December under the Czech Presidency which would have significantly weakened the European Commission's draft proposal for a presumption of employment status in the platform economy, and those "pro-reclassification" states remain committed to their position. States which want "a high threshold for the presumption of employment to be triggered", including France, Italy and Poland, are also steadfast. The next Council discussion on the topic is due to take place in mid-March and Euractiv say that "a general approach" is "not expected before June". Read more here
  • WEST NORTHAMPTONSHIRE COUNCIL ACCUSED OF RACIST DRIVER LICENSE RULES: The App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU) in the UK has accused West Northamptonshire Council of designing licensing rules for private hire drivers which discriminate against migrant workers. A draft report on “maintaining and improving public safety" states that drivers which have not lived in the UK continuously for five years must get a “certificate of good conduct” from the relevant embassy of each country they have lived in for more than three months. The ADCU say the policy is both unnecessary and impractical, since many migrants would find it almost impossible to attain such a certificate, especially refugees who have fled repressive regimes. ADCU President Yaseen Aslam described the rule as "morally offensive" and said the union would be holding a protest against the policy. West Northamptonshire Council leader David Smith said the policy was out for consultation and that the licensing team would be willing to speak to drivers about their concerns. Read more here
  • BORDEAUX ESTABLISHES A 'HOUSE OF COURIERS': A place for food delivery couriers to meet, talk, wash and rest has been established in the French north-western city of Bordeaux. The 'House of Couriers' follows in the footsteps of similar initiatives in Paris and Brussels, and has the support of the city council. It will include a bike training and repair workshop and information on workers' and citizenship rights. Speaking at the opening, Khalifa Koeta, co-president of the Association for the Mobilisation and Support of Deliverers, said that he was "delighted" with the initiative because "there was no one to help us" and he hopes the House will "improve the situation". Leïla Chaibi, a France Insoumise MEP and prominent campaigner for platform workers' rights, said that Bordeaux is a "pioneering city in the fight against Uberisation". Read more here.
  • FLINK ACCUSED OF UNLAWFUL LAYOFFS IN DRESDEN: The FAU union in the German city of Dresden is taking the grocery delivery platform Flink to court over unfair dismissal of one of its members. The union said the termination was "obviously invalid" because the German-company has cited an automatic expiry of the contract after 120 days, despite it being a permanent contract. They said that the company hires many foreign students and exploits the fact that they have limited or no knowledge of German labour laws. The union says Flink couriers in the city have many complaints including "incomplete wage payments", "inadequate work clothes" or "backpacks that are too heavy". One union member and former courier, Johannes Kristensen, said: "Flink often acts completely recklessly or illegally at first and acts as if that were normal. Unfortunately, they often get away with it, because many colleagues are afraid to say something". Flink rejected the charges, telling 'TAG24' that its dark stores in Dresden are "developing very well". Read more here.
  • TAXI LEADER CALLS FOR LOCAL CONTROL OVER NUMBER OF PRIVATE HIRE VEHICLES IN SPAIN: Alberto 'Tito' Álvarez, leader of the Elité Taxi Barcelona union and the Taxi Project 2.0, spoke to the Spanish Congress on Monday [20 February], calling for local government to have control over the number of licenses for private hire vehicles (VTCs). Álvarez' was addressing an evidence session for the Spanish Government's Sustainable Mobility Law which is currently making its way through the legislative process, and said that if municipalities are stripped of their "sovereignty" he did not believe road sustainability objectives could be achieved. He said strict limits on VTC licensing would ensure the Spanish car transport market avoids the "jungle" of "neoliberalism". The taxi union leader also said that he believed the private hire platforms like Uber and Cabify co-ordinate price-setting and that the union would be denouncing them to the National Commission of Markets and Competition (CNMC). Read more here
From around the web
Platforms and their presumption of power

European Trade Union Institute researcher Aude Cefaliello argues that a legal presumption of employment in the platform economy would not end self-employment but would end impunity for platforms.
Uber and Lyft Fares Skyrocketed But Drivers Didn't See all the Benefits, Study Says

Report by Roshan Abraham in 'Vice' on a new UCLA Labor Center study which found the private hire platforms are increasing their margins by squeezing drivers.
A young man tells of the discovery he has made about Uber and the mobile battery

Report in Huffington Post about a Tiktok video from an Uber user in Peru, where he claims that Uber charges customers more when they have low battery and less when they have full battery (in Spanish).

Upcoming events

- A solidarity fund for labour disputes, the PayDay e.V., will be launched in Berlin on Sunday 26 February at the Wildenbruchstraße 86, 12045 Neukölln, Berlin. The fund will specifically help workers in dispute who are suffering from wage theft, a practise that has been known to happen in grocery delivery platforms. Click here for full details of the event and here for the PayDay e.V. website.

- The Giacomo Brodolini Foundation and the Institute of Public Affairs' 'Don't Gig Up, Never!' project will be hosting a webinar looking at the digital labour platform business model in seven countries. The event will take place on 2 March, 2.15pm CET, and will be in English and Polish. To find out more and to register, click here

- The Leeds Index of Platform Labour will launch its global database of platform worker resistance on 27 March at a hybrid event in London. Click here for full details.

- The UNI Global Union will host a hybrid event on 'dark stores' and app-based grocery delivery, 28 March in Brussels, Belgium, from 3-4.30pm. Click here for more details and to register. 

- Wage Indicator will host a webinar on women in web-based gig work on Friday 31 March, 2-3.30pm. Click here for full details and to register.

- The Platform Labor Project and the Global Digital Cultures Initiative are holding a hybrid international conference on 'Global Perspectives on platforms, labour and social re-production', at the University of Amsterdam, 27-28 June. Details here

Know of upcoming events we should be highlighting? Let us know at

Get Involved

The Gig Economy Project is a media network for gig workers and we welcome contributions from workers, writers, academics, activists - anyone who wants to stand up for workers' rights in the gig economy.

If you would like to write for the site, discuss arranging an interview with GEP, or simply have information about developments in the gig economy in Europe you think we should be aware of, get in touch. 

Contact project co-ordinator Ben Wray at or send a direct message to the Twitter: @project_gig.

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