Gig-economy workers are not computers

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People should not be dehumanised, argues Simon Cross

THE world is in the midst of its fourth industrial revolution (IR). History illustrates that, in the long run, industrial revolutions make nations wealthier, but, in the short run, they also make individuals or sections of society poorer. For some, that short run can last a lifetime.

This fourth IR is more problematic because it might be the first to eliminate more well-paid jobs than it creates. In 1990, for example, the top three US car-makers had a market capitalisation of $36 billion, and employed 1.2 million people. In 2014, the Silicon Valley’s top three companies had a market value of more than $1 trillion, but only 137,000 employees between them.

In the global North, government policy has changed, and the employment model of the late 20th century has been overturned. Beginning with Reagan and Thatcher, governments have abandoned the concept of full employment, preferring globalisation and prioritising a credit and debt explosion that masked much of the decline of the standard employment relationship, until the banking crash of 2008. Since then, austerity and new business models that use technology have accelerated the decline of a financially secure middle class.

This fourth IR creates jobs predominantly in the “gig economy”, and it is transforming the employment market. Precarious and bereft of the social-safety features of the standard employment contract, many of these new jobs are intentionally arranged in ways that are not just poorly paid, but are also designed to be inherently dehumanising.

Further, the new technological-platform business model shifts the burden of costs and risks from employer to the individual. Uber, for example, insists that it is a technology, not transport, company, thereby evading the responsibilities of standard employment, while depending on an over-supply of drivers to meet instant demand. In the view of the researchers Woodcock and Graham, “despite its focus on emerging technology”, the gig economy “is truly a movement forward to the past” in terms of employment conditions and protections.

The facts and figures around the new IR are eye-watering. In 2017, the service sector accounted for 70 per cent of total gross world product. The United Nations has suggested that the “sharing economy” will surge from $14 billion in 2014 to $335 billion in 2025. Digitally deliverable service exports amounted in 2018 to $2.9 trillion: equal to half global service exports. But the platforms and apps through which they function are “data middle-men”, keeping customers and suppliers as informationally separated as possible.

Much has been made of the reversal of industrial globalisation during the Covid-19 crisis. But a new kind of knowledge-based globalisation is already accelerating: online tasks are going wherever the labour is cheapest, without any physical migration to accompany it. Truly, this is a global levelling down of wages and conditions for millions.

The threat of technological unemployment is real, but more troubling is the fact that the traditional response of “more education” is likely to be increasingly less effective as time passes. So far, the greatest losers in the UK have been middle-aged men in middle-income jobs. But robot-process automation is increasingly set also to exclude a new generation of 18- to 25-year-olds from ever joining the middle class.

How should the Church respond? It should welcome any technology that augments human dignity and worth, while resisting every technological application that requires human beings to behave more like computers.

The Church should challenge the systematic features that impoverish millions around the world. It should hold civil society to account for its provision and protection of the common good.

Individually, this involves taking responsibility for our own use of apps and platforms. It can be as simple as tipping our Uber driver, or making a commitment to spending a little extra or waiting a little longer by shopping locally instead of using Amazon, at least some of the time.

Corporately, it can be seen in the creation of socially responsible apps such as the Church of England’s anti-slavery car-wash app (News, 12 April 2019), and the agricultural-workers app that sets out labourers’ rights both to inform gangmasters and to protect seasonal workers from exploitation (News, 17 July; Comment, 3 July).

Nationally, it means using the Church’s presence in Parliament to scrutinise legislation, or the expertise of individuals such as the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, who is helping to shape and embed ethical principles at the highest level through his positions on both the Government’s Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation and the Ada Lovelace Institute’s working group on the future of data regulation.

The history of industrial revolutions suggests that the Church may yet need to play a part in resisting the reactionary forces of populism by actively promoting peace. The chilling alternative, as earlier industrial revolutions show, is that significant social suffering leads to social unrest.

Dr Simon Cross is Research, Engagement and Parliamentary Assistant to the Bishop of Oxford.

This article originally appeared in the Church Times on August 7th.