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Why Workers’ Observatories Can Help Empower Gig Workers

This article, first published on Brave New Europe, looks at the growth of observatories in Europe seeking to understand the changing nature of work, and empower workers to research, access and ultimately control their data. By Cailean Gallagher (@apudscotos).

Inspired by the 19th century observatory that sits atop a hill in Scotland’s capital city (pictured below), workers in Edinburgh have launched a Workers Observatory so they can undertake their own inquiries into data-driven platforms and digital work regimes in a city that is determined to become the ‘Data Capital of Europe’.

Workers have always kept watch over how their wages, time and conditions are set. Platforms make profit by keeping this precious information concealed, so workers across the world are starting initiatives to develop the means and methods for gathering, sharing and processing information that is concealed by platforms. 

Some are legal, like the effort of Uber riders to use Dutch courts where Uber’s data is based, to overrule the algorithm that fired them. Some, like WeClock, are apps designed to enable workers to log and share information about their work.

Gradually, more ambitious projects are emerging across the globe that aim to chart the movement of workers and changing conditions across the broad expanse of the platform and gig economy. Among them, a range of ‘observatories’ are recalling astronomers’ sites of research into the cosmos and celestial movements.

City Observatory Building, Calton Hill Edinburgh
The City Observatory sits atop Calton Hill in Edinburgh

Observatories of work 

The development of observatories that map and report on changing working conditions predates the millennium and the recent expansion of platform work. 

In 2016 EurWORK, the European Observatory of Working Life, turned its gaze to gig work, in response to calls by the European Trade Union Congress (ETUC) for the European Commission to confront the problem of undeclared platform work. 

An observatory to monitor platforms has also been proposed on a national scale. In 2017, the Scottish Government commissioned a report on ‘the collaborative economy’ that noted that “a lack of information is creating uncertainty and ambiguity of responsibilities for participants and platforms”. It suggested that the government:

Set up an observatory into the collaborative economy [… which] would collect, aggregate, analyse and publish a variety of datasets that show the ongoing impact of collaborative economy platforms in Scotland. 

This proposal was not adopted by the government, but even if it had been, it did not seek to offer workers access to data, or the means to counteract forms of control by platforms. It did not suggest giving workers tools to conduct their own inquiries or observations. The power to operate such a system would rest with the government, and it would be used to analyse the platform economy for the government’s ends.

More recently, another observatory has been founded by an initiative involving ETUC, and funded by the European Commission. The strapline of the Digital Platform Observatory (DPO) says it is “establishing workers representation and social dialogue in the platform and app economy”. It aspires to monitor the extent of worker representation across Europe, by country, type, and profession. It also aims to support groups that are seeking to establish worker representation. 

While each of these observatories recognises that the complexity of platform work requires serious and sophisticated methods of research, none of them seeks to put the tools of inquiry at the disposal of gig workers at a local level.

The Workers’ Observatory in Edinburgh

The Edinburgh Workers’ Observatory is a worker-led collaboration with the Scottish Trades Union Congress and academics at the University of Edinburgh. It will ‘monitor new forms of work in the city and develop tools and tactics to take advantage of them’. It will put equipment in the hands of workers that is required for investigating working conditions in the platform economy. It will allow workers to carry out inquiries into ways that wages, time, and conditions are determined in digital work, as well as the effects on platform work on policy, platform-development, or indeed pandemics.

The priorities and projects of the Workers Observatory are, above all, led by workers. In its long term vision, workers will develop skills for inquiry, data analysis, and organisation. They will be involved in the development of resources and equipment. 

As millions of pounds flow into making Edinburgh the ‘Data Capital of Europe’, and the Scottish Finance Minister looks to make the adoption of digital technologies ‘the greatest driver of growth in the Scottish economy over coming years’, workers now will have a site from which to watch how their work changes on a city scale, and combine their insights in order to challenge the concealment of information and build up the picture of time, pay, and conditions they will use to challenge the conditions that platform controllers impose, and collectively bargain for better gig work.