For workers such as ride-share drivers, who do not have a union or an HR department to help them resolve their workplace issues, these digital technologies can offer a new way to act collectively to improve earnings and even to influence company policies.
More than 7 per cent of Australians now work in the gig economy, with ride-share drivers making up a large proportion. Workers are most commonly men aged 18-34, students, temporary residents, people with a disability, and those who do not speak English at home.
Companies such as Uber avoid traditional labour regulations, including a minimum wage and holiday pay, by classifying drivers as independent contractors. This undercuts labour standards and leaves businesses that pay full entitlements at a cost disadvantage.
While unions have been the way workers traditionally collectivised to force a change to unsatisfactory working conditions, union membership has declined more than 40 per cent in Australia from around 2.5 million in 1976 to 1.5 million in 2016 and it is almost non-existent in the gig economy.
This new kind of worker voice expressed through electronic media is an important phenomenon because it means there is potential for peer-to-peer action without going through formalised, institutional structures such as unions.
Those working in a situation where there is no union present should check out online forums and share their experiences with other workers, as these forums not only provide support and advice, but also the opportunity to improve working conditions and earning potential.
Unions, for their part, should embrace digital technology as a way to strengthen worker voice, either through co-operating with forums that already exist, or creating new online platforms to assist workers and support decent working conditions.
This article is based on a paper presented at the 6th Regulating for Decent Work Conference at the ILO, the United Nations labour rights body, in Geneva.
Michael Walker is a doctoral candidate at UTS Business School
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