Ethnic Minorities and The Platform Economy
About 4.4 million workers in England and Wales now work for gig economy platforms at least once a week, the Trade Union Congress reflected in November 2021. This has tripled in the last five years. While the platform economy provides many benefits to workers, there are considerable risks for individuals coming from minority ethnic groups who can be subject to exploitation for unique reasons linked to race and how platforms operate.
Over the last 25 years, the Economics Observatory observed that wage disparity in the UK formal labor market between minority groups such as black, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi and the white population have widened. The picture is even bleaker in the platform economy, where ethnic minorities are at a disadvantage in salary and at risk of exploitation.
The Grey Area With Job Titles
Despite the flexibility that jobs from gig economy platforms such as online transportation or food delivery apps offer, workers are often exploited because they are viewed as "self-employed" and not as employees. For example, Uber in the UK has argued that its drivers were independent contractors, not the company’s formal employees. They further stressed that they merely acted as the mediator between the customers' needs and the drivers' services. Uber argued it had no obligation to provide statutory requirements such as the national minimum wage or holiday pay as drivers on the platform were on voluntary instead of formal employment contracts. As a result, workers may forfeit their rights to form a union, maternity leave, or pensions. Furthermore, they can miss out on even more basic statutory rights of formal employment, such as national minimum wage, paid holidays, and sick pay.
The evidence further suggests that those from ethnic minorities are at a higher risk of experiencing low pay and poor working conditions. These include worker (mis)classification, discriminative algorithmic management, and as a result, racialization. As Gebrial (2021) discovered through her survey of platform economy workers, “many platform economy workers… can become excluded from their main source of income with no explanation”. This is especially difficult for workers whose native language may not be English, as the UK employment and legal landscape makes it difficult to effectively appeal the decisions behind their dismissals.
Furthermore, due to systematic racism within wider UK society, platform workers are at risk of further difficulties concerning the rating systems many platforms deploy as part of their service. This can raise tremendous anxiety and concerns for many ethnic minority workers, leading them to believe that they must change how they dress, act, behave, or even speak to conform to what the rating system wants rather than what the worker feels comfortable doing. As McCluney et al. (2019) identify, these “code-switching” behaviors cause psychological strains and career risks for minority ethnic workers feeling uncomfortable about being authentic.
Additionally, the dependence of digital platforms on algorithms can lead to errors regarding information asymmetry. As many of these platforms do not give their “contracts” access to formal rights such as an HR department, the workers can be blacklisted from the platform with little to no explanation, with sometimes no chance of repeal. Even when these mistakes are corrected, workers are rarely compensated for their job losses.
What Can Be Done?
The nature of the platform economy is that a large percentage of the companies involved in it is multinational. Suppose platform-based firms feel national laws imposed on them to predominantly protect platform workers become too much of an imposition. In that case, the company may just relocate to another country where regulations are less restrictive on their practices.
From an EU-level and supranational level, research conducted in two separate reports on behalf of the European Parliament in 2017 and 2020 found that states, nationally and supranationally, need to be doing more to safeguard and formally protect the rights of platform workers. While at a European level, the social protection of workers is enshrined in the Treaty of the EU, in practical terms, the reality of these protections being upheld varies widely across member states.
While UK campaigners were pleased with the 2021 Supreme Court decision, which stated that Uber had to recognize its workforce was entitled to the national living wage and at least 28 days paid holidays from the time that drivers log onto the Uber app and are willing and able to work, and while the French government has taken action against platforms like Deliveroo for abusing workers’ rights and fined the platform for breaches, many campaigners are not entirely optimistic about the future of the platform economy.
This is because many are concerned that these platforms will continue to exploit their workforces in the absence of systemic change to the national and global economic systems. While further legislation can be passed and enforced, if a global international commitment is not adopted to regulate how these platforms operate, ethnic minorities and the most vulnerable in the labor market will continue to be the most at risk from exploitation.
Hugh Dollery is a BSc Politics and International Relations graduate from the University of Exeter. He currently works as a History and Classical Civilisation teacher in North West London
This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) December 2022 Issue