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Posts Tagged ‘precarious work’

“The phone rings and an eerie voice mimicking a woman says: “Your shift is about to start, please log in and make sure you are in your designated starting area.”

This automatic reminder to promptly start the shift was, for me, the most tangible reminder that couriers working for Foodora and similar “platform capitalism” companies operate via the control of algorithms. While getting a call from a robot urging to start your shift is uncanny, the algorithms control the couriers’ work in more subtle, and more important, ways.

Dispatching, namely the assignment of orders to couriers is done automatically at Foodora. Through the application that the couriers use to receive orders, the algorithm tracks the couriers’ location, average speed, how quickly the courier delivers the food and how much time they spend at the customer. Based on an unknown weighing of these factors, the algorithm assigns a specific order to a given courier.

The dispatcher, who distributes orders, plays probably the single most important part in a courier’s job. The courier plans their own routes, but the dispatcher gives the orders, sets the pace and provides the information the courier needs to do their job. No matter how fast a courier rides or how well they navigate the city, if dispatching does not work, nothing works. Conversely, when dispatchers and couriers work well together and communicate with each other, they deliver orders quickly and efficiently. When the dispatcher is a courier themselves, this cooperation usually works best, because the dispatcher knows what can be expected from a cyclist, how the weather, the load and distance affects the courier.

Foodora has human dispatchers, who oversee couriers in a given city. However, in the working process designed by Foodora, human dispatchers ideally don’t interact with couriers, who should get their orders automatically. Presumably as a cost-saving measure, Foodora centralized its dispatching to Berlin and the dispatchers overseeing say Helsinki know nothing about the city. Thus the dispatchers are not able to help couriers in problem cases and sometimes the results are just plain bizarre, for example when by mistake an order has registered to a restaurant that is in fact closed and the courier tries to tell disbelieving dispatchers in Berlin that the cannot pick it up, because… well, the restaurant is closed.

The biggest problem however is one of transparency. The provisions paid for the order form a substantial part of the couriers’ income at Foodora, and because of this, those who get more orders earn more. The courier however does not know how and why the algorithm distributes the orders to one courier instead of another. Apparently, the algorithm distributes orders to couriers it deems “effective”. I have seen a situation when a fast courier came exhausted with less than ten minutes of their shift remaining to the office where couriers, who had just started their shifts sat waiting for orders. Then a new order came and algorithm assigned it to the fast courier. Why, nobody knows, but in Foodora’s automatic system once an order is assigned it cannot be changed.

Similarly, the algorithm classes Foodora’s couriers into four “batches”, or groups, based on their performance (as judged by the algorithm). Shifts are made available in steps to these batches so that the first batch, with the “best” couriers, get first pick from all the shifts, then the next and those in the last batch pick any shifts that might be left. How a courier gets shifts obviously directly affects their income. If one can do only a limited amount of hours, one also earns less. Along with this direct effect, how much and how well one works affects also one’s position in the “batch” and the possibility to get shifts in the future.

In short, the algorithms directly control the couriers’ work and their income, but in ways the courier can only guess. Even if the courier was adept in reading the code and reverse-engineering the applications, the systems that manage them are proprietary and not made known to the courier.”

– Tuomas Tammisto,
“When Mr. Robot is Your Boss: Working under algorithms.” The Transnational Courier Federation (#4.2)

When Mr. Robot is Your Boss: Working under algorithms

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“For one thing, the employers and hiring managers Gershon talked to didn’t look for, or even notice, personal branding. Gershon concluded that despite all the hype, finding your personal brand doesn’t help job-seekers. Its primary function is to make people feel like they have control over their working lives in an increasingly hostile job landscape.

According to Gershon, the concept of personal branding developed over the last 30 years as the concept of work itself became more precarious. Union membership has contracted. The number of hours in theaverage work week has risen; full-time adult workers spend 47 hours a week working on average, which is up an hour and a half from ten years ago. Today, millennials average four jobs in their first 10 years out of college, twice as many as the average for the generation before them. Workplaces are demanding more time and offering fewer protections and stability.

This change has a lot to do with the relationship between employer and employee. According to Gershon, in earlier eras, employees saw their relationship with an employer as a kind of loan of time and skills. You rented out your services for a certain period, and then the rest of the day was your own. Increasingly, however, people have begun to see themselves as individual businesses. And the employer-employee relationship is starting to feel more and more like a contract between two business enterprises. Meanwhile, companies like Uber, in which employees are all independent contractors, present themselves as the ideal future of work (though Uber looks less and less ideal all the time.)

In this context, branding, Gershon argues, isn’t a way to get a job. Rather it’s a way to reconcile oneself to an economy that provides less and less security. Without unions and without job security, employment is precarious and life outside work withers away. Gershon explains that, “The self as business is a metaphor that people developed to think through how they can operate in a space which is completely defined by market logics.”

This way of thinking can help people feel like they fit into the current market. But it has its downsides, too—plenty of them. The main problem with branding yourself as a business, Gershon says, is relatively simple: “People are human beings with physical needs and with personal lives outside of the business,” she says. “They are not always on; they have a personal life.”

When people are turned into brands, they become responsible to their brand—and to their bosses—all the time, everywhere. Social media posts showing a teacher enjoying an after-work cocktail could endanger her employment. Tweeting a controversial opinion can get you in trouble if said opinion is antithetical to your personal brand. There’s a reason massive companies like Disney hire an army of public relations people to manage its brand—staying on-message all the time is hard work.

Visualizing oneself as a brand also makes worker solidarity more difficult, Gershon says. Brands compete with each other; they don’t come together to demand higher pay, or decent health care, or reasonable hours. When people think of themselves as brands, they are speaking the language of reputation, appearance, and marketing. It’s hard to switch from that to a discussion of moral responsibility.

“I would love to see another metaphor about what work has to offer become dominant,” Gershon says. “Maybe instead of thinking about people as property or businesses, we could think of people as craftsman. And that way, people in the same kind of work could see themselves as facing the same structural issues.” This tweak might allow people to focus on group organizing, rather than self-packaging.”

– Noah Berlatsky, “Our obsession with personal branding reveals a dark truth about the future of work.” Quartz, March 2, 2017. Review of Ilana Gershon’s Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (Or Don’t Find) Work Today.

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“The shift has significant implications for worker well-being. We know from PEPSO’s important research that precarious work changes how people engage and socialize with their neighbours and family; it impacts how they develop and maintain connections; and has implications for mental health. More recently, OPSEU’s five-week strike in 2017 underscored how the rise of precarious work was affecting Ontario’s college faculty.

We wanted to better document how the rise in precarity was impacting the post-secondary sector as a whole in Ontario (representing 140,000 workers in 2016), and who was most affected. Certainly, the workers who responded to our recent survey described increased stress, overwork to compensate for low or unpredictable pay, and poverty stemming from precarious employment. They also raised concerns about the impact this was having on the education students were receiving, because workplace conditions are also learning conditions.

Precarity: general trends

The Labour Force Survey (LFS) is limited in the degree to which it can accurately capture the broader context that facilitates worker vulnerability. This underscores the need for more and better ways to collect data about the rise of precarity to ensure we are capturing its extent as well as its effects on workers, their families, and communities.

However, the LFS does allow us to try to correlate some markers with certain categories of work across the sector.  Based on analysis of LFS data from 1998-2016, we know that:

  • Precarious work is on the rise in Ontario’s universities and colleges;
  • Just over half (53%) of workers in this sector have some degree of precarity in their jobs—multiple jobs, more temporary work, or unpaid overtime;
  • Involuntary part-time work is rising across the sector, and it is more prevalent for women;
  • Some job categories are more vulnerable to this shift towards precarity than others;
  • Some workers are more vulnerable to precarity as a result of their working conditions or job status.

Precarity across the PSE sector

Breaking the trends down by indicators of precarity:

Multiple jobs: The proportion of workers in the sector who hold multiple jobs has increased, and the proportion of people who are temporary with multiple jobs has consistently grown. There is a notable increase in the proportion of part-time workers who hold multiple jobs, and a less pronounced increase with respect to full-time workers. 

Temporary work: The proportion of permanent employees in the sector fell (1999-2005) in tandem with an increase in the proportion who are temporary. Part-time temporary workers make up a greater proportion of all temporary workers. Temporary workers are more likely to work part time. The majority of temporary workers are women working part time, and this is becoming a larger proportion of the workforce. The proportion of temporary part-time workers who are men is also increasing. 

Unpaid overtime: The overall proportion of people in the sector who work unpaid overtime has remained relatively constant, but it is increasing for temporary workers. 

Precarity is experienced differently depending on job or worker category. In some instances, jobs that were traditionally more secure (such as librarians) have declined as a proportion of the total PSE workforce, while others that have traditionally been more precarious (like research and teaching assistants) have increased significantly, suggesting that perhaps more work has been shifted to this category.

We also see a significant decrease in college faculty as a proportion of the sector prior to 2012, which is particularly interesting given the enrolment growth in colleges. As well, university faculty proportionately declined from 1999 to 2014.

There have also been shifts within job categories; the proportion of permanent university academic staff has declined significantly for men, while increasing only slightly for women. Though administrators are a fairly stable segment of the workforce, there is an increase in temporary work. The majority of workers in student services and plant operations are full time and stable; however, men are more likely to have full-time employment while the proportion of permanent women is decreasing, and increasing for temporarily-employed women. Finally, managers are a relatively non-precarious segment of the workforce, and the vast majority are full time.”

– Erika Shaker, “Zero Credit: The rise of precarity on Ontario’s campuses.” Behind The Numbers, February 14, 2018.

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Of the top 20 global employers in 2017, five are outsourcing and “workforce solutions” companies, according to an analysis by S&P Global Market Intelligence. In 2000, only one employer in the top 20—International Business Machines Corp., which offers outsourced IT services among its many businesses—fell into that bucket.

Outsourcing companies are vacuuming up the world’s workers as traditional employers are handing over more of their tasks to nonemployees, a shift that has transformed the way corporations do business and had profound effects on workers’ prospects and pay.

The past two decades have been boom times for the outsourcing sector, with the annual value of contracts growing to $37 billion in 2016 from $12.5 billion in 2000, according to research and advisory firm Information Services Group Inc. III +0.00% The market is expected to rise again in 2017 and 2018, thanks partly to double-digit growth in big technology projects as more companies transfer massive volumes of data to the cloud.

For employers, dispatching work to outside companies saves money and lets them access skills they need without adding to their headcount. Workers in jobs that have gone to outsourcers, though, can feel moved around like chess pieces, either displaced entirely or re-badged as employees of a service provider, sometimes with fewer benefits and lower pay. A growing body of economic research suggests that outsourcing is a significant factor fueling the rise of income inequality in the past decade.

“If all the engineers are in one firm and the cleaners are in another, you get less diversity within firms and more inequality across firms,” says Nicholas Bloom, an economist at Stanford University.

The breadth of services on offer from outsourcing firms is staggering. Compass Group was founded in 1941 to run factory cafeterias in wartime England, eventually branching out into corporate catering. It now employs more than 550,000 and counts among its subsidiaries firms like Eurest Services, which staffs and manages mailrooms for clients, provides them with full-time receptionists, sets up their conference rooms for meetings and operates their warehouses. Eurest’s clients include Google, SAP and Pfizer Inc.

With so much work done outside the company, businesses employ fewer kinds of workers than they used to, a change that economists say has fueled income inequality.Outsourcing leads to workers being clustered in companies according to their skills, which affects pay and benefits. A bank used to employ janitors and security guards, in addition to traders and salespeople. For the sake of morale and a sense of fairness, management had an incentive to limit the disparities in employees’ compensation. That had the effect of boosting the pay of lower-skilled staff.

Now, those janitors might just as often work for an outside firm like Denmark’s ISS AS, one of the largest facility services companies in the world, while the high-skilled workers remain employed by the bank—a trend economists call occupational sorting. Pay for outside workers tends to be lower because outsourcing firms need to keep costs low to compete for contracts and because the workers don’t reap rewards from the financial successes of the bank.

Companies that provide security guards or IT help-desk workers have to show they can do the job more cheaply than the client can, keeping a tight lid on wages for those workers, says David Weil, a Labor Department official in the Obama administration and an expert on contract labor.

Outsourcing firms’ workforces, though, may shrink as algorithms take on more tasks, says Steve Hall, a partner at ISG.

“The large outsourcers are using a combination of analytics and automation to significantly reduce the need for labor,” he says.

– Lauren Weber, “Some of the World’s Largest Employers No Longer Sell Things, They Rent Workers.The Wall Street Journal, December 28, 2017.

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“Fiverr, which had raised a hundred and ten million dollars in venture
capital by November, 2015, has more about the “In Doers We Trust”
campaign on its Web site. In one video, a peppy female voice-over urges
“doers” to “always be available,” to think about beating “the trust-fund
kids,” and to pitch themselves to everyone they see, including their
dentist. A Fiverr press release about “In Doers We Trust” states, “The
campaign positions Fiverr to seize today’s emerging zeitgeist of
entrepreneurial flexibility, rapid experimentation, and doing more with
less. It pushes against bureaucratic overthinking, analysis-paralysis,
and excessive whiteboarding.” This is the jargon through which the
essentially cannibalistic nature of the gig economy is dressed up as an
aesthetic. No one wants to eat coffee for lunch or go on a bender of
sleep deprivation—or answer a call from a client while having sex, as
recommended in the video. It’s a stretch to feel cheerful at all about
the Fiverr marketplace, perusing the thousands of listings of people who
will record any song, make any happy-birthday video, or design any book
cover for five dollars. I’d guess that plenty of the people who
advertise services on Fiverr would accept some “whiteboarding” in
exchange for employer-sponsored health insurance.

At the root of this is the American obsession with self-reliance,
which makes it more acceptable to applaud an individual for working
himself to death than to argue that an individual working himself to
death is evidence of a flawed economic system. The contrast between the
gig economy’s rhetoric (everyone is always connecting, having fun, and
killing it!) and the conditions that allow it to exist (a lack of
dependable employment that pays a living wage) makes this kink in our
thinking especially clear. Human-interest stories about the beauty of
some person standing up to the punishments of late capitalism are
regular features in the news, too. I’ve come to detest the local-news
set piece about the man who walks ten or eleven or twelve miles to
work—a story that’s been filed from Oxford, Alabama; from Detroit,
Michigan; from Plano, Texas. The story is always written as a
tearjerker, with praise for the person’s uncomplaining attitude; a car
is usually donated to the subject in the end. Never mentioned or even
implied is the shamefulness of a job that doesn’t permit a worker to
afford his own commute.”

Jia Tolentino, “The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself to Death.” The New Yorker, March 22, 2017.

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“While Queen’s may provide stable and dignified work
for some, many others are still personally experiencing the alarming
state of precarious work in Ontario. This is work which is low-wage,
insecure and lacking in basic benefits like paid sick days.

As the Toronto Star
reported in 2014, this form of employment is on the rise. In Toronto,
for instance, 52 per cent of workers are in part-time, contract or
temporary positions. Queen’s is no exception to this trend.

Only two years ago in 2014, we witnessed a dramatic change to the quality of custodial jobs at the University. As The Journal reported,
17 full-time custodial staff were laid off and replaced with “casual”
workers who didn’t make the Kingston’s Living Wage of $16.29 per hour at
the time. The Living Wage refers to the income that earners in a family
need to bring home in a certain area, based on the actual costs of
living in a specific community. That amount was updated to $16.58 per
hour in 2016 for Kingston.

For this new class of
“casual” custodial workers at Queen’s, wages were brought down from a
healthy $23 per hour to $12 — a mere 60 cents above minimum wage. The
result was staffing levels being thinned so significantly that areas
deemed “low traffic” are often not cleaned anymore. But more
importantly, Queen’s eliminated a number of stable jobs with decent pay
and replaced them with precarious employment.

Post-doctoral
scholars at Queen’s have also been fighting against precarious
employment. Last summer, PSAC Local 901, the union representing
post-docs, began bargaining with Queen’s to win a raise to the minimum
salaries. At present, many post-docs are making only $32,000 a year,
while simultaneously supporting families and paying rent in a city with
the third highest rents in the province, according to the Canadian
Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s 2015 rental market survey.

When
we consider both this and the short-term nature of their job contracts,
it becomes abundantly clear that this group of workers at Queen’s don’t
receive the treatment that’s expected when working for the supposed
“best employer in Canada”.

If we look to Hospitality and Food Services on campus, we will find yet another group of workers who might disagree with Forbes’
assessment of their employer. According to the most recent collective
agreement with CUPE Local 229, the starting salary of a part-time Sodexo
employee as of May 2014 was just $11.53 per hour.

Furthermore,
while their full-time counterparts are guaranteed sick days in their
collective agreement, the part-timers workers don’t have the same
assurance.

While employers can save in labour
costs by restricting the number of full-time positions available and
increasing the proportion of part-time positions, this kind of practice
means that more jobs at Queen’s are needlessly precarious.”

– Lesley Jamieson, “Queen’s far from Canada’s ‘best employer.’” Queen’s Journal, March 7, 2017.

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