The WorkerTech Podcast - Episode 2

This is a transcript of episode two of a three-part podcast series by Tech for Good Live, created in partnership with Bethnal Green Ventures. If you want to listen to all three episodes and more podcasts from Tech for Good Live you can subscribe via your regular podcast provider such as iTunes and Spotify.

If you've read this transcript already, you can check out the other episodes below:
Transcript of Episode 1
Transcript of Episode 3

Episode Two                              

Rebecca Rae-Evans (Tech for Good Live):
What is WorkerTech. Is it a real thing? Or just a made up word. Are you in some kind of surreal tech-themed dream right now. Of course not. This is episode two of the WorkerTech Podcast, brought to you by Tech for Good Live and Bethnal Green Ventures. If you’ve not heard episode one yet - go and do that first. It’s a real treat.

Ok. We talked pretty extensively in the previous episode about how technological shifts have seen the very nature of work change. The pace of change within tech can be dramatic. It always has been, and there is no reason to assume it’s going to slow down any time soon. And we heard from numerous experts about how the people most likely to be left behind, are those same people who are already disadvantaged and disenfranchised.

Is that the contribution that tech has to the workplace? To increase inequality? To push down further those who are already lacking in job or financial security?

The good news, is that there is hope. Technology can be used for social good. Back in the previous episode we spoke to Jessica Stacey from Bethnal Green Ventures, and we were trying to nail down the definition of what WorkerTech actually is. Jessica stressed that a defining attribute of WorkerTech projects is that their intention must be to have a positive impact on the lives of workers and to empower them.

Over the last few weeks though, as I’ve been meeting with experts in this field, it did lead me to wonder… where are the traditional champions of the workers? Where are those existing systems and processes that have previously been in place to protect and empower the workforce. Where are the unions? I asked Dan Tomlinson from the Resolution Trust this question - you’ll remember Dan from the previous episode. He had this to say...

Dan Tomlinson (Resolution Trust):
The big thing is that trade unions are the organisations that are best placed to serve people struggling to get a good deal from their work. But there is a structural problem in the UK in that trade union membership has been in long term decline. We’ve seen membership fall really significantly since the late 1970s. Now, overall the proportion of employees in trade union membership is really quite low - not too much above 20%, so around 1 in 5. Those numbers are even lower when you focus in on young people and focus in on people in lower paid work. Trade Unions are the best institutions to help people. They do great, and important and valuable work but actually they are weakest where most needed and we think there is more that can be done to help people in a workplace environment.

There has been a really big change in the way our economy is structured. So, in decades gone by, people who are in lower paying or mid paying roles and haven’t gone to university and got a degree and aren’t working in an office, they are more likely to be in a sector like manufacturing where trade unions were - and still are - quite strong in terms of the proportion of people in trade union membership. But those sectors have declined really significantly. And at the same time we’ve seen membership as a whole decline because of that change in the composition of the workforce and we’ve seen new sectors grow. So, the amount of eating out that happens in the UK today is much higher than 1979. The people working in those sectors - who are more likely to be younger and are relatively low paid - the Trade Union movement never really had a strong presence in those sectors so as they’ve grown, over all the proportions across the whole economy who are in trade unions and building their power through those institutions has declined.

Rebecca Rae-Evans (Tech for Good Live):
This is a real challenge for workers. The ability to organise and for employees to have a voice. There is a great power in people coming together. Adding the weight of many voices to their own.

As the composition of the workforce, and the very nature of work itself has changed, has the ability for people to organise been lost? Has anything stepped up to fill the gap left behind by the decline of traditional unions?

I think tech can help fill that gap. And the news over the last year has shown that workers are still able to unite. To rally, and to bring about change. Only recently we saw the positive effect of mass employee activism in the form of the Google walkout over sexual harassment in the company, and in tech as a whole. We spoke about this at length on our weekly podcast.

This was huge front page news. Thousands of staff, from Google offices all over the world, walked out of work together in protest. The thing that struck me was that I didn’t remember reading about the specific incidence of misconduct - the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Maybe it was reported at the time. But not extensively. Not enough to make me aware of it. But this display of employee activism, well, it certainly got my attention. And the attention of millions of others. It shook the CEO of Google into responding and no doubt had other companies panicking about similar occurrences with their own staff.

I guess it’s important to stress that the Google walkout is just one example though. Crucially, it’s an example of a company filled with tech savvy workers with the means to communicate with one another, and with a significant brand appeal to help pull them into the public eye. Is this kind of action possible for others?

I spoke to Usman Mohammed from Organise about some of the work they’ve been doing.

Usman Mohammed (Organise):
My name is Usman Mohammed and I’m the campaign manager at Organise. Organise is the UK’s first fully digital workplace campaigning platform. The idea being that it gives people the tools and the network and the confidence to change things in their workplaces -things they feel are wrong or require improving. The point of the platform is to let people not like it or lump it. When they find an issue or think something can be done better, they can put that idea out there and see if people agree and see how they feel about it. And get support for it and change it. The best thing about it is that it’s completely free - completely free from the point of use and on top of that it’s something that a lot of people haven’t come across before. It’s quite exciting to watch people use it and engage with it and especially use it to take on some pretty big companies.

Rebecca Rae-Evans (Tech for Good Live):
This is fortuitous, from a brand point of view if nothing else. I’ve been hammering on about the extent to which technology can help workers organise, and have a voice, and play a role in shaping their futures at their workplace. And here’s a platform called Organise. That sounds like a good place to help enable workers to organise. Right?

But, it’s not just a pretty name. This stuff seems to actually work. Usman talked about some of the work they’ve done with staff from Amazon.

Usman Mohammed (Organise):
So it all started again with the weekly poll. A worker said “Our targets are too high and we’re pressured quite horribly”. So, once we found out that the targets were too high for this particular worker at Amazon we started asking other people who we knew worked at Amazon. We knew they did because when they’d filled out our surveys they put their workplace in. So we asked them and a similar thing turned up. So we targeted warehouses with geo targeting on Facebook with a survey using Facebook ads. This meant we didn’t massively face the problem that a lot of traditional face to face organising groups do which is having to get out to a warehouse in the middle of nowhere, stay there, and try and communicate forever.

We found that we gathered thousands of workers in not very long at all, in whatever language they wanted. This meant it was more open to people who’d not been able to access this kind of thing before or be listened to before. We found there was a massive problem with targets. We started generating reports - or rather the workers did themselves - they came up with the idea and voted on what they wanted to do. Whether that was to build a petition or write a report or go to press. They all voted and they voted for all of those things over time. We built a petition and encouraged other people from the Organise community to sign it.

We took it to Amazon and they didn’t like it so much, understandably. And they did their best to avoid taking it from us. They did their best to avoid meeting us, and they told their workers to go through their regular channels. The workers had no idea what those regular channels were, because they weren’t effectively communicating. Those that did, were ignored. So, we did that, made the report and found out that targets were so high, and it was around 70% of workers were afraid of going to the bathroom, missing their targets and facing repercussions. Over 7 in 10 workers, which is horrendous and only gets worse around peak times - Black Friday and Christmas.

So we found that out, got it to press and got a lot a pressure on them. And it was just a way to close the gap between workers on the front line and people at the top. There is no way they could have got that message to the top on their own. No way. And yet, once they did that together, and used the Organise tools and completely closed the gap and they were communicating via Organise with the people at the top and putting a lot of pressure on them.

Rebecca Rae-Evans (Tech for Good Live):
I’ll be honest, this case study really warmed my cold, dead soul. I feel like we’ve heard a lot of doom and gloom during this project. But it was important to understand the broader social context. Whenever technology springs up to do social good, it’s always in response to a need. That need is always going to be painful to explore. It will include people in trouble. Those who struggle and strive just to get by.

That’s why it was important that we began this series by laying out the problem. We needed to talk about the fears that people have for their jobs, and the jobs of others. Just like we needed to talk about the actual real challenges that workers in the UK - and beyond - face day to day.

That all made sense as a starting point. But now we are going beyond history, and beyond context, and into real examples of WorkerTech. You see, there is a vision of what WorkerTech is. Those ideals that Jessica and the BGV team cling to - that tech innovations can make lives better for workers. Organise is one example of that. It exists and is working.

I’m excited to see what happens next in that story, because Organise have already had success with Amazon in terms of getting staff a pay rise recently. They’ve had success stories with big brands like Tesco too.

But Organise aren’t focused just on big brand staff. It’s for anyone. And that’s important.

But why is it important?

It comes back to something that Dan said, and it’s something that I’ve not been able to get out of my mind. He talked about how the composition of work in the UK, of the very economy, has changed. It has evolved and will continue to do so. And then in my mind, I add to what Dan has said, my conversations with Linda from Accenture and Fabian from RSA. Those conversations about how low income workers are the most likely to be left behind and hurt by this change.

We’ve talked a fair bit about how the nature of work is changing. Let’s take the digital industry as an example. Remote working is becoming more common place. Those of us who work in that industry have the flexibility, increasingly so, to work from home. Tech is playing a positive role in the changing nature of work here. Tools such as Slack and Office 365 enable pretty seamless remote working and communication. Freelancers are able to take clients from all over the world, and organisations are able to have teams that are spread out over the country.

And there are downsides to that of course. With tools like Slack - having it installed on your personal phone, can lead to a situation where you’re “always online” - even late at night. If you work remotely, do you miss out on the camaraderie of work based friendships? Maybe so.  And it’s important to make a distinction. Slack is not WorkerTech - it can do good, and help the worker, but its primary intention isn’t to improve the lives of workers - specifically low-paid, low-skilled workers.

There are plenty of examples though where technology is having an impact on the lives of those low-paid and low skilled workers, and particularly around the ability to work more remotely. More flexibly, and - seemingly - on your own terms. In this context, individuals picking up freelance work via apps and tech platforms is more commonly referred to as “gig work”. I’m going to talk about that, and the Gig Economy, at length in the next episode.

This shift from low-income salaried work, to a freelance model means that the benefits often linked to traditional employment - such as holiday and sick leave entitlements, and perhaps a pension - are lost. This obviously applies to all freelance workers, but those on a higher income can afford to pay into a private pension pot, and take holiday and sick leave when needed. That is often not the case with low-paid gig work.

When speaking with Fabian from the RSA, he talked about the ways in which new innovations are rising up to meet this need - to help provide entitlement support to those who don’t have them.

Fabian Wallace-Stephens (Royal Society of Arts):
There are some innovations working to address this, especially across the US we’ve seen what are known as portable benefits. This is almost like a pro rata system for accumulating benefits that you can use. There is a platform called Alia which is a portable benefits platform that was developed by the National Domestic Workers Alliance. They’re like a trade union for cleaners and people in these kind of roles.

Essentially it’s a platform that enables - after a cleaner goes to clean someone’s house the customer is able to make a donation to their collective pot that they can draw down on, to pay for benefits such as sick pay and holiday pay - all those kind of products that are missing from the gig employment relationship and this might be one way forward. It’s difficult to see how it might fit with the complexities around employment law, because it might be seen that providing any benefits makes you an employer, and that really changes the incentives around platforms taking on self-employed people. But in theory you can see gig platforms maybe wanting to support their workers in this way.

Rebecca Rae-Evans (Tech for Good Live):
I’ll be honest - and this will come as no surprise to regular listeners of this podcast and those who follow me online - I have some issues with this. My concerns aren’t necessarily aimed at Alia. It’s a digital tool which has had a lot of support and the intention seems to be noble. And in the US, a lot of leading companies and lawmakers have been calling for a portable benefits system for a while.

My concerns are that it is needed at all. I shudder at the notion of human beings relying on donations from their customers to cover sick pay. The right to a holiday. Critical care cover and disability cover. The fact that people are having to rely on the kindness of strangers, rather than taking comfort in these things being an inalienable right just feels wrong. This can’t become a permanent solution.

With a widening gap in society between those who have, and those who have not, I think we need to do better. That’s not just the responsibility of the tech industry, but of society as a whole. Linda from Accenture said it in the previous episode; we all have a responsibility. Business leaders, employers, employees, educators, consumers and lawmakers. The workplace needs to be inclusive. We need to make sure that we’re not leaving people behind. Because, those that are left behind, are usually those who need the most support.

This leads us on to the difficult question of the Gig Economy. Fueled by tech start-ups and generating lawsuits and making headlines for exploiting people on lower incomes, it’s something we need to grapple with as part of this podcast. Is the Gig Economy good, or bad, or something in between. We’ll find out in the next episode.


Next time on The WorkerTech Podcast we explore the Gig Economy. What is it? Why does it exist? Does it bring about flexibility and freedom, or poverty and despair? Is there such a thing as WorkerTech within this space? Join us next time as we speak to Uber, CabFair and a whole host of other brainy people.


This podcast has been brought to you in collaboration with Tech for Good Live and Bethnal Green Ventures.

Thanks to the contributions from Accenture, Royal Society of Arts, Resolution Trust, Organise New Economic Foundation, Zinc, and Uber. This episode wouldn’t be possible without Podcast.Co providing us with their studio space.

Read the Transcript for Episode Three

Jonny Rae-Evans