What are the overall impacts of tech companies on occupational structures, employment patterns, and labor practices? This question is large, complicated, and vital.
To engage it, a meaningful starting-point pertains to low-wage workers. As well-compensated engineers and entrepreneurs have been raised up as the Internet industry’s public face, low-wage workers have become a mere afterthought. The very terms that analysts use to characterize this category of workers suffer from ambiguity and imprecision: “flexible,” “independent,” “temporary,” “contingent,” “freelance,” “casual,” “precarious.” The International Labor Organization (ILO) states, simply, that such workers fall within a “non-standard form” of employment. Two facts, however, are certain. First, low-waged workers are crucial to the business models that are being advanced by Internet companies. Second, low-wage workers in the “new economy” are increasingly pursuing “old-economy”-type job struggles and demands.
To press ahead from here, a conception of the labor process is essential.
The Labor Process
Identified and explicated forty years ago by Harry Braverman, and further clarified by historians and political economists, the labor process provides an irreplaceable analytical fulcrum. Both to cheapen costs and to augment control, capital has continually attacked the labor process as it exists, with the aim of altering and even reconstituting everything from the content and sequencing of specific job-tasks, to the technical division of labor within companies and industries, to the location of production processes. Beginning during the 1970s, a new and expanded cycle of innovations around networks and other ICT tools permitted capital to intervene in the labor process across an unprecedented range, which encompassed an increasing number of information-processing jobs. Making explicit, aggregating and codifying what had been workers’ tacit knowledge, and/or generating and collecting new categories of data, corporate suppliers and corporate users of networks worked to standardize more tasks and to quantify more outputs. Managers, as Huws explains, gained new freedom to disaggregate and reorganize work, and to relocate or contract it out in line with their varied corporate strategies.
Prominent recent examples of this much wider trend include Uber and its rival, Lyft, alongside rental platform Airbnb, labor outsourcer TaskRabbit, the Instacart grocery delivery service, and the dry cleaning service Washio. Such companies invade existing industries by deploying network resources to compile, codify, rearrange and contract out existing labor processes. In the process they extract data from, and push costs onto, workers and users alike.