13 Sep 2016, 9:24pm
economy reflections
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  • The Smartphone as a tool of oppression in the Gig Economy

    Smartphones connect us with the virtual world, but also bind us. 1

    A digital nomad in her natural environment (Bali I think). Smartphones work just fine for people like these

    A digital nomad in her natural environment (Bali I think). Smartphones work just fine for people like these, they never had it so good

    The smartphone epitomises what has changed about the world of work, and a whole bunch of articles this last week have reminded me that it has changed, in my view adversely for many workers. I am beginning to understand why so many people are pissed off at the lower end of the employment spectrum. At the middle and top end, they are having a blast – the smartphone is emancipation of the four hour work week, the contractor, the digital nomad and all that. All these dudes are whooping it up and going “wassup, you never had it so good?”. Tim Ferris’s The 4 Hour Work Week is the bible for this crowd. . Back in the real world, it’s the lumpenproletariat taking the shaft, along with a lot of disrespect through what has become a tool of oppression.

    How low end work used to be in the 1960s to 1980s

    The world of work in the analogue world had a lot of hazard and unpleasantness in it, there was overt racism and discrimination is many areas, and humans did a lot of physical work which was terrible for their health. Some of the improvements in longevity and the narrowing of the expected lifespan between men and women of recent years has been due to running some of these jobs out of town. My Dad worked with glass bottling machinery, he was already losing his hearing by my age and was stone deaf by the time he died. There’s a whole gratuitous rant in this post about for God’s sake don’t trash your hearing with loud sounds and use hearing protection with power tools when you’re over 40 inspired by his experience. Blue collar work was a bastard and took it out of you.

    Arthur Scargil, 19 years a miner and rabble rouser deploying flying pickets against Edward heath. Met his match with Thatcher in 1984

    Arthur Scargill, 19 years a miner and then rabble rouser successfully deploying thugs otherwise known as flying pickets to switch off the lights under Edward Heath’s 1970s administration. Met his match with Thatcher in 1984.

    As I child I used to listen to the revolting turkey Arthur Scargill harp on on the radio about how mining was a tough and dangerous job demands oodles of pay, and yet resisting like hell when Thatcher offered 2 to stop future generations going down t’pit by switching power generation away from coal to natural gas. WTF was going on there? Scargill called a strike to guarantee that uneconomic pits should not be closed, presumably a social service to keep dangerous employment open despite it not making money. Coal mining was typical of a lot of blue collar work in the past – dirty, dangerous but compared to low-end unskilled work now, paid better to compensate for that. This Is Money have an interesting contrast of working conditions between 1952 and 2012. In pretty much all aspects conditions in 1952 were worse. But there was a place in the economy for unskilled labour, and people knew where they stood. On the downside, opportunities were dreadfully limited for women and for the brighter poor.

    Many blue collar jobs had a decent level of community spirit among the workforce, which manifested in the strong union presence. These jobs were stable across years, even a working lifetime, largely because work practices didn’t change much. In some manual jobs skill and experience built up over decades. So although there was a lot wrong with many jobs, there were some things right. In particular the sense of community and the dignity in work. Some employers provided pensions which were defined – my Dad was a fitter but benefited from one of these.

    A key part of  most jobs in those days was that they were clearly defined into working time and non-working time. When the factory whistle blew and the workforce downed tools they were off the clock and work was out of mind. This was because communications were limited – phones were connected to places not people. I personally feel the smearing of work into non-work has been one of the most pernicious things to have changed over the last 20 years. As John Philpott of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development said in 2012

    The world of work has fundamentally changed, but it is not a change which is making many of us happy, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

    He blamed the invention of new technology, from laptops to the BlackBerry 3  and the iPhone, which is ‘imposing entirely new pressures on staff.’

    While it has liberated people to work from home or from outside the office, it has resulted in ‘information overload, created pressure for an instant response, enabled more sophisticated monitoring and surveillance of employees, and blurred the boundaries between work and non-work time.’

    It is possible that I have a limiting belief because my idea of the place of work and leisure was formed in the previous generation – Stephanie Buck (H/T Monevator) puts it elegantly:

    Leisure came to define a person’s identity during this time, in many cases superseding career identity. Having a hobby was not only accessible, it was a status symbol. It meant one had time to relax, a privilege previously enjoyed only by the very wealthy.

    This is probably one of the reasons why I just don’t miss working at all. I have been able to surrender a career identity because it had less meaning to me. That is the upside of my antediluvian understanding of work. I was also fortunate enough to have spent most of the time working in a reasonably congenial environment with enough challenge to be interesting. I don’t recognise most of my job in Buck’s later observation

    Instead of viewing work as the inevitable grind and hobbies as core to one’s identity, as in the post-war era, today’s professionals strive to equate career with leisure.

    I started work in 1982, in the transition period between that world and the one we have now, and benefited initially from the improved flexibility but the old community structures of the workplace.

    That was then – better communications is changing the workplace massively

    Communications have improved over the last 20 years – the advent of the Internet and WWW came in tandem with mobile communications where you now call a person rather than a place you expect them to be, and of course you have more modes of communication.

    Strange things have happened as a result. In the early days we expected better comms would mean people to be able to do remote working from anywhere, even on the beach. See digital nomad, above – just imagine all of us doing that. At school I was really told that the future would have lots for leisure time and  we’d be typically working one day a week. How did that turn out for y’all?

    In fact what has happened is that high-paying jobs have concentrated in London 4 which sucks in people and money, creating a lot of misery in the middle range of ability because they are all in competition with each other for finite geographical space and skyrocketing housing costs. It really wasn’t meant to turn out like this, but it seems the network effect, combined with the increasing instability of jobs means workers need to concentrate geographically, both to interact more with each other but also to have a better chance of replacing one job with another when they get the chop without having to move or take huge commutes.

    We didn’t realise it at the time, but the limitations on communications and physical transport of goods and services was a great equaliser. As a thought experiment, say we still made chairs by hand but otherwise had all the information comms and containerisation and Deliveroos we have now. When a horse limited a day’s range to 20 miles, every market town could support, say, a skilled carpenter. In a globalised and high transport world, you’d only need as many carpenters as you need to make the amount of wooden stuff needed. Put them all in one place, call it Heartwood Valley and transport the goods for next to nothing. The quality of the carpentry will probably be a little be higher, and the price probably cheaper, but there will be far fewer carpenters employed worldwide. House prices in Heartwood Valley will probably rise, both because the star carpenters will be making more money but they all have to live where the jobs are.

    So now take finance, management consultants, IT and stick ’em all in London. No wonder grunts can’t afford to live there. This is not a new phenomenon, though the intensity of the effect is increasing. Thirty years ago an Ermine in a modest but above-average paying technical job was driven out of London. Where I was more fortunate than Millennials was that the concentration of jobs in London and hollowing out of the rest of the country hadn’t happened, and that jobs were more stable so the risk of ending up in a one-hoss town was less strategically dangerous than it would be now.

    Zero-hours contracts aren’t new

    I worked on what would now be called a zero-hours contract, in 1979/80-ish ISTR. As a kitchen porter – the idea was you go to an agency early in the morning and they would allocate work on a first come first serve basis. There was no guarantee of any work at all, but you generally got to know the system. No phones or anything. When I inflation adjust my earnings to now I was working for a lot less than the minimum wage, too. That sort of work allocation existed elsewhere too,  dockers used to line up in the morning on the same sort of basis to get casual work unloading ships.

    Smartphones let employers dynamically allocate work to people via apps, that has the opportunity to turn zero hours contracts into oppression. Casual work is casual because anybody can do it – if you can drive you can drive for Uber, for Deliveroo, and pretty much anyone can flip burgers for McDonald’s. The best way to improve your earning power is to get out of this commodity competition for replaceable skills, because if you have undifferentiated skills then competition is always going to drive your pay down to the minimum wage or lower.

    The lower than minimum wage is achieved by zero hours contracts – there are fixed costs associated with being available and ready for work – commuting to the workplace, having a car in the case of Uber, not being able to work for someone else or take your children to school. So you are always are risk of taking a hit if you can’t get your hours up enough. Now in the past the agency sometimes did take a dislike to some people and would always call out others for work before them, but at least that discrimination was visible, and done in person. When an app doles out the work you have no protection against that sort of thing and may even be unaware – as the FT’s “When your boss in an algorithm” describes.

    The problem isn’t so much zero hours contracts as such, or even app scheduling – after all every taxi company used to have dispatchers who would match the drivers to incoming jobs over the radio. The problem is zero hours contracts combined with unskilled work, where the work allocators can simply pitch the workers against each other, micromanaging jobs and people in a never-ending treadmill. When one hamster falls off the wheel, there’s an unlimited supply of  rodents to replace them.

    1404_hamsterwheel

    One hamster is pretty much like another – hamster work is fungible

    In that sort of environment the advantages of flexibility accrue to the employers not the workers. To add insult to injury, the welfare safety nets like unemployment benefit are predicated on the job for life, or at least the job for weeks. They just don’t help you fight that sort of here today gone tomorrow employment pattern. These are not entrepreneur hamsters playing the market for their talents. This is unskilled piecework.

    The so-called joys of self-employment

    The Grauniad asks whether zero-hours contracts really are worse than jobs for life. Sure, for many people with skills that command a premium, contracting and zero-hours contracts can be great. There are the guys that write about how great the opportunities are. Heck, a retired Ermine hasn’t been able to avoid making money totally, and I would be happy with the lack of commitment of zero-hours contracts 5 – if it pissed me off in any way, I’d just walk away. I can afford to do that because I am financially independent. Financial independence is very rare in a first world consumer society – there are many, many people who have far more wealth and income than I but who are not financially independent because of their spending.

    It’s easy to big up the joys of self-employment. Yes, you have the freedom of self-defined work and your time is a little bit more your own. Set against that you have the stress of managing a variable income, you have all the grief of self-assessment and the trials of HMRC, you have to run the business, make the judgement calls on capital spend versus return. You also have to carry a massive cash float to manage contingencies, else you risk getting slaughtered in the first cashflow crisis that comes along.

    Those that make self employment work for them tend to be the more entrepreneurial, and those with skills that can command a premium. I look at Liberate Life’s description of how to live life working without a job and it looks like one of Dante’s Inferno’s circles of Hell to me – I hate selling in all of its forms 6 – all that hustling would be a nightmare for me. I am so glad that I managed to get to the end of my working life before these changes happened. Perhaps there is sample bias – if I were 21 again then this gig economy world would be all that I had known and I would follow such a path, which looks a great way to play that sort of hand.

    But I knew another way, and to my eyes it was a far better compromise for the majority of people, who are of average talent but want to have some stability, have kids and FFS do something other than thinking about work all the time. It served me well, I like to think I had a little more talent for the scientific, engineering and analytical than the average Brit, though I am nowhere near clever enough to work for Google. It isn’t like the compromise kept everybody down, and if you really wanted to run your own business and had talent then you could knock yourself out and go do that too.

    Maybe I am simply at odds with current thinking. There was an interesting thread on MSE where a fellow retired, and got so bored he went back to work, which made me think what was summed up in this post

    It’s a bit sad to spend such a large part of your life working, retire, and then realise you haven’t actually got a real life to enjoy so go back to work again. It suggests an absence of hinterland

    Whereas now you’re increasingly on call all the time without getting paid for it, at below the mean level of ability you seem to be yanked about on a smartphone string and have to think about work all the time. In particular, the sort of digital Taylorism the FT’s Sarah O’Connor talked about in this podcast and article treats their unskilled workers with a shocking level of disrespect.Not only are these unskilled workers micromanaged via their smartphone apps, but they are stripped of the employment rights that used to protect casual workers from the variability of the workload (by paying them for their time, including downtime during the working days). The work providers talk up the virtues of self-employment and being able to choose how much you work, but decline too many jobs in a row and you’re embargoed for 24 hours, so the choice is pretty clear, do as we say or piss off. Hobson’s choice, not a better work/life balance.

    It tickled me to hear John Gapper’s faint public school accent debating the plight of the precariat with O’Connor’s slightly preppy uptalking and lashings of vocal fry. I don’t think they know the territory, though kudos to Sarah O’Connor for doing some fieldwork at Uber Eats. It’s epitomised when Gapper asks Sarah at 2:24

    “Are they employed? I means what is their actual status? Are they workers…”

    It’s not so much what is said – it’s a reasonable question, but you can hear the arm’s length treatment in Gapper’s tone of voice – these aren’t the sort of people the FT hacks typically consort with. I can almost picture him holding the dirty rag at a distance asking “so what exactly is it that we have here?” 😉

    Elsewhere in the FT, however, it seems that there are still a lot of recalcitrant proto-Ermines among the millennial set that aren’t that enamoured with the go-getting entrepreneurial dynamism of the gig economy. Over to Sarah again

    young workers seek traditional permanent contracts to unlock the necessities of life …

    The traditional permanent job contract is still the key that unlocks a range of life’s necessities. Without one, you will struggle in many countries to secure a loan, a mortgage, a mobile phone contract 7 or even a room to rent.

    like all that boring shit like a roof over your head and not having to think about work for 24 hours every flippin’ day.

    There’s hope. but not soon

    New ways of working have often led to oppression of the weakest party (generally labour) until regulation can catch up with it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with better information and mobile platforms, after all Uber and GPS means relatively unskilled drivers can provide a low cost London taxi service that was previously the domain of cabbies in a guild with The Knowledge. Because these things started in the teeth of the 2007-9 recession and regulation hasn’t caught up, they have spread quickly, because they give an advantage to the work providers and probably the work consumers, at the cost of the work doers. Our definition of employment and self-employment that has been acceptable for many decades isn’t fit for this sort of employment/work. So regulation needs to catch up, there’s probably space in the marketplace for smartphone mediated work matching to give novel services with a better balance between the conflicting interests of capital, labour and the consumers. It’s inherently the way of capital to to misuse it’s power over people, for the reason identified by Baron Acton in 1887

    Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    Capital is a claim on future human work, the power to get people to do what you want. It needs regulation to gentle it away from being purely a tool of oppression, and it takes time to find that balance. Of course there is always the head-banging Ayn-Randian counter proposal for a no-holds-barred let it all get sorted out in the market. I guess once we’ve killed off the weaklings perhaps the water will find its own level. It’s a bit harsh, but I guess it works. For some strange reason it tends to piss people off seeing that sort of thing happen to their friends and family members, so unless there really is a Galt’s Gulch Uber can retire to they will probably have to come to some less one-sided agreement in time.

    It’s not all about the money

    though at the bottom end it is… Some of it is about dignity and respect. When I boil it down to the essentials, what I came to hate so much about working at The Firm when they laced it up with stupid performance management metrics wasn’t that the pay was crap, it wasn’t. It wasn’t what I did, which was okay and mildly interesting when it was the actual job in my job title, as opposed to feeding the performance management system bullshit. It was the increasingly demeaning and disrespectful nature of the micromanaging performance reviews and endless justification of my existence, the gamification of the workplace. This crap was unnecessary – it was either a deliberate ploy to make people feel so shit about themselves that they would leave, without having to pay redundancy, or it was some sort of management fad. I recently heard from someone still there, at a more senior level than I reached, who was going through this again – he had to justify his existence, say why he was meeting objectives half of which had been imposed without discussion, and I was so glad to be out of there. But at least the pay was enough to reach FI with a bit of grunt.

    When you’re working at the casual end of things, your boss is an app, you have the same sort of arbitrary rules plus various ratings for jobs taken, customer feedback etc you have the same disrespect without the compensation of getting paid the FU money.It’s one of the tedious things about buying online from the gig economy. You get bombarded with requests for feedback to up their metrics. Sorry, but I don’t do feedback any more. I just want to pay the money, get the goods and get out of there.

    Recently I bought a replacement car battery from Halfords because I had been a jerk and ignored the signs the old one was fading. So I jumped the battery with a leisure battery and got lost on my way to the cheaper joint. Knowing I was at risk of not starting the engine again if I stopped it took the hit at Halfords. Then realised I only had spanners in my car toolkit, not a socket long enough to reach the lower battery clamp, and my 30-year old jump leads weren’t man enough to turn over a diesel engine from the new battery. So I was faced with pay the £10 fitting charge or buy a socket set, well,  I was idle and paid up. It was a pleasant enough transaction, but no, I didn’t actually want to get a card soliciting feedback on my experience. It’s bad enough online, and there’s no need to feed these stupid monitoring systems in bricks and mortar shops too.

    No wonder people are pissed off at the bottom end of the gig economy – they are paid sod all and treated like shit. One or the other you can live with, but not both.

     

    Notes:

    1. I don’t speak of it from experience, because the first smartphone I got was after I finished work. And I decommissioned the bugger about a month ago because it was seriously pissing me off. It did most of the things I could do with a computer, but all at half cock, and was poor at answering phone calls.
    2. I know it was an existential fight and all that but the miners lost my sympathy when they turned the lights off while I was at school and I heard arrogant SOBs like Scargill tell how they were going to run things by sending thugs round to stop other people working.
    3. Doesn’t that date the report – this was a year after the hot summer of rage when da yoof ran amok and rioted in London for better trainers, communicating via BlackBerry Messenger. I don’t know if you can get a Blackberry these days
    4. I know, not all of them, but the drift has been huge
    5. that which I do is probably closer to individual contract jobs, I wouldn’t take low end ZHC jobs where you have to be there for them but they don’t have to be there for you, because I am not having people take the piss out of me for money, the second word in my response to such a proposal would be “off”
    6. I chose LL because he is an engineer with IT and electronics which was what I used to do in a former life
    7. I have never attempted to get a mobile phone contract because I am a PAYG aficionado, but presumably as someone without a permie job I would be SOL on that one too
     
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