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What if gig workers could train the algorithms that determine their pay?

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A couple of drivers for the delivery app DoorDash may have found a way to trick the algorithm that serves them jobs into offering better pay. Bloomberg profiled their effort, which is called #DeclineNow. They encourage other drivers to decline all the lowest-paid jobs to get the app to offer more money. But to make it work, they need a lot of drivers on board, and that can be tricky with gig workers.

Drivers don’t share a break room, after all. Instead, they’re getting together online in Facebook Groups and on Reddit. I spoke with Lindsey Cameron, a professor of management at the Wharton School who studies gig workers and worked as an Uber driver herself for a while. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Lindsey Cameron: There’s no way for workers to have worker-to-worker communication via the app itself. There’s no Slack or anything like that. So the few times workers are able to connect, it can be in person. I met other ride-hailing drivers when I was at a parking lot, or at the inspection station. And beyond that, it’s usually just these online forums in which only a minority of drivers are active on the forums. But for the people that are on the forums, they’re like the virtual water cooler, where people can share tips, how the platform has changed, things like that.

Meghan McCarty Carino: Now, also, gig workers, instead of having a traditional boss or a supervisor direct their work, they are dictated sort of by algorithms that aren’t always the most transparent. So to what extent are gig workers able to tease out how these algorithms work?

Cameron: As workers, you’re just sort of doing these best guesses about, based on your lived experience, what do you think the surge prices are going to be? Or what do you think is a fair amount to accept for a delivery? And then, you’re sort of guiding, you’re sort of making your own rules about what feels right to you or what’s the best way to respond to the algorithm, based on what you yourself are experiencing through your everyday work.

McCarty Carino: And maybe beyond you yourself, it seems like maybe that’s where sharing information becomes really important in these groups because you may have a hard time with just your own experience of the app, understanding how these kinds of larger patterns are working.

Cameron: Exactly. I mean, if you’re going back to the beginning of the [20th] century, where you’re getting this sort of union power, there’s precursors to that. A lot of this was because workers were able to sort of share experiences in the break rooms or on the shop floor, walking in and out of the assembly line, which would have allowed people to share information and eventually sort of protest and have more humane work practices. And the fact that there’s no organic way as part of the work for individuals to have these communication patterns puts them at a disadvantage on how to share information and sort of how to guesstimate how might the algorithm actually be working, and how they can have the algorithm work more in their favor.

McCarty Carino: So this Decline Now movement that the DoorDash drivers are trying, can this really work?

Cameron: It can work, yes, particularly if you’re in really small areas. These drivers were in the Lehigh Valley, where there’s only a limited number of drivers. I think the question is, how long can that actually work? If these companies bring in a greater supply of drivers, they can decline as much as they want, but there could be new workers coming in. Or maybe the app will somehow change and make it so they won’t offer any orders that are over $7. What I’m trying to say is, of course, these movements can work on the small scale, but they’re not going to have the same effects if we think about these things like strikes and boycotts that really shaped the labor movement. These sort of platform workers, because the work is so decentralized but also very place or geographic dependent, are not going to have the same staying power.

Related links: More insight from Meghan McCarty Carino

Bloomberg, of course, has more about the Decline Now movement, which it reports has attracted about 40,000 gig workers, some of whom are apparently a bit aggressive about shaming other drivers who don’t go along with the plan. And then, there’s the constant influx of new drivers lured by incentives to sign up with the apps, something Uber and Lyft are apparently having to do a lot of these days.

The Financial Times reports the ride-share companies are throwing money at drivers in the U.S. Uber is launching a $250 million fund to attract drivers in what it’s calling a stimulus package because so many left the platform when business tanked during the pandemic and moved on to other driving jobs — carting groceries instead of bar-hoppers. Lyft CEO Logan Green compared the challenge of getting drivers back on the platform to “turning the Titanic.” Hmmm. Not the most confidence-instilling metaphor, but sure.

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Workers

Feds seek input into gig worker vulnerability

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OTTAWA—The latest Canadian Construction Association newsletter reports that the federal government through Employment and Social Development Canada is looking for input on potential updates to the Canada Labour Code to accommodate gig workers.

Labour Minister Filomena Tassi has issued a request for information, “citing COVID-19 as having exposed a number of vulnerabilities for gig workers and those that rely on them for essential services.”

The government is seeing input on the experiences of gig workers in federally regulated sectors including those who work through digital platforms such delivery or freelance work; and how federally regulated workers could benefit from a “right to disconnect” from their cellphones after they finish their workday.

The initial consultation period is open until April 30. Further consultation with employers, unions and other stakeholder organizations will follow in the third quarter of 2021.

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Welsh campaigners condemn gig-economy employers after report finds insecure workers are twice as likely to die from Covid-19

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WELSH campaigners condemned employers of insecure and gig-economy workers today after a report found that they were twice as likely to die from Covid-19.

The Morning Star reported today that TUC research had linked insecure work to a much higher risk of contracting and dying from Covid-19.

Welsh Labour’s Senedd candidate for Pontypridd Mick Antoniw called for the devolution of the Health and Safety Executive powers to Wales and pledged new powers.

He said: “The pandemic has exposed the consequence of 10 years of funding cuts of the Health and Safety Executive. There is now a real need to devolve health and safety responsibilities to the Welsh Parliament.”

Wales TUC general secretary Shavanah Taj said: “It is incredible that, over a year into the crisis, the UK government still fails to recognise both the practical and moral case for fixing our broken sick-pay system.

“No matter your race, gender, disability or background, everyone deserves fair pay and to be treated with dignity and respect.”

PCS union regional secretary Darren Williams said: “The research highlights the point that it is the same sort of bad employers who deny their staff job security who are also more willing to expose workers to unnecessary risk of Covid.

“We have many members who work in outsourced roles. These workers are often employed in agencies like the DVLA [Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency] in Swansea, where management decisions have contributed to 600 staff testing positive for Covid and one person tragically losing his life.” 

Unison Cymru lead for social care Mark Turner said: “Over 60 per cent of care in Wales is provided by the private sector. That’s why Unison is calling for a publicly delivered national care service in Wales.”

Mr Antoniw said that while employment is legally reserved to the Westminster government, the Welsh administration can promote socio-economic change and ethical employment standards through procurement policy.

“This is what underlies the draft Social Partnership Wales Bill, which is currently out for consultation,” he said.

“Putting the current partnership of government, trade unions and business on a statutory basis and using the leverage of public spending to drive ethical standards, worker representation and promote collective bargaining, it is an opportunity to use Welsh powers to drive change and bring working conditions for many into the 21st century.”

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UK gig workers: tell us your experiences during the pandemic | Gig economy

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In recent months, concerns around working conditions and precarious employment have been voiced by workers at several major companies including Uber, Hermes, Amazon and Deliveroo. They are among millions of gig workers in the UK who have continued to drive, deliver, clean and cook – among many other services – throughout the pandemic.

As part of The Guardian’s coverage, we would like to hear about gig workers’ experiences. You can tell us using the form below.

Share your experiences

You can get in touch by filling in the form below, anonymously if you wish or via WhatsApp by clicking here or adding the contact +44(0)7867825056. Your responses are secure as the form is encrypted and only the Guardian has access to your contributions.

One of our journalists will be in contact before we publish, so please do leave contact details.

If you’re having trouble using the form, click here. Read terms of service here.

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