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Mary Gray (Microsoft Research and Harvard University)
Alex Wood (Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham)
Alexandrea Ravanelle (University of North Carolina)
Digital platforms are increasingly important forms of organising work today, from the physical labour of driving, delivery, cleaning and other tasks – organised through platforms like Uber, Lyft, Deliveroo, Instacart etc., to freelance digital labour through sites like UpWork, Amazon Mechanical Turk, Fiverr. Sites connect clients to workers, organise payment, and take commission, while mostly seeking to avoid the responsibilities that an employer might have to employees. This conference seeks to explore the politics and ethics of this way of organising labour from the perspective of the lived experience of the workers themselves. We will focus especially on qualitative and ethnographic work on how people feel about their own labour situation, how they build their own networks, what they consider to be the most important aspect of this new way of working, and how it fits with their lives and values. We hope to attract a broad range of activists, social scientists, social theorists and philosophers of platform capitalism to this conversation.
Drawing on this conversation and beginning from the perspective of those doing the work, we aim to identify some of the key political and ethical questions associated with this form of labour today. Such questions might include: what is the appropriate relationship between worker, client and employer? Does the platform itself dictate that relationship? Does it make exploitation easier than conventional employment forms, or even inevitable? Could there be principals of design that would mitigate against that? What is the role of regulation in reality, and what could its role be? What is it that workers like about platform labour? How do they evaluate their own conditions, and how would they like them to improve? What are the social networks that workers develop around these forms of labour, and how does it fit together with their daily lives, hopes, values and family situations? What are the possibilities for collective action? How have all of these been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic?
The first day of the conference will focus on physical labour organised through platforms like Uber and Deliveroo, where workers and clients come into direct contact on city streets or in people’s homes. It will culminate in a public evening session where activists will be invited to consider some of the ways to engage politically to improve labour conditions. The second day will consider digital labour, from the ‘ghost work’ that drives contemporary AI and machine learning systems to the freelance personal assistance, translation, analysis, processing, writing, designing and editing of web-based data.
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