The problem with defining work and the collective voice

Cinzia Carta

Ricercatrice di Diritto del lavoro, Università di Genova

30 luglio 2021

In contemporary societies, people spend most of their waking time working, seeking an occupation, or undertaking studies or trainings tailored to the labour market. The far-reaching presence of work in our lives is increasingly related to the difficulty of separating human actions into the working and the personal spheres. All in all, it is hard being unaffected by work: it influences and even shapes our own sense of meaning, self-expression and social recognition as well as our personal relationships. 

At the same time, when it comes to the concept of work, are we really referring to a clear and universal notion? Is work just a definite phenomenon that is out there in the reality, for all to see? 

Classifying concepts is a prerequisite to deploy the instruments provided by the legal framework. Nevertheless, the task is not easy. As philosophers of language teach us, the meaning of any word is in its use. The use of a word interplays with the contest and with the values that it evokes or implies. This occurs with particular evidence when it comes to social constructs such as work.

An extended literature gives an account of work as cornerstone of the social compromise that would keep society together as it would make it possible for market economies and the social democracies to coexist. Labour law plays a crucial role in defining the notion and value attached to work in this scenario, since it defines the rules according to which the ones who work for a living would deserve to be protected against the power of the counterparty. One problem with this is that labour law institutions are tied to the fragmentation of the labour force into a hierarchy of workers, from standard employees to precarious or atypical workers. At the bottom of the pyramid some forms of employment are even hardly captured by the notion of work.

Focusing on collective labour law, the increasing difficulty of representing a diversified workforce is currently casting doubts on trade unions’ legitimacy as countervailing power in the society and thus on their ability to gather workers’ identity.

One of the challenges faced by traditional trade unions is that some structural changes in the economic and technologic system not only make the long-standing legal framework obsolete. More radically, at their extreme, they make even employment relationships disappear.  

Two main tendencies prevent workers to consider themselves engaged in an employment relationship worthy of this name: contingent working arrangements and intermediary-based strategies.

In other terms, «turning workers into independent contractors» – as H. Collins already put it in the early nineties – deracinates the identity of workers as such, both individually and also collectively

The vanishing of the workplace and of the employer, especially behind the online surface, generally obstacles workers’ perception of their common experience and interest

Embracing an already existing tendency in the management, platforms explicitly aim at “rebranding” work, to use the words of the book Humans as a Service by J. Prassl. Their narrative is that, being marketplaces and not employers, they match clients with own-account providers. This impacts also on individuals’ attitude towards their self-perception as workers.

Several studies conducted on online freelancers, for instance, show a sort of uneasiness in being considered as workers. This goes hand in hand with the hostility towards unionisation, pushing the traditionally weak and rare unionisation of freelancers to another level. 

Even though freelancers would seek better labour protections and generally fear to be replaced and to lose their main source of income, the use of online platforms encourages a way of connecting among workers which is rooted in a fairly entrepreneurial culture. 

Whereas conventional freelancers in some contests engage in forms of unionisation to fix prices and benefit from services, the picture seems to change in case platforms are involved. Freelancers with strong platform reputation are the ones to whom the others wish to connect through social media, hoping to become more appealing. One might argue that not all freelancers need protection, but it is interesting to notice that this aspect seems to make no difference in the attitude towards unionisation. After all, these platforms are designed to compete and not to unite.

However, contrary to the odds, in some circumstances platforms also give rise to internet-based communities, where workers exchange information and organize or support each other. As it often occurs in the industrial relations, the early successful battles are conducted by workers who – relatively to the sphere of the unprotected ones – are at the “top” of the hierarchy in the sense that they have more bargaining power due to the structure of the market where their work is required. When it comes to platform economy, this is the case of food delivery couriers. 

Taking as example couriers’ protests against platforms in Italy and in the UK, for instance, they have been seeking to consolidate their identity as workers against the platforms’ rhetoric that couriering is a fun activity and not ‘real work’.

In these cases, the opportunities of online meeting that platforms themselves provided and the obligation to wear uniforms in order to sponsor the platforms have been used by workers to recognise each other and to organise various forms of collective action. 

Actually, the quick turnover and the distinction between the ones who relied on deliveries as main source of income and the ones who had less attachment for it militated against workers’ solidarity. Nevertheless, other elements favoured workers’ ability to create bonds: the visibility in the urban space, the support of local social movements, and – maybe, paradoxically – also the absence of a physical employer in the place where workers waited, logged onto smartphone apps. All in all, the urge to consolidate their recognition as workers prevailed, catalysed by the fears for health and safety risks, by the pressure of the algorithmic management, and the subsequent discriminatory and self-exploitative effects.

Riders’ battles reached some momentum and had an impact on our labour law frameworks and on the social perception of work.

It is worth adding that, since the lack of employment status makes legally more difficult to establish traditional forms of workers’ associations, various riders’ unions opted to be qualified as “informal” workers’ movements. 

Narrowing the discourse, some of them, like Union Riders Bologna, after some years still reject the idea of being a traditional union. In this case, features likewise the creation of forms of mutualistic help to compensate the lack of protections, the involvement of activists in the process, as well as forms of protest that sought to talk more to the public opinion than to the employer, at the end of the day could put some distance with the strategies of traditional unions.

 In a simplistic manner one is tempted to close the subject by saying that, in a sense, informal unions gathered informal workers and that this necessarily a temporary condition before they converge to traditional trade unionism. This might be true, but these cases can also be taken as illustrative that industrial relations are not only the place institutional compromise between employees and employers but also an informal laboratory for defining workers’ identity and role in the society. 

Whether this happens totally or partially outside a formal framework does not change this fundamental feature. Instead of seeing necessarily an evolution from informal-to-informal unions, one could rather acknowledge that there is a blurred distinction between forms of unionisation; to all of them, the building of workers’ identity is crucial and also independent from the legal qualification of workers in terms of dependent or self-employed.

Whether the example of some couriers will teach lessons to other sectors cannot be answered here, but the question remains: what is this collective experience if not a legitimate process of defining work?

The content of this post was presented at the roundtable “Defining Work”, Special Session of the 19th ILERA World Congress, Lund University, Lund, Sweden, 21-24 June 2021, “Making and Breaking Boundaries in Work and Employment Relations”

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