Q&A  | 

David Muñoz on the impact of COVID-19 on gig workers

"Riders are vulnerable and even more so in the current situation". 

Tags: 'Riders' 'Sociólogo' 'Universidad de Valencia'


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David Muñoz is a sociologist, professor and researcher at the University of Valencia where he teaches sociology of work and social research techniques for different undergraduate and master’s degrees. His research focuses on changes in the world of employment, especially those related to digital work.

He has been part of various research projects on digital work and its impact on different social groups, aiming to offer better knowledge of these processes to help design public policies.

Could you give us an overview of your work?

I am a researcher and professor at the University of Valencia, where I teach sociology of work and social research techniques for different undergraduate and master’s degrees. As far as my fields of research are concerned, I focus on changes in the world of employment, especially those related to digital work.

I have been part of various research projects on digital work and its impact on different social groups. Currently, I am working on a project that focuses on the experiences and quality of life of platform workers and online freelancers. The goal of my activity as a researcher is to offer better knowledge of these processes to help design public policies.

What are gig workers and ghost workers?

The terms gig economy and gig workers refer to an economy marked by a very unstable employment relationship, described by the English term gig (show, performance and, by extension, work). This relationship is often carried out in absence of any labor-type contracts, with a high degree of informality, and usually through independent work modalities (freelancers, digital platforms, etc.).

Gig is a term used by musicians, as they charge only when they perform. Similarly, gig workers are remunerated for the effective work they do and, like musicians, often have to provide their own instruments (computers, connection, etc.).

Closely related to gig workers, the ghost workers make a living performing micro-tasks for companies that operate mainly on the internet. These are tasks that computer programs and artificial intelligence (AI) systems cannot accomplish with a low enough margin of error. Ghost work is, for example, training AI systems so that they can “learn” to choose the best option or recognise certain elements. For example, ghost workers label accessories – bags, glasses, etc. – in photographs of Instagram users.

Has digital society increased the precariousness of work?

The digital economy is expanding the range and number of jobs that carry a significant level of uncertainty, with incessant changes, while promoting very short term labor relations and hiding a high volume of informal work, with an intensification of hours, low wages, etc.

These new labor relations blur the salary relationship, increasing the risk of the worker who’s also driven to continually redefine him or herself. Digital society fosters a false sense of autonomy in terms of employment.

Digital society is a real challenge for the labor markets of each country, and public policies must play a fundamental role in its regulation and in the provision of programs and actions aimed at avoiding precarious effects.

Ghost workers are spoken of as the new underclass or lower social class of our society. Do you agree? Does the digital society widen the social gap?

I agree. However, when speaking of underclass we should avoid thinking of images that evoke the lumpenproletariat from the beginning of the industrial revolution.

Authors such as Mary L. Gray or Rosalind Gill have carried out research of great interest which allows us to appreciate that this new crack in the labor market is inhabited by young people (and not so young) with high levels of education, who consume state-of-the-art technology and that show no signs of the terrible toll that this type of work implies in terms of poor conditions and uncertainty.

Many of the ghost workers are literally outside the national systems of labor protection. Among other consequences, the fact of being paid per task implies that, on a regular basis, they get less than the minimum wage in their country (either in monthly terms or even per hour), in addition to not being able to benefit from social protection derived from the employment relationship, as I have pointed out.

In recent weeks, despite the confinement, we have continued to see Glovo riders and receive advertising from Deliveroo. Are the rights of these kind of workers protected in situations like the current one?

Riders are vulnerable and even more so in the current situation, where they are exposed to contagion since their work implies direct personal contact. Different union organisations have filed complaints because these companies are not implementing any type of security measures to protect their workers. Most do not have an employment contract, but rather provide services as self-employed, as “false” self-employed, which prevents them from benefiting from the rights and protections a contract gives access to.

This shows the need of public policies to guarantee that delivery men and women can exercise their rights as workers.

What type of workers are the most vulnerable at the moment? What about the quelis, an important female employment sector in Spain?

They are both vulnerable, as are all those lacking labour and social security protection. These days there is talk of the commendable and extremely hard work that health staff are developing in hospitals and health centres. But so is cleaning and the service staff working for outsourcing companies with bad working conditions are also highly commendable. Thus, supervision and inspections in these sectors should be redoubled.

I would also like to mention here micro-enterprises (which make up a large part of the Spanish industrial sector), a kind of company with little financial margin and thus likely to suffer under the current circumstances.

How can the rights of these workers be protected, especially in the current situation?

First of all, it is urgent to avoid situations of poverty.

Therefore, there is an urgent need to strengthen policies against impoverishment and its consequences. In this sense, it seems to me that the consideration of an income transfer policy cannot be postponed, especially through some type of basic income.

Guaranteeing minimum living conditions is essential to be able to implement other measures that address, for example, the lack of skills.

Is youth work also suffering especially under the current situation? Why?

The cancellation of tourism-related campaigns has led to the loss of seasonal jobs, which employs mainly young people. Likewise, a delay in the start of the summer campaign is foreseeable. On the other hand, the destruction of employment through the 2007 crisis opened a significant gap in youth employment, from which Spain had not yet fully recovered. This makes us think that youth employment will suffer again in the crisis that is brewing and whose consequences we cannot yet anticipate.

This is a very serious matter, since youth unemployment has a lifelong effect which can significantly affect the life of generations.