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Jovana Karanović on how to support workers in the platform society

"Lots of unfair practices have been wired into the algorithm of these companies (e.g. Uber)."

Tags: 'Future of work' 'ghost work' 'gig workers' 'Jovana Karanovic' 'platform work' 'reshaping work'

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Jovana Karanović is the Founder & Director of Reshaping Work and a PhD Researcher at KIN Center for Digital Innovation at VU Amsterdam. Jovana’s research is concerned with digital innovations more generally, the platform economy and the future of work specifically. She studies platform business models, pioneered by companies like Uber, Airbnb and Deliveroo, as well as emerging organizational forms such as platform cooperatives.

Jovana has recently been appointed as an RSA fellow (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), which has been leading this social change for the past 260 years. She has also been nominated by magazine VIVA among the most inspiring women in the Netherlands and featured in the popular Dutch documentary TV series 'Backlight'. 

She is a frequent speaker at academic and industry events and has served as an expert on panels of major companies and public institutions. She teaches strategic management of technology and innovation at VU Amsterdam and is a contributing writer for The Next Web.

Could you give us an overview of your work?

I’m the Founder & Director of Reshaping Work and a PhD Researcher at KIN Center for Digital Innovation at VU Amsterdam. My research is concerned with digital innovations more generally, the platform economy and the future of work specifically. I study  platform business models, pioneered by companies like Uber, Airbnb and Deliveroo, as well as emerging organizational forms such as platform cooperatives. I’m interested in ways to achieve efficient labor-market matching in platform markets, as well as the ways conditions of platform workers can be improved.

I head Reshaping Work, an innovative international and multi-stakeholder events series discussing the latest trends concerning digital trends and the future of work by promoting research and collective thinking. The global event takes place each year in Amsterdam, while the regional events have been held in Barcelona, Stockholm, and Novi Sad, with additional ones scheduled to take place this year in Madrid, Zurich, Berlin and Mexico City.

Which are the main aspects of the future of work that we should be working on reshaping right now?

I believe, first of all, we need to focus on establishing standards in regards to gig work. One of those is the implementation of a fair minimum wage across the EU, as the European Commission also recently acknowledged.

One of those is the implementation of a fair minimum wage across the EU, as the European Commission also recently acknowledged.

The second is the social benefits system, which is currently tied to a single employer. We need to decouple the benefits from a single employer and find an innovative solution that allows workers to move from one task to the other, while still having a social net in place in case of unforeseen circumstances such as injury.

What are gig workers and platform work?

Gig workers are individuals who perform one-off or regular tasks for, most often, two or more different organizations, and are not legally binded to those organizations.

Gig workers are individuals who perform one-off or regular tasks for, most often, two or more different organizations, and are not legally binded to those organizations.

Platform work can be low-skilled (e.g. delivery workers) or high skilled (e.g. graphic designers) and can be done on-location (e.g. Uber, Deliveroo) or online (e.g. Upwork, Fiverr).

Will gig workers and platform work be the standard in the near future of work?

We will certainly see a rise in gig work in the future. We are most likely to see people being engaged in different tasks vs. a job as we know it in a traditional sense.

More than 50% of Google’s workforce are contractors.

Thus, we may imagine someone working as a consultant part-time for a company, and in the evening driving for Uber or submitting stock photos to Getty images or Stocksy. The culture is changing and younger generations prefer flexibility and not being tied to a single employer. Companies also prefer hiring freelancers in order to avoid fixed costs and legal obligations they have towards regular employees. We are already seeing this trend; more than 50% of Google’s workforce are contractors, for instance.  

How can the employment status of workers be supported in the platform society?

Workers seem to prefer flexible work arrangements so I do not find formal employment contracts necessary. However, I find social benefits necessary (e.g. insurance, sick leave) as well as implementation of third-party checks.

Platform companies hold enormous power in controlling the labor market entry and exist as well as the rewards to workers.

For instance, lots of unfair practices have been wired into the algorithm of these companies (e.g. Uber). For instance, an Uber passenger may be charged a surge price, whereas the workers don’t get the adequate cut. Or these algorithms calculate drivers’ earnings based on the distance travelled but nobody checks whether the metrics are right in the first place. Platform companies hold enormous power in controlling the labor market entry and exist as well as the rewards to workers. We need to, however, have third-party checks in place to insure workers are protected and require these companies to share certain data for better policies to be implemented in the future.

Do you agree on the thesis that ghost working will create a new underclass?

It is certainly a possibility if we don’t have the right policies in place.

How can we prevent that from happening?

One option is to implement a fair minimum wage and rules and guidelines that companies need to follow if they operate in certain industry. For instance, Amazon Mechanical Turk workers often work on training AI algorithms and some tasks entail exposure to violent images that can be damaging to their psychological health.

We need to implement policies that would require responsible behavior and hold the companies liable

These workers are not protected from that and the company doesn’t take the responsibility. We need to implement policies that would require responsible behavior and hold the companies liable; these responsibilities have traditionally resided with an employer but do not apply to independent contractors such as Amazon Mechanical Turkers, for instance