Our Collective Awakening: COVID-19 shines spotlight on exploitation of essential services employees.
By Sharon McIntyre
Platform cooperatives are the future. The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated one of many of society’s dirty secrets: the essential work and value delivered by under-paid workers. They are our community’s grocery store clerks and cashiers, institutional cleaning staff, hospital orderlies, healthcare workers in seniors and long-term care facilities, home care aides, meatpacking workers, visiting farm workers and crop harvesters, gig economy drivers and delivery people, transit workers, online warehouse workers, and many more. Most do not have the choice to stay at home to wait until the first front of the COVID-19 storm passes.
Within the big dirty secret lie more hidden realities. We really knew about this all along and most of us turned a blind eye, masked by our willful ignorance. Too many more laps to run on our hedonic treadmills. Too much entertainment and travel to distract us. Too happy to give up the cheap rides, cheap deals, and cheap meals delivered magically to our front doors. Too busy to notice the wage and occupation segregation drawn clearly along racial lines, geographic boundaries and/or citizenship status. We have been asleep at the wheel.
One way forward to help some of these workers gain more control and reap more equitable rewards for their labour is the cooperative. The cooperative is an ancient concept, emerging as human social structures evolved and mutually beneficial cooperation was practiced in tribes and between communities. The International Cooperative Alliance explains worker cooperatives: “Cooperatives are people-centred enterprises owned, controlled and run by and for their members to realise their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations. […] Cooperatives allow people to take control of their economic future and, because they are not owned by shareholders, the economic and social benefits of their activity stay in the communities where they are established. Profits generated are either reinvested in the enterprise or returned to the members.”
The emergence of so-called “sharing economy platforms” following the economic crash of 2008 and the rise of cloud-based, mobile-friendly digital platforms imagined that the internet would help individuals to cooperate directly in the sharing of goods and services – at a global scale. But what has largely emerged via Big Tech’s first platforms in this space (i.e. Mechanical Turk, Uber, Lyft, GrubHub, etc.) is a global cadre of precariously employed part-time “gig workers” without benefits and without control of their working lives – but making billions of dollars for a few venture capitalists and tech executives.
Scholar-activist Trebor Scholz described the inequity in a seminal 2014 blog post: “Recently, The Washington Post, New York Times and others started to rail against online labor brokerages like Taskrabbit, Handy, and Uber because of an utter lack of concern for their workers. […] Take, for example, Uber’s app, with all its geolocation and ride ordering capabilities. Why do its owners and investors have to be the main benefactors of such platform-based labor brokerage? Developers, in collaboration with local, worker-owner cooperatives could design such a self-contained program for mobile phones.”
With the pandemic’s exposure of the inequities of platform-based gig work, the evident deterioration of global supply chains for essential goods, and the spotlight on local economies struggling to provide their citizens with services and goods, perhaps this event will be a catalyst to drive collective support for the formation of local and regional platform cooperatives that remedy some of these weaknesses and contribute to building a more resilient and fair labour system.
This potential shift can be summarized by the following four elements:
The fate of local workers and economies is largely in the hands of a global economy, international market shifts (including the global oil crash), and industrial business models which concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a few.
The opportunity to adapt the local and regional economics by leveraging participatory digital platforms and cooperative business models could improve local resilience and reduce worker exploitation.
Greater cooperation between localities and regions—that has been required to survive the first wave of the pandemic—may continue post-pandemic and embrace more mutually beneficial paradigms with less red tape and territorial bluster.
A new balance between local autonomy and global economy may emerge.
Borkin, S. (2019, February). Platform Cooperatives – solving the capital conundrum. Retrieved from: https://media.nesta.org.uk/documents/Nesta_Platform_Report_AW_v4_3.pdf
Co-operatives UK. (2015). The co-operative economy 2015: An ownership agenda for Britain. Retrieved from https://www.uk.coop/sites/default/files/uploads/attachments/co-op_economy_2015.pdf
International Cooperative Alliance. (n.d.). What is a cooperative? Retrieved from https://www.ica.coop/en/cooperatives/what-is-a-cooperative
Scholz. T. (2014, December 5). Platform Cooperativism vs. the Sharing Economy. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@trebors/platform-cooperativism-vs-the-sharing-economy-2ea737f1b5ad