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The New Economy and Its Discontents: Low-Wage Workers Propose a Good Work Code for Silicon Valley

What do labor rights look like when workers can be hired and fired at the click of an app?

Downtown San Jose, as seen from the Silicon Valley Capital Club. What do labor rights look like when workers can be hired and fired at the click of an app? (Photo: Peter Thoeny / Flickr)

By some estimates, as many as 53 million people living in the United States are now self-employed. Many work as independent contractors or freelancers, hired and fired at the click of an app.

With flexibility comes a measure of freedom but also of insecurity; a measure of independence but also of isolation. Digital sector workers may not stand on a speeding production line or operate deadly machines, but they still can still face danger on the job. Subjective feedback or “ratings” systems are open to abuse.

Online businesses love to talk up their new technologies and innovative business models, but non-office, non-factory workplaces are still sites of profound power struggle. Just as in the old economy, workers, creators and consumers are finding they have to organize and fight for their rights.

Palak Shah, Social Innovations Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, is working with low-wage digital workers and Silicon Valley employers to develop a Good Work Code. In addition to helping create this code of conduct for digital employers, she’s worked in state government for Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, and for the grassroots with the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, Generation Five and Oakland Rising in the Bay Area.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation. I started by asking Shah about the pros and cons of the new forms of work we’re seeing develop:

Palak Shah: There are a lot of advantages to the flexibility that some of [today’s] models are providing, and yet there’s a lot of risk. A lot of business model decisions are pushing risk down onto workers, and there are a lot of changes in the way that we work. In the current economy or the offline economy, you go to work, and you know who your boss is, and it’s easy to figure that out. In the age of on-demand and app-based economy, who actually is your boss and how do you raise the concerns that you have at work?

The first value that’s in the Good Work Code is around safety. Everyone deserves to be safe at work. Transparency is another. People appreciate the flexibility of schedules but then how do you have a stable enough schedule to be able to predictability earn enough income?

When work is distributed through code or through text messages on your phone, how does the algorithm work? What keeps you on a platform? What might get you more work? What might get you kicked off a platform?

Laura Flanders: What else?

Input and inclusion. Workers are users. The start-up community is experimenting with a lot of different ways to build [new] models, but it has an impact when there are sudden changes in the way that people work. Input and inclusion is about involving the worker as users, just as on the customer side, there’s a lot of attention being paid to customers as users of platforms. Workers are users as well …

Why are you presenting this Good Work Code right now?

What’s happening right now is a fundamental shift. I believe that there’s a real opportunity to harness the power of new models that are emerging, while they’re still early in their development, and shape the DNA of these models. The Good Work Code is the kind of framework, the set of guidelines that can get these models to not just work for the customers and investors, which is where the most of the focus has been, but for the workers as well.

How do you hold anyone accountable when the old mechanisms of industrial action, strikes, protests, don’t work in the online community?

I think it remains to be seen. The economy is shifting, so the labor movement and the response of the worker rights movements are going to shift as well … The theory of the Good Work Code is to say, “Can we agree on a shared vision of where the online economy should be going?”

We, the workers, the employers, and the clients, customers?

That’s right. There’s both a moral and ethical case for this. We represent some of the most vulnerable workers in this country, but at the same time, there’s a business case for this. These models cannot succeed without a reliable, quality workforce that can deliver a good service. That presents, I think, an opportunity for the labor movement to shape the emergence of an industry before it gets as big, where it becomes more difficult to shape.

Under contemporary capitalism, wealth tends to circulate to the top and stick there. As enterprises get big they become hard to change. Is there, in what you’re doing, any possibility of changing our economy in a macro way, or do you believe that you can protect us from the worst of it, correct the flaws, as it were?

In the same way that domestic work has been the Wild West of that part of the economy, there is a Wild West nature right now to the emergence of these online models and the on-demand economy. We have an opportunity. It’s up to us to shape it. I think the Good Work Code is one strategy that we’re advancing to set forth a positive vision and to surface those companies that agree…. and form a center of gravity in Silicon Valley, saying, “It’s possible to treat your workers well, and it’s core to the business.”

At the same time, I think the labor movement is going to need to pursue a number of different strategies. This is one, organizing workers is another. There’s obviously going to have to be a policy and regulation intervention. So much is new in this part of the economy, at least as it relates to the technology components of it, that there’s some things that will take some time for us to figure out. On the other hand, there are some things that are exactly the same as they were before. We know what those issues are. It’s the same issues that low-wage workers have been facing for decades.