DOC Research Institute explores future of work with students in Berlin

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The Digitalisation of the Economy and the Future of Work, Klemens Witte

On 13 December, Klemens Witte, a research associate at the DOC Research Institute, gave a presentation on ‘The Digitalisation of the Economy and the Future of Work’ to master’s degree students at the University of Applied Sciences (hwtk) in Berlin.

Current academic discourse on the impact of technological change on the labour market is divided as to whether automation will lead to job losses or gains. However, there is agreement that retraining and reskilling will be increasingly important as the role of ‘platform’ companies – such as Google, Amazon, Didi, Alibaba, Yandex.Taxi and Airbnb – continues to grow.

Klemens presented the results of his fieldwork into working conditions of drivers for Yandex.Taxi in Moscow, and explained the challenges that algorithm-based management of people poses for the future of work.

Academic literature, which often takes a Euro-centric perspective, and highlights a number of pros and cons of the ‘gig economy’. On the negative side, these include income insecurity, low pay, unreliability of work and poor communication with customers, substantial downward pressures on income, stress, anxiety and lack of workers’ representation. Positives include the opportunity to be one’s own boss and dictate when and where one works, job creation and increased incomes for the worst off in society, and a higher quality of work with a reduction of dangerous or monotonous tasks.

A key finding of the Yandex.Taxi study was that no drivers surveyed complained about the absence of social benefits. One driver asked about pension payments stated: “You never know what will happen.” Unlike in Western economies, delayed payments were seen a reason to switch jobs, as was the lack of definition of working hours. However, in bureaucratic Russia, Yandex seems to be efficient and spares drivers from additional paper work, which is a strong advantage. Like Uber in the US, Yandex makes it easier for migrants to enter the labour market.

Overall, gig economy participants in Russia see fewer downsides of this mode of working compared to their Western counterparts, due to the constraints of local labour markets and the lack of enforcement of applicable legislation. Nevertheless, drivers working for a platform company face serious issues such as non-transparent decision-making, low fares (especially for longer journeys) and at times difficulties in getting support from the platforms themselves when dealing with customer issues

The algorithm-based management systems applied by Yandex.Taxi and other platform companies have strong implications for drivers and for the future of work in general. The most impactful feature is information asymmetry between workers and the company, which at times seriously inhibits workers’ ability to make informed and economically viable choices.

After the presentation there was a fruitful discussion around automation-safe jobs in the future and what big German corporations such as Daimler can learn from platform companies.

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