In the second article of a three-part series exploring “Digital Transformations of Work”, Alex Wood of the Oxford Internet Institute discusses zero hour contracts and the impact of changing technologies on working lives.

Image: WorldSkills UK (cc) Georgina Briscoe- Health & Social Care.

New research indicates that the high level of zero hour contracts in the UK care sector is driven by employers seeking low cost labour, not by new technology. Image: WorldSkills UK (cc)

Everywhere you turn the world of work seems to be in a state of disarray. We are told that jobs are being replaced by ‘gigs’ as our conventional economy is transformed into the ‘gig economy’. Other commentators assure us that employment is actually being superseded by peer-to-peer sharing as we transition to a ‘sharing economy’. Paul Mason even goes as far as to argue that these processes hail the end of capitalism.

Despite fundamental continuities, the strength of capitalism has always been dynamism. Capitalism both drives and incorporates continual change, and we are certainly witnessing some important changes with regards to digitalisation and connectivity in the global economy.

It is, however, easy to confuse cause and effect. That we are witnessing transformations in capitalism does not necessarily mean that these transformations are being driven by digital technology. This was a key theme of the ‘Oxford University Digital Transformations’ of Work conference’ held on March 10th.

At the conference Professor Saskia Sassen of Colombia University highlighted that a narrow focus on technical capabilities coupled with the use of engineers’ terminology, risks the real inner processes of digital transformations being missed. Instead we need to apply social categories and logics if we are to understand the social implications of new technologies.

VIDEO: Watch Saskia Sassen’s presentation “Digitization And Work: Potentials and Challenges in Low-Wage Labor Markets”

For example, Sassen argues that people in different environments will use the same technology in highly diverse ways. Therefore, the same technology takes on different ‘ecologies of meanings’ which diverge significantly from the original intent of the engineers who created the technology.

Technologies are in fact mediated by culture. Moreover, access to digital technologies is determined by power and this creates a divide between the digital formations of the powerful and those of the powerless. Technology is mediated by culture and power and must, therefore, be understood within the context of the wider social organisation of life.

Zero hour contracts

Besides robots, platforms and gigs, the growth of zero hour contracts represents the other big UK labour market story. Zero hour contracts constitute an employment practice which doesn’t guarantee any hours of work. There are more than a million workers in the UK employed in this way. However, fragmented, irregular and unpredictable working time is actually a much wider issue with 24% of the UK labour force in 2010 having their schedules regularly altered by their employer with little notice. This represents around seven million people.

It might be expected that digital technology is the key driver of this increased flexibility. However, applying a more critical lens, we can see that whilst technology often facilitates and heightens fragmented scheduling, it is not the driving force.

Professor Jill Rubery’s research on the UK social care sector, for example, shows that the driving factor behind the preponderance of zero hour contracts in the sector is the desire of employers to secure adequate labour supply to cover changing demands at a low cost.

 VIDEO: Watch Jill Rubery’s presentation “Fragmented time and the UK social care sector”

Zero hour contracts are used to ensure that workers simply have no choice but to accept changes in the composition to their work; for they have no right to any work in the first place! The consequence for workers is strict scheduling focusing paid work hours to times of high demand without recognising the time needed for work-related activities such as traveling to customers or what is needed for social reproduction. This commodification of labour has the effect of shifting the risk of changing demand onto workers and increasing work intensity.

Beyond determinism

What does all this mean for improving working life? Digital transformations of work must be understood as being driven not by technological changes but by the position of technology in wider changes to the organisation of labour. Therefore, if we wish to improve the quality of digital work we must decommodify digital labour through state, institutional and cultural regulations. We must focus our attention upon collective and institutional capabilities for regulating labour rather than solely upon the technical abilities of new devices and apps.

[Banner image credit: Justin Morgan (cc)]

The “Digital Transformations of Work” article series is a result of the Oxford University Digital Transformations of Work Conference which took place at Green Templeton College, University of Oxford, on 10 March 2016.

Part one: “DIGITAL TRANSFORMATIONS OF WORK: Digital work & the global precariat” by Mark Graham

Part three: “DIGITAL TRANSFORMATIONS OF WORK: ‘Low income & high competition’ – digital jobs in a neoliberal age” by Amir Anwar


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Alex Wood

Alex J. Wood is a Researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on the transformation of work, employment and labour markets. He also has a keen interest in union renewal and workplace organisation. Alex is currently working on two projects which investigate the implications of online platforms for labour markets and labour relations. He tweets at @tom_swing.

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