Apps don’t exploit people, broken markets do.

As technological change transforms the workplace, some would like you to believe that exploitation is an inevitable consequence. Co-operatives and trade unions are showing it doesn't have to be.


Since the Conservative-led Coalition took power in 2010, the number of people in insecure work in the UK has jumped by almost a third, to 7 million.

One in five British workers now starts each workday not knowing if it will be their last. With no security or guaranteed hours, they have no way of knowing whether they will be able to pay the rent this month, or if there will be enough to put food on the table.

Some commentators would like you to believe that these tends are inevitable results of technological change, dressing them up with buzzwords like ‘microtasking’ and ‘liquid labour’.

But machines and apps don’t exploit people, unregulated markets do.

When new business models such as Uber first came along, and when companies began to outsource tasks previously done by salaried employers to flexible contractors, the Government could have chosen to act. It could have made it harder for employers to flout their legal obligations by designating workers as ‘self-employed’, and demanded proper enforcement of the minimum wage. It could have drawn up procurement rules, demanding contractors adhere to minimum standards of pay and conditions.

This Government could have prepared our economy and protected workers, but it chose not to.

While technological and economic change may be unstoppable, insecurity and exploitation are not.

Across the World, progressives are standing up and standing together via trade unions and co-operatives to assert the rights of precarious workers.

Take the example of Prospect union, which is working to organise its more than 20,000 freelance and self-employed members. Those workers might not all share the same employer, but they’re showing the effectiveness of tried-and-tested collective bargaining methods such as agreed rate cards, promoting awareness and enforcement of rights and obligations, and supporting members to refuse work that doesn’t pay properly.

In its recent report Organising Precarious Workers: Trade Union and Co-operative Strategies, the TUC looked at other examples in Europe and the US, as well as closer to home:

  • Taxi driver co-operatives in Edinburgh, who are working with Unite the union to successfully negotiate rates and licensing conditions with the City Council.
  • Welsh workspace co-operative IndyCube, which is working with Community to provide support and services for freelance workers. The Report cited ground-breaking partnerships between co-operatives and unions in Belgium as a template for how the scheme could develop, giving members access to a basic salary, training opportunities, and other benefits.
  • The Musicians Union, worked with self-employed music teachers to create the Swindon Music Co-operative almost 20 years ago. It’s now working with Co-operatives UK to develop and expand the model, producing a Guide for other teachers considering taking a similar route.
  • UNISON’s Ethical Care Charter, which fights for the underemployed in the care sector. The TUC’s Report encouraged organizations that have already signed the charter to continue developing their partnership, with an end goal of creating a fully-fledged social care co-operative.

While the Government may tout an unemployment rate as low as 4%, don’t be fooled. It masks the soaring numbers of British workers who lack sick pay, holidays, notice periods, fixed hours and a stable income that ought to be part and parcel of working life in a modern, developed economy.

With trends like automation likely to affect more than 15 million jobs in the next few decades, many of those same people would like you to think that insecurity and exploitation will be an inevitable consequence of the changes that are coming.

But as these alliances between co-operatives and trade unions show, it doesn’t have to be.

And if we stand together, it won’t be.