The Future of Work: Workplace Dystopias, and How to Respond - Pacific Standard

The Future of Work: Workplace Dystopias, and How to Respond

The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.
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Amazon's Mechanical Turk boasts access to more than 500,000 workers from 190 countries. (Photo: Northfoto/Shutterstock)

Amazon's Mechanical Turk boasts access to more than 500,000 workers from 190 countries. (Photo: Northfoto/Shutterstock)

What keeps me up at night? The ways technology is radically re-configuring work.

Maggie Corser is a community organizer on a two-year inquiry exploring the future of work for the Open Society Foundations, a New York-based human rights organization.

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A retail worker drops her child off at a daycare center and is heading to a scheduled shift when she gets a call from her manager. She’s told not to come in. It’s raining and predictive technologies indicate the store will need 25-percent fewer employees as customers stay away. The use of “just-in-time” scheduling software means a worker who once received reliable full-time shifts now has an erratic part-time schedule. When she manages to get a shift, workforce optimization technologies monitor her productivity. How long it takes her to ring up a customer or how many sales are made in a given hour. The answers can be used to justify a further decrease in hours.

A worker logs onto Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website on her home computer. She is paid by the task to do things computers can’t do particularly well, like tagging images or transcribing audio files. Working for dozens of contract employers in a day, she might average 15 or 50 cents per task—significantly less than the hourly minimum wage, with no benefits. Amazon Mechanical Turk boasts access to more than 500,000 workers from 190 countries. Imagine the challenge of organizing this growing, geographically disbursed online workforce to fight for a better deal.

One of the 65 million Americans with a criminal record applies for a job through an online portal. The company pays a private firm to mine its 20 billion records for information on his criminal history, immigration status, and credit history. The firm may be using incorrect or expunged information that discredits his application. The same company may use a hiring analytics firm to survey applicants on their prospective commute time to the office. Live in an area with unreliable public transportation? The applicant receives a lower score, no chance at an interview, and no recourse.

For two years I’ve been exploring the future of work at the Open Society Foundations. What drives our project is a desire to understand how changes in technology will affect those ill served by the economy—in particular, low-income workers, people of color, immigrants, women, youth, and the formerly incarcerated.

After learning about the ways technology is re-configuring work, I’m convinced these changes are rapidly outpacing our ability to adapt and respond. But we must. What if we were to:

  • Re-think benefits currently linked to jobs (health care, pensions, family leave, workers compensation, unemployment insurance) so they apply to more people.
  • Develop a safety net that provides a guaranteed minimum income, regardless of employment, immigration status, or involvement with the criminal justice system.
  • Strengthen protections for full-time employees and independent contractors, whether they are paid by the task or by the hour.
  • Develop self-sustaining organizing models that empower workers whether on a digital platform or a factory floor.
  • Explore responses for when the economy doesn’t grow, where consumer demand decreases, or where there simply aren’t enough jobs—such as work share arrangements, a six-hour workday, or a four-day workweek.

I’m concerned that we, as a progressive movement, will focus too much energy on maintaining New Deal-era worker protections that may apply to a shrinking share of the workforce. That we will provide important immediate relief to workers (in the form of higher wages, paid sick leave, etc.) but leave those same workers vulnerable as the structure and availability of work fundamentally changes.

I want to be clear: Advocates should absolutely work to improve the lives of workers in the here and now. As a former shop steward for the Amnesty International staff union, I saw the power of collective bargaining firsthand. Unions play a vital role. At the same time, as a daughter of a unionized public school teacher in a Right to Work (for Less) Michigan, I’ve seen what coordinated attacks on labor mean for working people. In a future where unions may not be the central organizing platform for workers, what will we develop in their place? The more than 150 worker centers around the country are winning critical victories but what’s required to bring those efforts to scale?

The challenges are daunting but I remain cautiously optimistic. The history of social movements is filled with advocates facing insurmountable odds and winning.

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For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.

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