T3-11: Platform economy

6 September 2019, 11:00–12:30

Chair: Greg J. Bamber



Digitalisation as contested terrain

Digital Taylorism and labour politics in Amazon‘s logistics centres

Georg Barthel, Institute for Work, Skills and Training, University of Duisburg-Essen

The public debate about the digitialisation of labour is dominated by a technical determinist perspective trying to extrapolate its consequences from technical developments and potentials. Thus, the influence of actors, their interests and institutions on the implementation of digital technology is often ignored (Pfeiffer 2016: 6). If we do ask for the consequences of digitalization for industrial democracy, we have to keep in mind, that Technology is not only influencing social relations, but “is produced by the social relation represented by capital” (Braverman 1973: 14). Since employers and employees do have potential antagonistic interests, the introduction of new technologies is “a site of potential conflict” (Briken et al. 2017: 4) and the shaping of digitalization depends on power relations and resources (Dörre 2018: 366). It is therefore appropriate to analyze in concrete terms how digitalisation changes industrial relations as well as how they are shaped by them.

Amazon has been called “an avantgarde of digital capitalism” (Nachtwey/Staab 2015) and has been creating many simple jobs in its more than 40 logistic centers all over Europe. It is known for its harsh anti-union stance. Nonetheless, it has been the scene of ongoing workers struggles and strikes in Germany, France, Poland, Spain, Italy and France for several years. While the developments at Amazon might not be representative for all regimes of productions in every industry, it shows nonetheless one important possible challenge to decent work and industrial democracy posed by digitalization.

In my paper I want to discuss how Amazon is using digital technology to control the market as well as the workforce. Furthermore, I want to show how digital devices are influencing the working conditions and relations in production, what is also provoking resistance and conflict in its logistics centers. I want to present preliminary findings of an ongoing observing participation as a supporter and researcher in the struggle of warehouse workers at Amazon since 2015. I have participated in numerous of meetings of shop stewards and strike assemblies and I have conducted qualitative Interviews with workers and trade unionists, too.

The creation of massive simple jobs in its network of warehouses and logistics centers form the basis  of the rapid expansion of Amazon to grasp the monopoly in e-commerce (cf. Staab/Nachtwey 2016). Following tLabour Process Theory and the power resource approach I will analyze selected strategies of management to maximize the control and exploitation of labour, among them first of all a digital Taylorism. I will discuss their shortcomings and problems and how they are influencing the workers’ power resources. Amazon is constantly deskilling the labour in its so-called fulfillment centers (FCs) to create a contingent work force and to undermine the workers’ power.

Nonetheless, workers are resisting to the regime of production, resorting to different levels of activities: Everyday resistance up to sabotage, works councils, strikes as well as other trade union actions. Meanwhile, Amazon is not only attempting to control the labour process but is also aiming to hollow or to refuse the two elements of the dual system of representation, which is characteristic for German industrial relations: works council and trade unions/collective agreements. Therefore, Amazon can be seen as a site of class struggle, in which digital technology is used to challenge industrial democracy, while workers and trade unions are struggling to defend it.


  • Bonacich, Edna/Wilson, Jake B. (2008): Getting the goods: ports, labor, and the logistics revolution. Ithaca, N.Y.
  • Braverman, Harry (1973): Labor and monopoly capital: the degradation of work in the twentieth century. New York.
  • Briken, Kendra/Chillas, Shiona/Krzywdzinski, Martin/Marks, Abigail (2017): Labor Process Theory and the new digital workplace. In: dies. (Hg.): The new digital workplace: how new technologies revolutionise work. London: 1-17.
  • Dörre, Klaus (2018): Digitalisierung - neue Prosperität oder neue Spaltung? In: Hartmut Hirsch-Kreinsen/Ittermann, Peter/Niehaus, Jonathan (Hg.): Digitalisierung industrieller Arbeit: die Vision Industrie 4.0 und ihre sozialen Herausforderungen. 2., aktualisierte und erweiterte Auflage. Baden-Baden: 365-381.
  • Nachtwey, Oliver/Staab, Philipp (2015): Die Avantgarde des digitalen Kapitalismus. In: Eurozine. URL: http://www.eurozine.com/die-avantgarde-des-digitalen-kapitalismus/, (21.12.2017).
  • Pfeiffer, Sabine (2016): Industrie 4.0 – Phänomen eines digitalen Despotismus? Ursprung, Akteure und Intentionen eines vermeintlich deutschen Technikdiskurses. URL: https://www.sabine-pfeiffer.de/files/downloads/2015-Pfeiffer-digitalerDe..., (15.10.2018).
  • Staab, Philipp, und Oliver Nachtwey. 2016. Market and Labour Control in Digital Capitalism. tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique. Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society 14: 457–474.


See no evil, hear no evil?

Workers voice in the gig economy

Giuseppe Antonio Recchia, University of Bari

The “identity crisis” of the gig economy worker - employee, worker, self-employed, micro-entrepreneur, according to the different platform schemes and the applicable legal framework – jeopardises, at least at first glance, another symbol of the traditional employment relationship, i.e. the collective interest, its becoming subject, through precise forms of representation, and object of collective action; as it has been rightly pointed out, in the sharing economy, workers do not require the trade union mediation, nor the employers need their associations, because everything, apparently, is entrusted to a direct encounter between customers/consumers and workers, linked or mediated by a platform that generates algorithms. Nonetheless, workers’ vulnerability and the economical (and even hierarchical) dominant position of digital intermediaries brings to inevitable protests, mobilization and early forms of organisation. The protests of food delivery gig workers across Europe or the use of judicial actions as a way of setting up an agenda for claiming right represent the tip of an iceberg which affects the traditional industrial relations system and which demands to be analysed in the paper according these lines:

  1. the way in which gig economy workers’ interests find even basic forms of organization and representation and in which these forms of representation, voluntarily settled on “precarious” representation, develop collective action, adopting a grassroots approach which marries militant campaigns to legal battles;
  2. the way in which gig workers seem to move without and beyond traditional trade unions, which in turn are forced to rethink their strategies, accepting the challenge of representing the precarious and informal work, finding successful solutions, for example, in the German approach of IG Metall and the Swedish model of Unionen.

The study of representation and collective action in the platform economy scope – based on case studies and the theoretical literature - will also focus on the internal and external obstacles – including the EU framework on freedom of association and collective bargaining - to its strengthening.

Solidarity and collective voice in the platform economy

Philipp Lorig, Chemnitz University of Technology
Markus Hertwig, Chemnitz University of Technology
Manuel Holz, Chemnitz University of Technology

The paper proposed here addresses new forms of interest representation of online labour-crowdworkers, facilitated by specialized internet platforms. Specifically, our research focuses on communication processes between crowdworkers and their practices of “voice”.

Some of those platforms have gained much attention recently, e.g. turkopticon, which is a platform designed to enable communication between independent crowdworkers working for amazon mechanical turk, one of the biggest platforms for crowdsourcing and online labour. Other platforms also provide information and communication channels, but generally, online discussion-forums are built by crowdworkers themselves and rarely, the crowdsourcing platforms offer blogs or discussion spaces.

Such platforms, online discussion forums and the exchange between crowdworkers can be understood as a response to the various issues facing workers in specific segments of the digital economy. These include a broad spectrum: one may differentiate between performance-related issues (when dealing with certain tasks, e.g. with regard to the correct handling of certain tasks) and conflict related issues such as discrimination on the part of the contractors (e.g. “wage theft”, when retaining remuneration for services rendered, which is possible in case a provider classifies a service as "unsatisfactory" and an arbitration instance is missing).

The paper pursues the following questions:

  1. Which forms of exchange between crowdworkers can be identified on online labour-internet platforms? To what extent do the practices oscillate between “assistance in performance related issues” and “collective voice” or “conflict”?
  2. Under what conditions are the different practices developing? Which factors promote or aggravate the development of shared definitions of probabilities, interests and ultimately common forms of action?
  3. To what extent are platform-mediated patterns expressions of solidarity between crowdworkers?

By making use of webscraping techniques we extracted unstructured data of platform users in form of discussion posts on eight selected forums connected to amazon mechanical turk. To identify relevant forum entries for the analysis we apply a filtering-based approach via multiple search word lists.

Preliminary findings and interpretations of our merged empirical data which show the possibilities and limits of “voice” and collective interest-representation on individualized online-labour- platforms will conclude our proposed paper.

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