It is necessary not to depend on big techs, says researcher – 09/15/2023 – #Hashtag

It is necessary not to depend on big techs, says researcher – 09/15/2023 – #Hashtag

Data from Ipea (Institute of Applied Economic Research) shows that Brazil has at least 1.7 million workers in the platform economy [gig economy, no termo em inglês]that is, who work for delivery and transportation apps, among others.

The pandemic and the economic crisis have increased this number, which is undersized, since there are “invisible” workers in click farms or training artificial intelligence tools.

In May this year, the government created a working group to discuss the regulation of activities by delivery and transport apps, such as iFood, Uber, 99 and others.

After four months of negotiation, no consensus was reached. In a meeting this Tuesday (12), representatives of delivery professionals left the place in disagreement with the proposals presented by the companies. There are threats of strikes.

O #Hashtag interviewed researcher Rafael Grohmann, professor of Critical Platform Studies at the University of Toronto, Canada, a specialist in work platformization and who took part in conversations in this working group.

“I have no hope that we will achieve adequate regulation. The corporate lobby, which involves communication strategy, image cleaning, revolving doors [funcionários de empresas no governo]is very strong in terms of bringing public opinion to their side”, he states.

Grohmann is leader of DigiLabor and the Observatory of Platform Cooperatives and a researcher for the Fairwork project, which launched a report in July on working conditions in Brazil.

What did the Fairwork project find?

The Fairwork project assesses 38 countries with the decent work principle. Latin America is the worst region in terms of platform scores. This resonates on the streets, in debates regarding regulation, especially remuneration, and how much work costs, such as internet and vehicle maintenance, are not considered.

Waiting time is a disagreement between what workers think and what companies think. For companies, only the actual time that the worker starts a race and the moment it ends counts. For workers, the time they wait counts as working time, after all, they have to be available.

What is the profile of these workers?

There are different profiles, depending on the sector and country. In Brazil, for example, delivery people are generally young, black, men. In domestic work, women, who are also the majority in click farms and data annotations for artificial intelligence.

Workers and drivers are the tip of the iceberg of work platformization, which involves those working in other people’s homes, data annotation for artificial intelligence, content review, click farms, among others.

Influencers and content creators also depend on platforms. There is a movement of sex workers. In Brazil there is a lot of talk about Only Fans. The platformization of work applies to all activities, regardless of the platform. In geopolitical terms, we have observed that most of the platforms are from the North and most of the workers are from the South.

Earlier this year, when ChatGPT had just gone viral, it was discovered that OpenAI was using workers in Kenya to train the tool, paying less than two dollars an hour.

This recognition had been coming for some time that artificial intelligence was not so artificial, that it depended on human work. It is not possible to say that an algorithm with an automatic car that runs over more black people than white people is intelligent due to algorithmic racism.

The first union of content moderators is coming from Kenya. There’s something going on in terms of how workers are organizing. Amazon Mechanical Turk, which is the best-known data annotation platform for AI, created by Jeff Bezos in 2005, recognized that there are human workers in artificial intelligence. This resulted in the Amazon workers union.

The year 2023 will be marked as the year of popularization of artificial intelligence. What is the impact of this?

Before it was a niche issue and now there has been widespread concern about who these workers are. In Brazil, for example, those that feed artificial intelligence are not included in the regulation of platform work. The federal government is focused on delivery people and drivers. Either they are given the conditions to perform their work in a dignified manner or this will lead to increasingly worse AI databases.

The extent to which we imagine that AI works as something perfect has to do with a certain almost Hollywood imaginary, from the “Jetsons” to “Her” [filme de 2013 com Joaquin Phoenix], of how the media ends up creating a distorted view of AI. There’s a really cool website called Better Images of AI [imagens melhores de IA, em tradução livre], which recognizes that most images of AI are unrealistic, and is committed to creating a more realistic picture of AI. This helps with the popularization process, with knowing how things work.

What is the regulation scenario for these platforms today?

In Brazil, the first question is how it fits in, because there is regulation of media platforms and regulation of platform work. The second question is conceptual.

Platforms are companies, it is not just a question of technology or intermediation, but of subordination and control of workers. In Brazil, a GT was created [grupo de trabalho] between government, workers and companies to discuss this issue and try to reach consensus. But these consensuses are not being created. There is a lot of pressure, especially from companies, to stick to minimal regulation, or to focus on a social security issue, without going into labor rights.

I have no hope that we will achieve adequate regulation. Company lobbying, which involves communication strategy, image cleaning, revolving doors [funcionários de empresas no governo]is very strong in terms of bringing public opinion to their side.

Are there alternatives besides regulation?

We have been fighting to say that regulation is important, but it is not enough. It is necessary to build circuits to not depend on big techs, which have been called platform cooperativism [ou plataformas controladas por trabalhadores, ou plataformas alternativas]. This has happened all over the world, from cooperative streaming platforms to a federation of application delivery cooperatives in Europe sharing the same software to be served by the cooperative.

Some cities, such as Rio de Janeiro, have created their own Uber. Is this a solution?

There’s a certain techno-solutionist fetishism “let’s create an app and we’ll solve our city’s problems”. That’s not how things work.

It is necessary to think about the role of the State in relation to supporting platform cooperativism. It’s not about the State owning this platform, but about how it can drive this issue. One of the problems of the platform economy is the network effect, where people all go to one application.

The cooperative answer to this is not everyone having their own application, but building federations and shared infrastructures. Brazil can be a pioneer. The whole world is discussing regulation and few people are discussing alternatives that don’t depend on big tech. And the country has a strong history in solidarity economy, free culture, free software, it is not being born on a scorched earth, it has a gigantic technology park in public universities.

And how is the organization of workers?

This organization is always complex and contradictory. One example is click farms, a sector with informal workers. People discovered these platforms through YouTube channels, with coaches who said “make easy money”. One day one of these coaches made a video calling for a strike. This shows that where there is no organization, one emerges.

At a time when protests are being platformed, you have a series of worker mobilizations with a lot of noise, but this does not necessarily result in workers organizing, something that is slower, more invisible. There is a challenge of how to think about renewed trade unionism and how to recognize the different forms of worker organization beyond traditional unions, which have emerged in recent years, such as collectives and associations.


Rafael Grohmann, 35, born in Guaratinguetá (SP). He is a professor of Critical Platform Studies at the University of Toronto, Canada. He currently coordinates projects on worker-owned platforms and intersectionalities in Latin America and on public policies for platforms and the solidarity economy in Latin America. He is the author of the books “Os Laboratórios do Trabalho Digital” (Boitempo, 2021) and “Work for Digital Platforms: a critical introduction” (Edições Sesc, in press).

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