The hidden global workforce that is still fighting for an eight-hour workday

If you live in the United States, May 1 is generally a typical workday. But in most of the industrialized world, it is a national holiday commemorating the lives lost in the 1886 Chicago Haymarket massacre, which eventually ushered in the eight-hour workday in the United States and many other countries. Those who enjoy a salary may work more than eight hours if they choose but, thanks to battles fought more than a century ago, they do not have to work more than that to retain their jobs.

Yet that hard-won victory to control work hours is slipping away around the world.

Temporary staffing services that contract workers for projects are driving significant economic growth. Full-time, salaried positions are the exception in countries such as India, where an estimated 85 percent of the workers are paid in cash. In the United States, where formal employment is still the norm, 1 in 6 people employed full time still contend with irregular work schedules.

But even more pernicious is a new type of on-demand work that we are not looking up from our phones long enough to notice.

As we tap endlessly on those friendly icons to “like” social media content, summon deliveries from favorite restaurants and call rides to the airport, we’re overlooking a global workforce. Millions of workers are doing on-demand work to keep the Internet running smoothly, and they are now fighting for similar rights that full-time employees won decades ago.

Ghost work, the name our team at Microsoft Research has given to work done by this largely invisible labor force, flourishes at the dynamic boundary where human intelligence and technology meet. Computer software can schedule a ride, but a human must drive the car (for the foreseeable future, at least). An app can help you order your food, but only a person can make it up your four-story walk-up and identify your apartment number in a dimly lit hallway. And algorithms can suspect a Facebook photo is pornographic, but often it takes a person to know if a line has been crossed.

Ghost work is ingeniously spun as a job with ultimate flexibility. But our team found just the opposite. Flexibility is an illusion. Ghost work depends on keeping people in the loop, waiting for the moment when the code breaks down or falls short and a consumer needs help. The system rewards workers who are on call 24/7, forcing workers to be hypervigilant if they want to succeed, or just break even for the time they have spent looking for work.

That truth suggests workers are losing the hard-won achievement to contain the workday.

But people doing ghost work will never be able to coordinate a strike quite like the one that resulted in the eight-hour workday. That’s because, unlike in 1886, when 350,000 workers and labor advocates galvanized to stop work until their employers gave them better working conditions, workers in the gig-driven ghost economy have no shared workplace, professional identity or voice to call for change.

The good news is that independent contractors doing ghost work are collectively organizing. They connect to learn the ropes, flag bad clients and offer solace at the end of long stretches of tasks. Those with the strongest networks often land better-paying jobs.

We know it’s possible for organized labor to help independent workers find this common cause, thanks to organizations such as Coworker.org, which gives workers a global platform for talking and coordinating actions across work sites, and advocates such as the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which have built technology to help independent workers collectively voice their needs to their clients.

Of course, relying on independent contractors connecting and voicing their grievances will not be enough to change working conditions. We need new labor laws and organizing strategies that foster workers’ connections and make it much easier for consumers to see ghost work conditions and choose to spend on the labor practices they want to underwrite.

This will take stakeholders around the world pushing for policies that value all workers. Perhaps converting ghost work conditions into a decent and dignified livelihood is our generation’s chance to finally achieve what workers everywhere have fought for centuries: the right to have work accommodate our lives rather than have our lives accommodate work.

Mary L. Gray is a senior researcher at Microsoft Research, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, and a faculty member at the School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering at Indiana University. She is co-author of “Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass.”

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