Workers of the Internet unite: the gig economy and the shape of labour relations to come

This is a Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC) seminar taking place at Leeds University Business School on Wednesday 29 November 2017

In the summer of 2017 the UK Government published an independent review of modern working practices. The review was instigated in response to a perceived growth in precarious work. Much of the review centred on job quality in the ‘gig economy’. The review defined the gig economy as ‘people using apps [also commonly referred to as platforms] to sell their labour’ (Taylor et al. 2017: 23). It has been suggested that within the next decade, such platforms will mediate one in three labour transactions (Standing, 2015). Online labour platforms enable clients to access labour power potentially from anywhere in the world. According to one estimate, this has created a $5 billion market for online work that is served by 48 million workers (Kuek et. al 2015). In the U.K., Huws et al. (2016) find that 9% of the labour force earn income from the gig economy and 5% do so at least weekly.

This paper explores what the gig economy means for industrial relations in practice and as a field of study. Sisson (2008) claims that there is agreement that what distinguishes industrial relations is the employment relationship while Edwards (2003) is adamant that industrial relations must exclude the self-employed. Moreover, industrial relations has tended to focus on formal workplaces and organisations. Yet such fixations leave industrial relations blind both to the emergence of new structured antagonisms in people’s working lives and the growth of novel forms of worker organisation and action. In order to underline the importance of labour relations for understanding the gig economy and highlight the existence of collective organisation and action among these workers I draw upon 180 interviews with workers in the UK, the US the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa; interviews with half a dozen freelancer activists in the US and UK; observation of a dozen worker events in the US and the Philippines; and a survey of 679 Sub-Saharan African and Southeast Asian workers. The findings highlight the existence of a shared identity as ‘freelancers’ rather than ‘employees’, that structured antagonisms can be non-dyadic in nature (focusing attention on intermediaries and third parties especially platforms and the state) and the existence of informal and fragmented forms of organisation and action which are enabled by social media. The paper concludes that industrial relations was a child of the 20th century and must be reborn as labour relations for the 21st century.

Dr Alex J. Wood is a sociologist of work and employment, focusing on the changing nature of employment relations and labour markets. He is currently researching worker voice, organisation and action in the online gig economy.

For further information please contact Dr Kate Hardy (