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Reinventing the relationship between workers and tech

Rachel Korberg
Businesswoman explaining coworker over computer at desk. Female business professionals are discussing in office. They are in smart casuals.

A young father and kitchen worker in Pittsburgh was thrilled to get a job with a big restaurant chain that paid $15 an hour — much more than he had been making in fast food.

Soon after starting, however, he learned that his schedule was set through an algorithm that crunches a range of data — from weather forecasts to past sales — to predict customer traffic, optimize shifts, and, ultimately, maximize profits. As a result, his hours were extremely unpredictable and sometimes his shifts were cancelled minutes before they were set to start. A job he believed would provide security now barely gave him enough hours to make rent and provide for his family. And it was all because of how his employer used technology.

The Pittsburgh worker's story is not unique; the average American worker hasn’t gotten a meaningful raise in over 40 years, which has been made worse by meager benefits packages, volatile schedules and pay, and barriers to worker voice. While technology didn’t cause these longstanding challenges, the industry has failed to disrupt them — and at times even scaled and amplified them — as new technologies proliferate the workplace. This is one of the reasons there is a growing backlash against the tech industry, from the Uber and Lyft protests that grounded New York traffic to a halt to Google walkouts to the customer uproar that spurred DoorDash to change its tipping practices. And legal action abounds. Just last week, New Jersey fined Uber $649 million, while Washington D.C. sued DoorDash .

But the future doesn’t have to be this way. New and emerging technologies have the power to improve the lives of workers and make jobs more stable, fair, and dignified, while still delivering value and profit. The first step is making sure workers have a seat at the table — and a voice — to shape every aspect of technology, from design and development, investment and adoption, and policymaking and governance. Several new initiatives led by business, government, and workers are embracing this approach and, in the process, offer models for how to create a new, win-win relationship between tech and workers.

Workers and industry are beginning to partner to develop new technologies. The Partnership on AI (PAI) is a coalition of more than 100 technology companies and civil society organizations, from Apple to ACLU, created with the mission of sharing the benefits of artificial intelligence. PAI recently launched an effort focused on workers and labor, engaging directly with workers and their representatives to develop a set of actionable recommendations about how to integrate AI into the workplace in a way that creates greater opportunity and security for workers. MIT, which is prolific in developing innovative technologies often in partnership with industry, is exploring inviting in groups of workers to advise their labs, an idea that emerged from the labor leaders who are involved with the University’s Work of the Future Taskforce. Tech companies should consider adopting and even deepening these practices of partnering directly with workers and worker groups and inviting them in to shape the development of new tech and business practices around tech adoption.

Government is bringing together business and workers to create policy. Government at all levels has been caught off guard by how quickly new technologies have transformed entire industries and struggled to develop the policies and programs needed to ensure that communities and workers benefit from the changes. To address this, California Governor Gavin Newsom recently launched a commission on the future of work. The president of the Service Employees International Union co-chairs the commission, and members include representatives of domestic workers and restaurant workers serving alongside leaders in business, government, and tech.

Having workers at the table for future of work conversations is all too rare, and it is already making an impact: the commission is not defaulting to only the typical solutions — guaranteed basic income and retraining — and is also exploring a range of ideas, from how workers might earn value from their data to the business case for improving job quality.  A number of cities and states are considering launching similar commissions, and New Jersey already has one in place.

When all else fails, workers are becoming the tech developers and investors they need. Many worker organizations are hopeful about the promise of technology, but they take issue with how tech is is too often used to amplify and scale business practices that hurt workers. Palak Shah, Director of National Domestic Worker Alliance’s innovation lab, is one of several, innovative leaders who is not waiting on the tech industry to develop what workers need and is instead building the tech herself. “Silicon Valley is great at optimizing for convenience... but we wanted to optimize for dignity and equity,” she said.

Over the past few years, Shah and a diverse team of organizers, developers, and domestic workers have launched a new fintech product to extend paid time off to house cleaners for the first time ever, a digital tool to help more nannies access contracts rather than work under the table, and even launched an investment fund that puts domestic workers in the investor role, directing capital to where they believe it would most improve their lives. This stands alongside a handful of other impactful efforts launched in the past few years, such as the Worker’s Lab and Employment Tech Fund, that fund a number of technologies designed for and by workers, as well as startups founded by former low-wage workers and worker organizers, such as Driver’s Seat, which supports ride-hail drivers in aggregating and capturing value from their data.

From city hall to the boardroom to protests in the streets, society is asking who tech should serve. The answer is clear: technology can and must work to disrupt the structural inequities in our workplace and economy. This starts by ensuring that workers have a seat at the table to shape how new technologies are developed, applied, and governed.