Work in the Global Economy's Most Read Articles

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Work in the Global Economy Most Read Articles

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Nearly three decades ago, Manuel Castells declared the atomising effects of the new technologies of the ‘information age’ to presage the ‘end of labour’. There is little doubt that the labour movement worldwide is no longer the social force it was in the twentieth century. Much of the debate on the future of work and consequences for worker organisation, moreover, has focused on defensive struggles against the introduction of new technologies in the Global North. Technological change has also led, however, to struggles in the Global South. These ‘technological fixes’ have historically contributed to the ‘remaking’ of new working classes and related ‘offensive’ struggles, the latest of which is digitalisation and algorithmic management. In this primarily conceptual article, we adopt a power resources approach to an analysis of these changes, using as our basis, a project encompassing eight empirical case studies on recent labour organising in on-location platform economies of both the Global North and South. Analysis of food-delivery and private ride-hailing platforms in Argentina and Uganda, respectively, showed different varieties of platform unionism, with forms of worker organisation in the Global South tending to more autonomy and hybridity. In some cases, these self-organised worker collectives go beyond established forms of unionism in attempts to control the platform technologies. We conclude by suggesting that the experiments of platform workers with new forms of power and organisation, particularly in the Global South, are important to follow in the Global North.

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In this Theory into Practice article we discuss the collective agency of Hong Kong medical workers in COVID-19 in the context of social movement unionism (SMU). In particular, the article utilises Dhatt’s framework defining factors influencing health social movements (2019). We focus on the way the pro-democracy movement underpinned and shaped the five-day strike by 7000 healthcare workers that forced the government to close the Hong Kong–China border in February 2020. We argue that the strike was made possible by the political opportunities linked to collective fear arising from the SARS epidemic in 2003 and to revitalised civil society resulting from the Anti-Extradition Bill Movement in 2019. It illustrates that framing strategies and organisational capacity capitalised on the discursive power and solidarity linked to these political opportunities. However, the failure to achieve demands related to resource redistribution, occupational safety and union rights reflect professionals’ dilemma on fulfilling their duty of care and the limitations of SMU in Hong Kong.

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Drawing on ethnographic data, this article analyses employees’ cultural appropriation of AI systems within delivery platforms and manufacturing in Germany. Cultures of technology appropriation in workplaces emerge in a context of domination. Deviant forms of appropriation thus constitute a form of organisational misbehaviour for which employees must assume repercussions. Employees’ criticism of AI systems at their workplaces therefore differs strongly depending on whether management is present or not. In those cases studied here, the dysfunctionalities and disciplining functions of AI systems were criticised openly in settings where management was absent, while in situations of co-presence this criticism predominantly took the form of subversive humour. Systematically, employees ascribed absurd identities to technologies; this functioned as a low-risk form of criticism and provided continual mutual affirmation of a shared critical stance towards specific technologies. It thus established a critical organisational technoculture. Such practices of subversive humour are indicative of the critical lucidity of employees, but also signify a relative inability to influence workplaces and their technological infrastructures. In some cases, however, subversive humour laid the cultural basis for more practical forms of technological misbehaviour including the manipulation of algorithms and even sabotage.

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The current automation debate neglects the social conditions underpinning technological change. Following recent labour process analysis (LPA) concepts and the Regulation School theory of the firm, I apply a firm-level strategic choice approach to trace the political-economic and organisational conditions associated with automation in logistics. To this end, I reconstruct the strategic choice of industrial automation in a German parcel logistics firm. Moreover, I compare two types of distribution centres on the level of task automation in the company and discuss the failed implementation of the automation project. I employ qualitative data about the company and four of its facilities to trace the process. The case selection fits the current debate as logistics has a high share of routine jobs, and therefore – according to labour economists – the industry faces a high risk of automation-induced job displacement. The analysis yields that actors drew on six essential conditions for the automation project at the firm and the political-economic level. The case study demonstrates the working of an ambivalent causal mechanism and stresses the relevance of organisational affordances and material-technical requirements for successful automation projects. The results synthesise the political-economic and organisational conditions that need to be considered in technological change in logistics. Thereby the article adds to a political economy of automation. Ultimately, the findings also emphasise the need for labour strategies centring on technological change in logistics.

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