Global judgements and ideas.

ILO ACTRAV The Threat of Physical and Psychosocial Violence & Harassment in Digitalized Work

Text from my presentation at ILO ACTRAV Agora 06 FEB 2018

Find links to my slides and ILO ACTRAV commissioned report here

This report was commissioned by ILO ACTRAV to inform discussions for a new Labour Standard at the International Labour Conference 2019. The new proposed Standard focusses on the risks of violence and harassment against workers, in both traditional and digitalized workplaces.


The workplace is changing rapidly, due to the recent increase of new technologies. Digitalization is impacting management and organisation of workplaces across the world, transforming how, how much, where, and under what conditions, people work.

Due to contributing to the increasing risks of physical and psychosocial violence and harassment (PPVH), digitalized work places a significant threat to standards for decent work as is mandated by the International Labour Organization (ILO). The working conditions and circumstances in digitalized work and the digitalized management methods applied are already resulting in cases of discrimination, harassment, racism, physical, verbal, cyber- and traditional bullying, stress, and other forms of violence that have significant impacts on women and men.

Risks are particularly high for women, migrant and young people, who are in especially vulnerable positions. Workers’ basic rights are at risk. As a result, the paper emphasizes that, based on rising evidence of risks emerging for workers in the digitalized context, freedom of association and collective bargaining agreements are of utmost importance in digitalized workplaces.

Today I am going to focus on the first two sections of the paper, but here are the sections as I have outlined them:

Section I outlines evidence of the rise in risks, from a series of case studies from both the Global North and South, based on secondary and primary research

Section II identifies where unions, enterprises and the international community including academics, have responded to the rise in digitalized work, to identify good practice

Section III outlines existing ILO UN codes of conduct and standards already in existence that have addressed some of these risks, to clarify how to build on these and to ensure digitalized work is protected and risks are mitigated.


The current ‘world of work’, as clarified in the ILO Background Paper for the Meeting of Experts on Violence against Women and Men in the World of Work held 3 – 6 October 2016 (ILO 2016a)[1] includes not only the physical workplace, but includes technology that connects actors and ‘blurs the lines between workplaces, “domestic” places and public spaces’ (2016a: 49).

The Final Report of this 2016 meeting in Geneva then emphasizes that a new Instrument to address the issues discussed at the Expert Group meeting should be able ‘to respond to the new challenges and risks which might lead to violence and harassment in the world of work, such as those arising from changing forms of work and technology’ (2016b: 41). The Final Report stresses the importance of focusing on the workplaces and working conditions engendered that create risks of psychological, psychosocial and physical violence in the world of work.

 Those circumstances and conditions creating risks which I argue are seen in digitalized work, are listed in bold font:

(a) working in contact with the public; 

(b) working with people in distress;

(c) working with objects of value;

(d) working in situations that are not or not properly covered or protected by labour law and social protection; 

(e) working in resource-constrained settings (inadequately equipped facilities or insufficient staffing can lead to long waits and frustration);

(f) unsocial working hours (for instance, evening and night work); 

(g) working alone or in relative isolation or in remote locations; 

(h) working in intimate spaces and private homes; 

(i) the power to deny services which increases the risk of violence and harassment from third parties seeking those services;

(j) working in conflict zones, especially providing public and emergency services; and

(k) high rates of unemployment. (ILO 2016: 40)

The ILO Final Report also makes it clear that specific management methods further increase the risk of violence and harassment (ILO 2016: 40).  The following management methods are listed in the ILO’s Final Report.

  • poor human resources management
  • poor organization of work, including lack of clear rules and responsibilities
  • inadequate assignment of tasks
  • unrealistic production targets
  • poor communication
  • poor labour relations
  • discriminatory practices (ILO 2016: 40).

I argue that digitalized management methods are selective, predictive and prescriptive and appear to neutralise the employment relationship in a myriad of ways.


The ILO’s Report V(1) Ending violence and harassment against women and men in the world of work prepared for the International Labour Conference 107th Session 2018 warns that ‘violence and harassment can occur… via technology that blurs the lines between workplaces, “domestic” places and public spaces’ (ILO 2017: 97).


Online gig work is work obtained online through platforms such as Amazon Mechanical Turks and UpWork, and the work is done online such as translation and design work, but people actually work in the private sphere of the home, as well as in cafés, libraries and other public places (see Berg 2016; Berg and De Stefano 2017; Aloisi 2014; Cherry 2016; Cherry and Aloisi 2016; De Stefano 2016; Dokko et al. 2015; Harris and Krueger 2015).

The majority of workers using online apps to obtain ‘gigs’ do not have social protection nor employment law provided by secure contracts nor labour  because people are expected to work under the ‘self-employed’ and ‘independent contractor’ category (Means and Seiner 2016; De Stefano 2016).

The risks of possible PPVH is high with regard to bullying through posing unreasonable deadlines, discriminatory practices in arbitrary reductions in people’s incomes, nonpayment of wages – wage theft – which is classified as ‘forced labour’ in ILO terminology. Indeed, there is an increased risk forced labour given the disposability of workers who fear their own replacement without announcement, which will have particular resonance for groups at higher risks of PPVH, such as women. Workers encounter racism, where clients direct abusive and offensive comments off the platforms in covert ways. Inter-worker racist behaviour is also noted, where developed world workers view Indian counterparts as undercutting prices (2016: 57).

Offline gig work is obtained by platforms like Uber or Deliveroo, where the organisation of the labour process is digitalized (Tassinari and Maccarone 2017a) but is carried out physically, like taxi driving; bicycle and motor scooter delivery services of food and packages; construction; and repair work (De Stefano 2016: 3; Huws, Spencer and Joyce 2016: 2).

Driving work sits within the category of transport workers, and these workers already regularly encounter violence and harassment, as is pointed out by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) (ITF 2017; Pillinger 2017: 12). Delivery drivers and cyclists have been tracked for many years, and the introduction of satellite technologies have allowed this practice to become ever more intimate.

Risks of PPVH are exacerbated by the ways that apps intensify the rate of work through joining drivers with customers by algorithm, a prescriptive DMM. One UPS driver told Harper’s that the employer uses new metrics as a ‘mental whip’, noting that ‘people get intimidated and work faster’ (The Week 2015). Drivers are at risk of deactivation, or being temporarily or permanently laid off, on the basis of customer ratings. There is less data-driven evidence of the risks in offline gig than there is in online gig work, potentially because gaining access to the relevant groups is not straightforward, where for example, Uber drivers are explicitly forbidden from speaking negatively about the company, according to signed contracts.

There are more women driving taxis with the Uber app than in other taxi services (Hall and Krueger 2016: 8), meaning they increased face risks alongside existing risks of sexual harassment and violence. My paper discusses cases in Argentina, Indonesia and South Africa, noting evidences of risky environments where drivers feel forced to speed and risk getting fined or having accidents and psychological violence and stress resulting from insufficient income and even bribery from police.


Digitalized office work refers to practices of people analytics; electronic performance monitoring techniques and wearable technologies. These practices serve to invisibilise qualitative judgements and practices that can lead to discrimination, stress, work intensification

People analytics One of the newest techniques to carry out specific human resources related business execution is called ‘people analytics’, where management uses hard data and using digital tools and data to ‘measure, report and understand employee performance, aspects of workforce planning, talent management and operational management’ (Collins et al 2017).

As it stands, workers have no voice in most decision-making processes and procedures around either the use of their data nor the implementation of AI and machine learning in their workplaces. Use of big data and numbers to make predictions and decisions about workers may look like it would eliminate the unconscious/implicit bias that informs decision-making that accounts for such things as institutionalised racism and the ongoing gender pay gap in most countries.

However, the issue in people analytics is not only what is being counted, but importantly also, what is not being counted, like preparatory work, domestic work and emotional labour.

Automation and Industrie 4.0 A recent TUC paper emphasises that automation does not only refer to a robot taking an entire job from one person, but also refers to aspects of work that will be done by computers such as the trackers worn by warehouse and factory workers. Low skilled workers and women face the highest risks of automation and computerisation. The risks of PPVH that an automated working environment produces are linked to what IG Metall trade unionists describe as stress and reduced worker autonomy.

Health and safety for workers is often not emphasised enough, and rapid changes to workplaces without training, or resulting in job losses create significant psychosocial stress possibilities for workers.


The ILO Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work emphasize that no worker should be denied access to basic human rights, and that all countries that are ILO members should uphold these Principles for workers, starting with ‘freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining’. But digital workers have a range of characteristics that make it difficult to organize in a traditional union context. Workers are geographically widespread, are alone in taxis or on bikes and at home, having limited communication with one another. Digital workers often do not enjoy the basic status of an employee, making it difficult to bargain and negotiate for basic rights. The lack of social protection and regulation put workers in a heightened arena for risks of PPVH.

There are several examples of union activities including campaigns and organizing for digitalized workers, and worker self-organising and wildcat strikes. Even so, there are no successful cases yet of collective bargaining in the digital workplace and there have been cases of corporate attempts of trade union busting reported in digitalized workplaces (Dahlborn 2017).

While digital workers have not built a large-scale or effective digital labour movement, perhaps because workers fear they are too easily replaceable in the global labour market of crowdwork and other digitalized work (Graham et al 2017b: 155), unions are currently working in the following ways to mitigate the worst impacts of PPVH in digitalized work.


German trade unions have been very active in mitigating the risks PPVH in the digitalized world of work. One trade unionist of ver.di, the German United Services Labour Union described the initiative called ‘mediafon’ this union offers for technically self-employed workers working in the gig economy. The service is similar to a hotline whereby ver.di members are linked to workers to help them over the phone with aspects of workplace issues such as contracts, social security, authors’ rights, self-branding and marketing and health and safety. The service also involves publications such as a website with relevant news, a monthly newsletter and a ‘self-employed handbook’ available online and in print.


Two years ago, IG Metall, the German Metalworkers’ Union, opened up the union for categories of digitalized workers who are crowdworkers and freelancers. IG Metall, the Austrian Chamber of Labor, the Austrian Trade Union Confederation, and the Swedish white collar union Unionen, joined forces to create Fair Crowd Work, which is a website that gathers information about issues that concern crowdworkers and platform based work from the perspectives of workers and unions.

The site publishes ratings of working conditions on labour platforms from surveys carried out with workers. IG Metall is also carrying out ‘Arbeit 2020 in NRW’ or Better Work 2020. For this programme, union representatives have met with 30 companies implementing Industrie 4.0 locally, and will meet with up to 50 more, across Germany (as of October 2017).

IG Metall colleagues told me that the impact of Industrie 4.0 is yet to be fully revealed. For example use of HoloLens or google glasses in factories will clearly have some kind of impact, e.g. stress, but it is not yet fully known.These trade unionists indicated that companies often invest more in the technology than they do in workers e.g. in training; and have mostly not had sufficient dialogue with workers. They also indicated that worker councils and workers had been largely left out of discussions leading to Industrie 4.0 practices. So the union is working with employers to find ways to increase communication.

Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB)

The IWGB are very active with riders across Britain and built a branch of the IWGB union for couriers specifically to defend gig workers. They have led some creative campaigning and protests. The Rebel Roo ‘zine’ was initiated and shared between workers sharing stories about their experiences, then linked with IWGB, successes in Brighton, London and Leeds

FAU Berlin

This group carries out creative campaigning and protests with riders, trying to gain access to basic rights such as having their bikes repaired by the companies they work for. A recent small success is that, starting February 2018, riders will get a small amount of coverage from the bike shop “LiveCycle” amounting to a maximum of 42€/month for full time workers. These successes are not seen as enough, of course, but they are a step in the right direction.

UNI Global Union

UNI released a significant document in December 2017 entitled ‘Top 10 Principles for Workers’ Data Privacy and Protection’ (UNI 2017) emphasised ‘workers and their union representatives must have the right to access, influence, edit and delete data that is collected on them and via their work processes’.


Six Silberman, trade unionist at IG Metall, and Lilly Irani, academic based at University of California San Francisco, designed and wrote about the ‘Turkopticon’, which is a database application that allows Turkers, or gig workers using Mechanical Turks, to review and publish information about requesters (Silberman and Irani 2016).

Turkers also use online forums Turker Nation, MTurk Crowd, MTurk Grine, MTurk, HITsWorthTurkingFor, subreddits, and MTurk Forum to share information about their experiences (Silberman and Irani 2016: 520).

In conclusion, digitalization, as my paper has covered, has led to the removal of social protections and puts workers at considerable risk, where contracts and working conditions are poor. In this context, considerable tensions and risks of PPVH are on the rise and it is vital that this is recognized with some urgency. For an effective response to the risks of PPVH in digitalized work environments, together with robust labour legislation, the role of collective bargaining and social dialogue should be addressed in the context of standard setting in the area of violence in the world of work.

[1] Meeting website–en/index.htm

Support and research assistance: Pav Akhtar, Ruth Cain, Simon Joyce, Shazad Ali 

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