Platform Work and Social Justice

Authors Darcy du Toit

ISSN: 2413-9874
Affiliations: Emeritus Professor and Coordinator, Labour Law 4.0 niche area, Faculty of Law, University of the Western Cape
Source: Industrial Law Journal, Volume 40 Issue 1, 2019, p. 1 – 11


Disruptive technological change, informalisation of work and deepening socio-economic inequality have affected developed and developing countries in recent decades. The ‘fourth industrial revolution’, involving the proliferation of digitalisation, automation, robotics and artificial intelligence, is accelerating the process by creating space for new forms of irregular work. The digital platform economy, epitomised by online providers of goods and services such as Uber, represents a significant stage in this development. Commercial platforms have gained ground by making possible the delivery of goods and services with a minimum of infrastructure and a maximum of flexibility. In practice, if not in principle, this lends itself to the negation of workers’ rights through classifying workers as ‘independent contractors’ even when they are de facto employees, thus posing new challenges for labour law. The article acknowledges the transformative potential of the platform economy as well as the threat it presents to social justice. It examines three responses from the standpoint of reconciling technological advance with the advancement of social justice. The first is the ongoing fight against disguised employment in the form of legal claims by platform workers to be classified as ’employees’ in order to exercise labour rights. The second is an international campaign for the extension of appropriate rights to all workers on commercial platforms, regardless of their contractual status. The third is the development of an alternative paradigm based on worker ownership or collective ownership of platforms, strongly associated with aspirations for social justice. The article considers the strengths and weaknesses of each of these responses. It reflects on their legal and practical implications in light of current technological trends and compatibility with ongoing scientific advance. A possible development, it suggests, is that of ‘convergence’ between the (dominant) commercial platform sector and the aspirations for social justice embodied in the (marginal) collective sector: progressive transformation of the commercial sector, including the establishment of basic rights for all workers, could narrow the gap, giving rise to hybrid forms of enterprise incorporating sustainable features of both. In this process, the promotion of social justice is seen as a precondition for socio-economic sustainability.