Interviews

"We must prevent the transition from factory to platform from representing a backwards step for women's rights"

 Mayo Fuster

Mayo Fuster

06/05/2021
Gabriel Ubieto
Mayo Fuster, director of the UOC Barcelona Chair in the Digital Economy and member of the Dimmons research group

 

At a time when digital platforms are at the heart of the media debate, to the extent that the regional government is preparing a new law to begin to regulate them, the UOC, together with Barcelona City Council and Barcelona Activa, is launching the new UOC Barcelona Chair in the Digital Economy: For a sharing economy focusing on people's well-being and the right to the city (Ctedra_Oberta). It will study the platformization that the economy is undergoing, which has accelerated after more than a year of COVID-19, as explained by the director of the Chair, Mayo Fuster Morell. Likewise, the researchers will also roll out the Match Impulsa programme, a wide-ranging feminist programme to promote platform cooperativism and accelerate the digitization and platformization of the sharing, cooperative and social economy of companies and organizations that currently operate analogically.

How could we define the platform economy?

It is a production model which has developed gradually with the adoption of the new technologies. It is characterized by production, exchange and consumption through groups of people and it is mediated by a digital platform. We are immersed in a major transition. If before the factory was the main production unit, now it is the platforms.

Have we gone from Ford to Uber?

Yes. All this represents a reorganziation of life, not just of the economy. And now, with COVID-19, the digital platformization process has accelerated greatly, above all with teleworking. More and more people are working through platforms. And all companies working with these systems, whether for work or to offer services, have also grown a lot.

Platforms now form part of the economy. Will the whole economy be based on platforms within a few years?

Yes, it will not be just one sector, but rather this production model is disrupting all areas of economic activity.

The tip of the iceberg that people can see now with this platform economy is applications such as Uber and Glovo. Is it a coincidence that this new model started there?

They are the spheres which generate the greatest controversy, but they are not the biggest or the first to appear. The first, in the 90s, were devoted to the production of intangible knowledge, such as programming. Or educational contents, like Wikipedia. Since then, there have been several waves of expansion, and we are now in the wave which began in 2005, which is the most well-known in the media. In this wave, the platforms have started to offer services to cities, such as mobility or tourist accommodation services. COVID-19 means that the platforms have spread to almost all spheres. The level of digitization that companies have to have is much greater than before and many have started to organize on platforms.

Some of these platforms have caused controversy due to the labour model that they use and the precarious conditions that they impose on their workers. Are platforms and precariousness two concepts which necessarily have to go hand in hand?

No. It is necessary to differentiate between the platform economy and the model of platform economy. Platforms like Uber are based on an extractivist model also known as the unicorn model. Big platforms dominating a market, which are very aggressive in their development which works by dismantling labour rights and which are based above all on outsourcing responsibilities and infrastructures. Bicycle companies are one example. They use public car parks and do business without contributing to their maintenance.

What is the alternative?

Mensakas, a cooperative founded by delivery people. They offer the same service, but with decent labour contracts. It is known as platform cooperativism and Barcelona is an international benchmark. It represents a scalability opportunity for the social economy, because until now when a cooperative reached around 250 workers it generally encountered a growth cap. It was difficult to manage a cooperative with a lot of workers and now, with platforms, cooperatives can achieve volumes of activity which we have not previously seen.

What other examples can we find?

Smart IB, which is a cultural cooperative devoted to helping the self-employed. ​The latter invoice through Smart IB and the cooperative gives them coverage and shared services to ensure that they can work with good conditions. At present 4,500 people are working in it in Spain and over 125,000 in Europe. Another example is Som Mobilitat, a Catalan cooperative for renting shared electric vehicles. Or Suara, a cooperative offering people care services.

The so-called Rider Law is about to come into force. This will be the first legislation in Spain to explicitly regulate work on digital platforms. How should the Administration regulate these platforms?

It should do so on different levels. On the European level, the EU is beginning to look at it and here data regulation is very important. However, the cities were the first to react and have been more proactive. We participated in the creation of a network, called Sharing Cities, which brings together 50 cities from around the world. They created a sort of union of cities.

What does this union consist of?

These cities signed an agreement to regulate and promote the platform economy for the benefit of the right of cities. From Toronto or New York, to Paris, with very different governments. Because they saw that these platforms have a lot of power, sometimes more than the local institutions, and that it was excessive. If Airbnb does not share its data, Barcelona City Council cannot know its volume of activity in the city.

Do they succeed?

Above all as a result of COVID-19, a tendency of cities to limit these most aggressive platforms is being confirmed, such as those of mobility, which are having great problems in the European courts. It is different in the specific case of Airbnb, because the pandemic has brought the platform to a standstill and we do not know what will happen when tourist activity resumes.

What can you bring to this debate from research?

We promoted the creation of this union of cities. We work in a framework of research-action and this will be one of the hallmarks of the new Ctedra_Oberta. One of the subjects that we want to highlight the most is how platformization processes aggravate the lack of gender equity, much more than the industrial economy. This was seen during lockdown with the unequal distribution of care tasks between men and women. We also saw an exponential increase in male violence against women. The scientific evidence available suggests that the platformization of the economy represents a backwards step in the progress of the last few decades in terms of gender equality.

What projects will you undertake?

We have to see how to prevent the transition from factory to platform from representing a backwards step for women's rights. Therefore, in addition to offering training, mentoring and funding for digital platformization, the Match Impulsa programme for digitization and platformization of the sharing, cooperative and social economy in Barcelona will also support the introduction and acceleration of equality plans and measures at the companies and organizations involved.