The Curious Case Of Shared Economy And IR

Within the growing paradigm of shared/gig economy, we need to revisit Lynda Gratton’s book, The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here, where she articulates the future of workplaces, and traces possible changes that can frame the concept of work. One of the key forces would be that technology, apart from altering the landscape of workplaces, also has a key role in fuelling economic growth. Technology would redefine the previously held notion of work, influencing working lives in a much deeper form. The role of Technology would be beyond its deterministic capabilities, as the presence of technology in human processes and interactions have huge implications on economics, culture, and politics. In addition, the critical issue is that technological advancements do not locate technology in isolation, being rather a conjuncture of various concepts – economics, culture, and politics. Such arguments throw light on the imbalance that would follow technological advancements in workplaces, which in fact, are bound to be a product of the dynamic nature of economics, culture, and politics. Nevertheless, the position of technology at work would be evident and add different aspects to work. Though there has been an age‑old suspicion on the impact of technology on the workplace, its position at work would be evident. This will add different layers such as reduced demand for skilled and unskilled workers, the delayering of organisational hierarchy, owing to which very few managers and supervisors would be required.


The all-pervasive ‘Cloud’


Similar to the World Wide Web, another giant leap which is already in vogue is the innovative ‘cloud’ technology. Cloud would enable workers to access and store from any part of the world, without having physical backup devices like servers and hard drives. Despite issues related to security and access (some countries have stricter norms in control and dissemination of information that can be potentially overlooked by Cloud), the technology is bound to spill over to every possible domain and broaden its role. The impact of technology goes beyond its functional aspect. Newer technologies have increased exponentially, thus reducing the cost of computing technology and making it available to a larger section of users. Further, technology facilitates connectivity, which helps businesses to strive (e.g. Outsourcing). New technologies drastically reduce the cost of operation and make it easier for people to participate socially, without giving much thought to physical space. One can move or dive through technology interfaces from any place (e.g. Social media websites).


 “Cloud would enable workers to access and store from any part of the world, without having physical backup devices. Despite issues related to security and access, the technology is bound to spill over to every possible domain.”


A newer identity


An increasing number of emerging entrepreneurial ventures are using technology since it provides a competitive edge. A critical area to look into is whether technology can be a fitting replacement for workers. The advent of robotics and artificial intelligence can make one believe that workers have a limited role to perform.  The age-old dictum of industrial relations had been that technology was seen as a tool to facilitate work. The flipside to this argument is that the shift within the technology-infused work domain seeks a different understanding of workplace relationships and work. This is true for the shared economy, which is enormously influenced by technology in work, and it is rather impossible to locate the disjuncture between work and technology in the gig economy. With regard to the intersection of work and technology, the interplay allows the user to engage in a global culture, where the submerge themselves to form a new identity. A similar effect has been felt in the gig economy, wherein tech developers migrate from places of production using technology interfaces.


Industrial relations as a process of interaction among stakeholders exists in the organised sector of work. The industrial relations process is a rather functional activity, and is beyond the mechanism of labour-management domain. Furthermore, industrial relations does not include a diverse understanding of labour, which has evolved beyond the confines of manufacturing and production into the services sector. Another lacuna that is apparent in industrial relations is the absence of domain-specific personnel, in contrast to the existence of labour lawyers and administrative personnel involved in practicing and promoting industrial relations on the ground. This ignores the demand for new knowledge emerging from the nonmanufacturing sector where, in the absence of new knowledge, the old school framework of industrial relations has been followed. The shared economy, on the other hand, is a sector that has only been ignored in the industrial relations discourse. Even if industrial relations captures gig and distributed work and its culture, it will more or less be from a functionalist perspective. In this context, industrial relations as a subject overlooks the reference of integral elements of work such as technology.


The absence of unions


Neoliberal ideas constituted new forms of work that are autonomous and intellectual in nature. As Rose (1992) suggests, this kind of “work has been reconstrued upon, not as a constraint upon freedom and autonomy.” This kind of work leads to an environment of enterprising and self-reliant workforce shaped by the means of work. Gig economy is one such area where work is intellectual in nature involving complex technical knowledge of algorithms and coding. The shared economy does not have internal organisation-specific unions to represent its workforce to the management. One of the reasons is that the nature of work is more individualistic (it runs on partner/contractor model) and autonomous, which can make the role of the unions redundant. Further, it would be interesting to know whether the landscape of the shared economy, fuelled by technology, replaces the notion of trade unions. In such a case, technology appears to be more than a context (once popularised by John Dunlop, 1958), and acts rather like an omnipresent actor in the shared economy. Another constraint of applying Dunlop’s systems framework in the shared economy is the government’s limited role to formulate regulations and labour laws. Shared economy, being a product of neoliberal economy has a lot many private investors, who were welcomed to invest with the promise of low state interventions. 


The way work is performed in the shared economy has led to a different understanding of workplace relationships, where older actors have a limited or no role to play. In such a scenario, the discourse on industrial relations can move beyond its traditional trajectory of workplace relations and consider including technology as one of its core actors or concepts. However, technology’s presence in the industrial relations discourse is limited to its deterministic role of improving efficiency and reducing labour cost. Such an understanding of technology is not a mere indulgence, as technology studies has moved beyond the confines of tools and instruments. For the discourse on industrial relations to enlarge its scope, it needs to include the multidimensional understanding of technology (such as tools, artefacts, and activities) to cope with and withstand the evolution and existence of the new work environment like that of the shared economy.


“The discourse on industrial relations can move beyond its traditional trajectory of workplace relations and consider including technology as one of its core actor or concepts.”


Mrinmoy Majumder is a faculty member of HRM and IR at International Management Institute, New Delhi. Mrinmoy can be reached at [email protected]


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