Please flip your device.

AI Stories · When an Algorithm is Your Boss

Tech that Works for Workers

Eduardo Meneses is the global head of social impact for the global technology consultancy Thoughtworks. He engages with civil society organizations to build technology that amplifies social movements, and is currently working with platform workers in Ecuador on strategies to defend worker rights.

This is an extended cut of the interview from When an Algorithm is Your Boss that has been edited for ease of reading.

What are some of the challenges faced by gig workers in Ecuador?

Platforms often say they do not recognize formal working relationships with workers, because it’s flexible labor. But in fact, you’ll find that their algorithmic management is the total opposite of flexibility.

In Ecuador, platform workers need to compete with others to reserve their work hours in a schedule. To do that, they need to wake up at midnight, because this is when the reservation process opens. One minute before midnight, everyone is on their phones waiting. And you have thousands of workers at the same time, trying to reserve hours with enough services to get by. Schedules, like this, are not flexible at all. On one major app, if you take more than 50 minutes to make a delivery, you’re suspended for two days. That means, you cannot work work for two days. You cannot be sure to feed your family. And a lot of people working with these apps are surviving day by day.

Many platform workers in Ecuador are migrants, and many are also undocumented. So you have the platform companies taking advantage of a situation of vulnerability, to make people work in conditions they would not agree to if they had other options.

You’re working with an association of workers to investigate conditions. Will you be building an app?

We started the research phase one year ago. We were coming out of the pandemic, and in Ecuador we had a very strong lockdown, so these workers were really essential to a lot of people, in terms of bringing medicine, food, these kinds of things.

We’re at the point now where we feel we have enough understanding to start building a technological device to support workers. So the idea is to create an app people could download, that would be able to track the data of what is going on behind the algorithm. It’s kind of a ‘reverse engineering’ process we want to do through data collection.

There’s an inadequate system of resistance to the exploitation delivery workers experience. So the data we’ll collect will be things like distance traveled and how much is paid, accompanied by demands from unions about appropriate pay. I’m speculating here, but I think we could build an app that would be downloaded by both workers and app users, because it’s also very interesting to make comparisons between the different information available to users and workers.

How did you become an activist yourself?

My journey to this type of activism has been long because I come to it from a firsthand perspective of being a migrant in Europe. I went to Europe when I was 18 during a huge economic crisis in Ecuador. I lived in France for 12 years, and a big part of my political and activist journey comes from my experience of labor conditions there as a migrant. I also did activism in different regions, including in Palestine, connecting movements around the world. What led me back to Ecuador was an opportunity to work with the progressive government at the time. That’s how I originally was connected from social science to digital labor topics, through the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology.

When is technology a force for good?

We’ve been fed this narrative about the neutrality of technology and of tech solutions. It’s difficult for the people who are not in the industry, but also for the people who are part of it, to understand that it is not true. Technology can solve some problems, but it can also be part of the problem, it can amplify a lot of the social inequalities.

So the first task we have, is to make people understand that technological mediation is not neutral. There’s always power over relationships, and we find all the tensions that are built in society within technology: racism, sexism, class struggle, systemic inequalities, colonialism, all of this is embedded.

And it’s not only how we use technology, it’s the way we design it. The main question is, ‘Who is this technology going to work for?’ This is the basic question that we should always put at the center. As technologists, we design in a framework of problem-solving. But the way in which we name the problem is already political, the way in which we organize to build that solution is political, the way in which we choose  which voices are included into a process is political.

How does it affect the power dynamics when companies are operated from abroad?

A lot of these companies are multinational corporations that only have PR people engaged here in Ecuador. Some have lawyers here too, but they don’t have anyone really making decisions. Those people are in totally different parts of the world, so the workers aren’t able to say, ‘Hey, something is going wrong here, this is not working.’ There is no way to contest decisions. And this sensation of working alone, with just an algorithm to mediate what you’re doing, without any explanation of why this is happening, is crazy. There’s total opacity there, which is not right. Sometimes the fees a worker is paid can change within the course of one day. And they do not know why, or how this algorithm works. This is one of the most difficult things. I would say, in terms of mental health too. The algorithmic management is really one of the main challenges for workers.

We also have local apps which work totally differently than multinational apps, and in fact the salaries are better and the working conditions are totally different. We really see the difference. Some of these multinational apps are really trying to colonize everything in their way, to spread everywhere. But the local apps have been developed for specific tasks. The logic is totally different from those of other apps who do not care about labor conditions or the local reputation, and who are just taking advantage of the despair of the unemployed.

Portrait photo of Eduardo Meneses is by Hannah Yoon (CC-BY) 2022

Mozilla has taken reasonable steps to ensure the accuracy of the statements made during the interview, but the words and opinions presented here are ascribed entirely to the interviewee.