... in labor

The Homeless house cleaners of the sharing economy

21 Sep 2014 | 542 words | labor messengers

If this NY mag article is to be believed you can hire house cleaners who are themselves homeless via www.homejoy.com a San Francisco based startup that has received $40 million in funding. Guess this says a lot about how out of whack the bay area real estate market is, but that is not what the article is about. Instead it tries to shine light on another issue, namely the fact that many recent startups (many of them falling in the broad (and equally meaningless) ‘sharing economy’ category) offer services that are performed by independent contractors instead of regular employees:

To explain why it’s possible for a cash-flush tech start-up to have homeless workers, it helps to know that the man I hired through Homejoy wasn’t a Homejoy employee at all. That’s because Homejoy doesn’t employ any cleaners — like many of its peer start-ups, it uses an army of contract workers to do its customers’ bidding. To hear Homejoy tell it, it’s simply the digital middleman that allows people seeking home-cleaning services to find people willing to do it. […] As the Washington Post wrote, “Homejoy is just organizing the masses of people who already offer their cleaning services independently.”

While the NY mag article makes it sound as if this is a fairly recent phenomenon (citing an abundance of startups relying on contract workers such as Uber, Lyft, Homejoy, Handy, Postmates, Spoonrocket, TaskRabbit, DoorDash or Washio) this practice is anything but new.

My first job fresh out of high school was working as a bike messenger for Der Kurier in Hannover. As part of that work i was required to wear a company shirt, a company issued messenger bag and could only work on days that they had scheduled me in. I also had do pay them rent for the radio and 20% of the fares that i earned. At that time this kind of ’employment’ was common for bike messengers in lots of places (i worked under similar conditions for other companies in Hannover, Berlin and New York). The only place where bike messengers were employed and paid by the hour and not by the delivery was in Amsterdam where i worked my last years as a messenger (at one company we even had a pension plan which means that i will draw a pension of €10 per year(!!) once i am 67).

As a bike messenger i never had a problem with being a contractor and being paid by the delivery (at high-demand times that meant more money and motivation to go extra fast and at low-demand times you could always read a book). But to my mind this construction has always been about limiting the cost of labour for employees. The fact that so many ‘Sharing Economy’ startups are working with contractors instead of employees makes it rather obvious that the sharing economy is much less about sharing ressources and much more about reducing the cost of labor. Or as Kevin Roose notes in the NY mag article:

Require a 1099 start-up to reclassify its workers as W-2 employees, and you radically change its ability to lower prices and undercut the competition — which was, in many cases, a key reason investors were interested in the first place.

Migrant Media Metropole

31 Jan 2008 | 416 words | migration labor politics capitalism amsterdam

This saturday my friend Valery (together with Eric & Merijn) are hosting a mini conference called ‘Migrant Media Metropole – New labour struggles in the global city‘ at the Balie in Amsterdam.

Migration and media-activists gather with theorists and labour organizers to discuss and share best practices in the fight against precarity and insecure labour conditions. Sharing inspiring examples of social justice unionism and creative campaigning like “Justice for Janitors” in the U.S. and “Cleaners For a Better Future” in the Netherlands. The aim is to challenge traditional labour practices, syndicate and inspire a sharper network of social activists, academics, media makers and artists to join contemporary urban labour struggles and confederate into a globalization from below.

This mini conference, which brings together lots of people i have been working with over the past few years, should be extremely interesting for anyone being even remotely interested in issues of migration and labour. Originally it was planned as part of the escalation strategy of the Cleaners For a Better Future campaign here in the Netherlands.

As part of this campaign cleaners, organized by the FNV trade union, in collaboration with activists from social movements in the Netherlands fought for a minimum hourly wage of €10 and a number of other social befits. The campaign made heavy use of direct actions (which is relatively new and uncommon for unions in the Netherlands) and ultimately succeeded in realizing all the demands of the cleaners:

We won 10 euros an hour for everyone starting on January 1st 2009. Workers above 8 years seniority will get the 10 euros in April of this year while everyone else will go from $8.50 to $9.70 an hour in April as well. We got an extra paid holiday, additional travel pay increase, Dutch and vocational training on company time for every worker, initial language to protect staffing levels upon contract change and full access. The contract will cost employers and clients 135 million euros. This is a national agreement covering 150,000 cleaners.

As far as i can tell this is mighty impressive (although V. who expected this struggle to go on for much longer describes this sudden victory as a ‘premature ejaculation’). It seems as if there are very few places in the world with a minimum hourly salary of 10 euros for cleaners (ironically one of them seems to be the kingdom of Belgium, where the minimum hourly salary for cleaners is €10.73 – but then cleaners are called ‘surface technicans‘ in Belgium).

Activism as a Non-Tariff Barrier to International Trade?

11 Nov 2007 | 331 words | business internet trade india netherlands labor

Patrice has posted an extensvie piece to the nettime-l mailing list that describes a rather bizarre legal dispute between an Indian textile manufacturing company and two Dutch internet service providers (one of them being my own). It comes down to the Indian company arguing that hosting websites that criticize labor conditions in their manufacturing plants constitutes an ‘international criminal conspiracy’:

Now eight Dutch citizens, staff persons and directors of the [ISPs], are indicted and required to appear in person before court in India under a mendacious, but cleverly constructed ‘cascade’ of counts, starting with libel and diffamation, escalating into racism/xenophobia carried on by means of ‘cybercrime’, and culminating in an alleged “international criminal conspiracy”. The latter indictment constitutes an extraditable offense in the sense of international agreements on judicial co-operation between democratic, ‘rule of law’ states. The acting judge in Bangalore now needs only to sign an international arrest warrant for the real risk of deportation and delivery of these eight accused into an Indian remand jail to become effective. Though the Dutch minister of justice still would have the last word […]

Even better, it seems that the Government of India, is backing this rather ridiculous position and has discovered that such activism constitutes a Non-Tariff Trade Barrier:

This slightly out-of-control evolution of what would be in itself a fairly routinous incident in to-day’s globalised, highly competitive economy, might be taken as emblematic for the predicament into which the ongoing trend to lower procurement costs, outsource and delocalise industrial production has landed us. […] India’s minister of commerce, Shri Kamal Nath, has let it known that criticism of the modus operandi of the Indian textile export industry amounts to ‘hidden protectionism’ by parties unhappy with India’s competitive provess and resenting the consequent delocalisation of their own manufacturing base, theoretising a fresh form of NTBtIT (Non Tariff Barrier to International Trade in WTO-GATTese) in the same breath.

The entire text is available at the (slightly old fashioned) nettime-l mailing list archive.

Parallel infrastructures (2)

25 Jul 2007 | 141 words | airtravel migration labor netherlands poland

About a year ago i blogged about mini busses shuttling polish migrant workers from poland to holland and back. In that post i had attributed the use of mini buses over trains (and regular busses) at least in part the fact that the mini busses are much faster than other means of transport. apparently they are not fast enough anymore:

The agrarisch dagblad (‘agricultural daily’) reports that P&E people, a Dutch temporary work aganecy supplying eastern and central European workers to the dutch labour market has started shutteling workers with a weekly wizz-air flight from Katowice to Eindhoven and back (complete with connecting shuttle bus services from and to the airports). At the moment they are providing space for 8 workers per flight, but there seem to be plans to offer this service to all of their workforce in the future.

Pictures from Dubai construction sites

30 Nov 2006 | 197 words | dubai construction labor photos travel

I just finished uploading my pictures from Dubai to my flickr account. the most interesting ones are in the ‘Dubai construction‘ set:

[from the description]: I took these photographs during a stopover in Dubai on the 25th of november 2006. they are taken on various construction sites in the dubai marina area that this located about 25 kilometers south from the old city centre in the vicinity of the Palm Jumeirah artificial island. Most of the construction workers pictured here apporached me by themselfes and asked me to take a picture of them. For more information on the situation of migrant construction workers in the U.A.E see the Human Rights Watch report ‘Building Towers, Cheating Workers‘. Some more background on the insanity going on in Dubai can be found in the essay Dubai: self-help for those you wanted to build a 21st century city by Shumon Basar

The last article has a number of accompanying pictures. this one is my absolute favorite. pretty much sums up the hubris of the place in one sentence:

And if this intrigues you i recommend checking out the websites of some of the big real estate developers like emaar or nakheel.

Parallel infrastructures

Ok, cant go on being abusive of other people her like in the last couple of posts. does not really add too much to the whole and apparently it will be held against me by some prospective employer in the future anyway. Speaking about employment: it is no secret that the dutch economy (especially the construction, cleaning and agricultural sectors employ a huge number of (temporary) workers from Poland and other Eastern European countries (ironically germany seems to become an Eastern European country as well at least in this aspect if one is to believe the mdr (google cache).

Many of these migrants combine working in the the Netherlands (or western Europe for that matter) with living in Poland. these pendular migration strategies are made possible by the vastly improved transportation facilities between the east and the west. When reading about ‘improved transprotation’ images of high speed trains and low cost airlines come to mind, but these migration patterns seem to fundamentally rely on a parallel transportation infrastrcuture:

In my thesis i had already mentioned this parallel infrastructure (without giving much thought to it then):

A trip from Perlejewo to Brussels and back costs approximately 80 dollars, and the increased competition among coach companies is reducing the cost of such fares even more. The trip lasts approximately 24 hours, and there are even ‘door to door’ transport services. (Frejka et al. as cited on p. 53)

Last weekend i drove back from Berlin to Amsterdam relatively early on Sunday morning, and this provided me with an opportunity to see these transport services in action. A significant amount of the cars traveling west on the A2 were minibuses registered in Poland (and either displaying signs of polish tour operators or even more tellingly of Dutch temporary work agencies). Some of them traveling alone some of them traveling in convoys of 3 or 4 vehicles. in total i think i saw at least 60 or so of these vehicles of more than 40 companies, which as we are traveling at at approximately the same speed most likely is only a small share of the total traffic on that day. That translates into a lot of people commuting from Poland to work in NL on that Sunday.

In the last 3 years i have travelled a lot between Berlin and Amsterdam, but almost exclusively by train and while the direct trains from Berlin to Amsterdam originate in poland i have never really noticed polish workers using the train to commute to Holland. This is probably due to the exorbitant prices of railway tickets nowadays (a standard return ticket berlin amsterdam is €184) but having seen these minibuses in action there is obviously another advantage to them. most of them were traveling at 140KM/h or more and if one combines this with the fact that these buses seem to offer door to door services, this probably translates into enormous time savings especially when one assumes that most of the trips taken by these pendular migrants are from small rural places to small rural places (which tend to have lousy public transport connectivity). In any case i was quite impressed by this almost hidden, highly flexible parallel transport infrastructure.

How to get fired from a callcenter

12 Feb 2006 | 121 words | labor india movies film berlin

Yesterday i saw john & jane, a film about call center workers in new bombay by Ashim Ahluwalia, which is running as part of the berlin film festival. The film is an impressive, beautifully shot (but sometimes slow) portrait of six persons working in a call center (‘4th dimension’) which provides a range of services to callers from the US.

Of the six call agents only one, Glen, is unhappy with his job. in fact he seems to hate it. Glen was present for the Q&A session after the screening and i made a crappy phone recording of him explaining how he got finally got fired from the call-center ‘because he was stoned’ (click here for the 1.1mb mp3 file).


Freedom of movement (looking back on my thesis)

09 Feb 2006 | 543 words | EU-policy migration europe labor

It is almost four years ago that i finally finished my thesis (‘The freedom of movement of workers in the context of the Eastern enlargement of the European Union’ – download the pdf here) and concluded my studies in comparative political science at the University of Amsterdam. After finishing the thesis and getting my diploma a quickly turned my attention to other projects and never really looked back at what i had written. however given the fact that in my thesis i set out to draw up…

… a clear picture of what can be expected in terms of intra-EU migration when the European Union of 15 is enlarged towards the East and Southeast. The aim of this paper is not to make a prediction about the exact amounts of migrants that are to be expected in a given constellation of events, but to give a theoretically funded assessment of the possible impacts of a change in political structure on migration from the Eastern European Candidate Countries (EECC) to the European Union of 15 (EU15) as it exists today….

… it would have been natural to look back on a couple of occasions to see if my ‘theoretically funded (sic!) assessment’ (which of course is bloated language for ‘my interpretation of the current situation beefed up with as many graphs, pie-charts and quotes as i can come up with’) did indeed turn out to be true. until today i have never really done this for whatever reasons.

Now today the European Commission published a report on the effects of workers mobility between the 10 new member states and the EU15 since the Eastern Enlargement on the 1st of may 2004 (FAQs here). The accession treaty required the Commission to come up with such a report in order to give the member states which opted to impose restrictions on the freedom of movement of workers from the EU10 (that is all old member except britain, sweden & ireland) an empirical basis for the reassessment of their position after 2 years (due on 30 april). now i have not had time to read the full report but if one can believe the media it pretty much confirms the concluding predictions of my thesis:

according to various news reports published today, the report that claims that ‘There was no evidence of a surge in either numbers of workers or welfare expenditure following enlargement, compared to the previous two years. New Member State (EU10) nationals represented less than 1% of the working age population in all countries except Austria (1,4% in 2005) and Ireland (3,8% in 2005)’ (EU comission) it further notes ‘… that East European workers sought out employment and did not abuse social security payments when they moved to Western countries’. (IHT) and that ‘…the barriers put in place when the EU had 12 members did not stop workers moving into these countries. But many workers had disappeared into the underground economy’ (idem.)

Anyway it is nice to know that I have not completely missed the mark while spending so much time on writing my thesis. I will try to re-read my paper and compare it to the report over the weekend and if there are more interesting findings I will report them back here…

User interface fail

23 Oct 2005 | 382 words | airtravel design technology robots labor

I am on a KLM flight from Amsterdam to Sao Paulo. The 777 is equipped with KLM’s top of the line in flight entertainment system which is actually pretty good. Having access to more than 100 movies (in economy class) is rivaled only by bittorrent (note to self: try to download movies on my next connexion equipped lufthansa flight). The system also includes SMS/email capabilities (send SMS for just USD 2.50 apiece! w00t!). to compose SMS messages you have to move a cursor across an on screen keyboard with a four way controller on the remote thingy that is contained in your armrest. now this is the poorest user interface i have ever used. It took me about 10 times as long to send a SMS as it usually does (and i am ridiculously slow with my phone). The interface really sucks especially if u have to use the 4 way to move the cursor to the arrow keys on the virtual keyboard on screen in order to move the cursor in the text entry field. Extremely redundant interface layers. it becomes even more redundant (or should i say frustrating/idiotic) if one realizes that the back of the remote thingy actually is a phone complete with letters on the number keys. But of course they don’t work in the SMS section.

Of course there is nobody on the whole damn plane that you could even explain – let alone complain to about – this royal (dutch) interface fuck-up. And if you ask me this is part of a much wider problem that gets more serious as more and more transactions get automated. I have serious gripes with the interfaces of the dutch and german rail ticket vending machines that effectively keep me from using them and there is no one standing next to them to listen to my complaints. The only people you could possibly complain to are the people who are slowly getting replaced by the same machines (the agents at the counters at the railway station) and that makes it feel extremely awkward to address such issues to them (‘sorry sir i think the machine that will get you fired from your job could be made a bit more user friendly so you can loose you job a bit faster…’).

meanwhile... is the personal weblog of Paul Keller. I am currently policy director at Open Future and President of the COMMUNIA Association for the Public Domain. This weblog is largely inactive but contains an archive of posts (mixing both work and personal) going back to 2005.

I also maintain a collection of cards from African mediums (which is the reason for the domain name), a collection of photos on flickr and a website collecting my professional writings and appearances.

Other things that i have made online: