We have received the following report from a socialist working in the tech industry. It raises a number of pertinent questions around trade union organising in the industry, the purpose of technology under capitalism and the importance of a socialist perspective. In recent days workers at Facebook have taken action against the company regarding the response of Mark Zuckerberg to inflammatory tweets from Donald Trump.
In 2014, the UK tech industry was estimated to be worth £58 billion. By 2018, according to a new report from Tech Nation, in collaboration with Ernst and Young, the UK’s technology sector was worth nearly £184 billion – up from £170 billion in 2016. This is also the case if we take a look at it from a global perspective. By 2017, the Big 5 (Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft) were valued at £3 trillion.
Whichever way you slice it, tech is worth big money. This is the case even when you look at particular aspects. For example, in 2019 the video games industry was worth over £1bn to the British economy, responsible for employing 20,430 people, either directly or via contractors and so on.
What this means is that there are a significant proportion of workers in the UK who are part of or adjacent to the tech industry, whether as programmers, designers, cleaners, security guards, marketing and account managers.
However, if one thinks about the methods that digital technology uses to develop and design new features, in some ways, we are all ‘tech workers’. Many of these platforms produce no tangible commodities. Rather, they generate profit by attracting users to spend time scrolling through a channel which provides a viable forum to host ads.
There are other ways that profit is generated by drawing on the data provided (often unwittingly) by users. This was illustrated by scandals such as the Cambridge Analytica case when millions of Facebook users’ personal data was harvested without consent by Cambridge Analytica to be predominantly used for political advertising, and continuing misinformation on platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook (which has also been subject to numerous data hacks such as in 2018, when it admitted that the personal data of 2.2 billion users had been compromised, again ‘underlin[ing] the failure of the social-media giant to protect users’ privacy while generating billions of dollars in revenue from the same information. This has made much of the public much more critical about their use of these platforms.
The growth of the tech sector has an additional role in contributing to increasing inequality. Quoting David Pegg:
“Tax avoidance is as essential to the tech giants as their products are to our lives. Until 2015, Amazon paid a pittance on its UK sales by sluicing them through Luxembourg. George Osborne’s “Google tax” didn’t cover Google…. In total an estimated $500bn is withheld from public coffers by multinationals each year.”
For example, in 2013, Apple paid just £11.4 million in corporation tax after declaring £100 million in revenue and just £59 million in profit. However, there were some estimates at that time that their UK sales were as high as £10.5 billion, a tenth of Apple’s global market. Based on revenue, that’s a tax rate of just over 1%. In 2016, Apple paid just $2bn of tax on $41bn of non-US profits, an effective rate of 4.8%. Again, in 2018, Apple UK was forced to pay £100m of extra taxes following an “extensive audit” by HMRC.
But even for smaller players, we often find they contribute to gentrification of areas, driving up rents making it impossible for other small businesses and working people to afford living in those areas. We see this happening around the world from San Francisco to Manchester to London and even havens such as Berlin are at risk of falling prey.
In response to these and a range of equally disturbing issues, we are seeing a rise in organising within the tech sector. As well as those referred to above, some of the issues sparking anger include: the lack of diversity within tech; the capitulation to oppressive regimes and rulings – from Google’s censored Chinese search engine to Microsoft’s blocking of Spanish users from accessing an app used by Catalan pro-independence organisers or apps removed from Apple’s store at behest of the Chinese government; and the embedded racism, sexism, transphobia which are present in the sector
For the past two decades or so, it could be said that tech workers were a notoriously difficult bunch to organise, even though some of the original organised workers (and militantly so) were tech workers! The Luddites are often mischaracterised as being against the ‘technology of their day’. But actually, as weavers themselves who made use of sophisticated weaving mecha, their ire was against the devaluing of their labour brought on by the factory system.
There are many reasons why it has in some ways been especially difficult to organise within tech. The culture in the industry has typically been characterised by expectations of almost self-destructive level of hard work,an extremist belief in supposed ‘meritocracy’, encouragement of all workers to associate themselves with brands and tech bosses and an uber-masculinised culture. The fact that a minority of tech workers are able to earn extremely high salaries, putting them in a privileged position compared to many other workers, is also a factor. The so-called ‘Califnornian ideology describes a rather self absorbed counter cultural libertarianism that is rife in the tech industry.
There has been plenty of research about how, as tech became more crucial for national economic growth and business prowess, it became less diverse along gender lines (famously computers were initially women). The perception of unions as props for lazy – or just bad – complainers has been deliberately promoted by tech bosses, as has the notion that unions simply aren’t needed. Tech jobs are sold as ones which will be forever highly valued and consistently well paid, various bubble bursts aside, promoting an individualistic understanding of work and the labourer’s relationship to their employer and fellow workers. To quote Sanjana Varghese, ‘Massive corporations, such as IBM, have always been hostile to workers becoming organised, fostering an individualistic company culture across every level of employment.’
But nonetheless, in recent years we have seen tech workers beginning to organise in a number of areas. In the games sector,one of the first examples was the 2016 Voice Actors strike, originating from disagreements between the Guild and the game development industry over whether voice actors could have a better deal including capped residuals for successful projects, and pay that reflects more strenuous working conditions. Since then we have seen the development of the Gameworkers Union.
In the world of ‘big tech’, although there had always been criticism of working practices. One of the first major movements that was publicly visible and understood as workers organising was the 2018 Google walkout which was to protest their employer’s handling of sexual harassment claims. However, it’s worth pointing out that, in 2017, workers had also applied pressure for Google to drop a lucrative contract with the US military, codenamed Project Maven, although this was quickly spun as executives living up to the ‘don’t be evil’ mantra.
There have also been strikes and organising by those on the other side of the platforms’, for example Deliveroo couriers who went on strike in 2018, Uber drivers who went on strike in May 2019 following local strikes and court action by Uber drivers around the world from New York to Johannesburg, warehouse workers such as the Amazon employees who created a union in early 2019[ and have more recently in March gone on strike] against appalling safety conditions in this time of pandemic, content creators and Mechanical Turkers .
There is an increasing understanding of solidarity between the different areas of tech labour.This could be seen in the US when the TWC union worked with Unite Here to unionise cafeteria workers. Erasing the ‘platform divide’ is often a key aim for many of the tech organising initiatives. One thing that has often been raised is the need to ensure that the programmer and the designer understand they are workers alongside the cleaner and security guard, alongside the salesperson and the courier.
So what can be done in light of this?
Around the country, we see cities vying with each other to become the new tech hubs of the UK, from Bristol as the self declared smart city capital, to Birmingham’s Silicon Canal. Phrases like ‘digital transformation’ are de rigeur in both public and private sectors, and this is something to be particularly wary of given the context of continued cuts to public services.
Beyond the specific products, there are other ways these companies spread their influence. Google regularly offers training, including in the public sector, which can contribute to some of these problematic features of the industry becoming replicated elsewhere. This is something we need to fight back against, especially in light of how tax evasion and government breaks fund much of Silicon Valley and similar technological hubs.
There is a need for those of us working in IT, to look out for instances in which technology can be used or developed which has implications for workers’ rights and civil liberties so that we can use our power as workers to help fight to defend them.This might be a new cloud platform for data from CCTV cameras which comes with facial recognition features, or technology to count the number of people in a building that doesn’t use more benign forms of data collection e.g. counting foot steps as opposed to faces.
One such action would be encouraging initiatives like NoTechForTyrants, which is connected to No Tech for ICE, itself part of an immigrant rights initiative Mijente, who have been raising awareness about the tech companies who support the US government’s brutal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operations, like Amazon Web Services, Palantir, Northrop Grumman, Microsoft, Salesforce, and many others.’
In tech, exploitation actually starts at university and college where students might be encouraged if not mandatorily pushed into low paying or unpaid internships.e. It is important to start educating the new workforce on how to recognise the impact of their work on themselves and others and get organised.
Finally we need to support and help to organise tech workers, including through many of the new unions and organisations that have sprung up recently around the world. The importance of information technology for 21st century capitalism means that tech workers, when organised collectively, have huge potential power. Building solidarity is important in order to exchange knowledge and experiences of organising for workers’ liberation – and to take up some of the social and political questions that relate to our work. Ultimately, we need to fight for the socialist transformation of society. Only public ownership of the major tech giants, with democratic workers’ control and management, would create the conditions for technology to be created and used to enhance the lives of all humanity – and not for the purposes of exploitation or oppression.
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