Workertech and the low paid: what’s technology got to do with it?


Picture an image that represents ‘the Future of Work’. It might include a virtual reality headset, or a remotely controlled robot. It almost certainly features digital technology of some kind. Recent reports on the future of work have predicted rising automation, the death of the office and a future of remote working.

Our picture of the Future of Work seldom includes the role of technology in those jobs that have carried us through the pandemic: supermarket assistants, warehouse workers, care assistants – unless it’s how a robot will replace them or AI will subject them to ever more stringent control. There is no shortage of technology in low-paid roles and sectors. Used for things like shift scheduling, performance monitoring and task allocation, very little of this technology gives workers choice and control. Where professional workers might call on e-mentoring services, remote career advice services, and virtual professional networks, few technologies exist to support and improve working lives outside of white collar and professional work. And where employers regularly deploy data to reduce costs and shift risk onto labour, we rarely see the power of data being harnessed to improve the choices and power of those at the sharp-end of the jobs market.

The lower paid also tend to experience other disadvantages at work to a much greater extent: they are less likely to receive training, have fewer legal protections, more likely to have insecure contracts and more likely to be underemployed – seeking more hours.

The Workertech Partnership, run by Resolution Ventures, is a programme of social investment and ecosystem building that aim to support the use of technology to improve the working lives of those in low-paid and precarious work. Today we’ve published a new summary of low-paid work and the problems that we hope to address through this programme. 21 per cent of employees are paid below the real living wage, so this is a huge section of the workforce. But the issues that are concentrated among the low-paid are experienced by a wide range of workers.

When I worked at responsible technology think-tank Doteveryone, we used to talk about designing ‘for the furthest first’: coming up with a solution for the most challenging users would be more likely to produce benefits for other groups as well. By aiming to create solutions for lower-paid workers, we expect that a wider range of workers will also benefit.

Low-paid work needs a wide range of improvements, driven by policy in jobs and skills, changes by employers and improved legislation (and for policy suggestions, see ‘Low Pay Britain’ and ‘A new settlement for the low paid’ for some of our recommendations in these areas). But technology is an under-used tool. Beyond policy, change in labour markets comes about through a combination of individual choices, and collective action. The brief history of digital technology has shown that it can be an incredible tool for both of these things.

In future Resolution Ventures research, we are aiming to shine a light on the areas of opportunity for Workertech in more detail, but here’s a brief summary of where we think it can be useful:

Improve Choices

Some of the biggest success stories of the internet have been new marketplaces, from eBay to LinkedIn to Etsy. Better information and the ability to compare choices and options on the same terms could transform a number of job markets. In lower-paid sectors such as retail and logistics, important aspects of the job are often unclear from job ads, such as how far in advance your shifts are given.

Our portfolio company Breakroom is making it easier for hourly workers to compare and change jobs, and Earwig are aiming to use the power of worker information to increase transparency, and ultimately standards, at construction sites.

Creating Connections

Digital platforms and networks can create supportive online communities, bringing together individuals across geographies and sectors. Finding common ground with others can be the first step to collective action (as with portfolio company Organise) or can be the start of a new business model (New York-based The Drivers Cooperative is an example). It might be a way to find peer support for learning, or a route to access mentoring and networks that you might not otherwise have.

Recent trade union membership figures showed some cause for optimism, with modest increases in retail and public sector membership. But membership is still lower than in 2015, and there is considerable room to tackle the increasing average age of union members. Ways to increase membership and engagement are an important route to rebalancing the power of workers.

Get advice

Another superpower of technology is being able to find information quickly, and having access to personalised information. Improving careers advice with better data could change people’s earning power and career trajectories. Nesta has illustrated some of the opportunities that exist through their recent Careertech challenge. Better access to cheap and clear legal advice could help close the gap we know exists in those who are able to report problems at work. Awareness and access to workplace rights is more scarce among the low-paid, so routes to make it easier to exercise rights and get redress could be powerful.

Increase skills

Learning online was already increasing before the pandemic, and has undergone a huge boost in the past year. Acquiring new skills can be an important route into new sectors and better paying jobs. Finding out more about the training routes that might be open, and their connections to real jobs at the end of it are another area where technology can support both discovery of training opportunities, and more accessible delivery of that training. Lower-income workers are more likely to be excluded from, or receive fewer benefits from, online learning through technology, time and confidence barriers.

These four headings describe broad areas where we see potential for Workertech to create positive social impact for workers. We plan to expand on these thoughts in our next publication – do get in touch if you have ideas. Or sign up to the Resolution Ventures newsletter if you want to hear about this first.

The Workertech Partnership brings together six co-funders, including the Resolution Foundation, in a three year programme of social investment in new ventures, and ecosystem development, with the aim of improving the working lives of those on low pay and in precarious work.

Our specific target beneficiaries for this project are:

– Low-paid workers, or those with limited prospects

– Insecure workers: those on zero-hours contracts, temporary contracts, the self-employed, gig workers, workers in insecure conditions.

– Workers lacking voice & representation and those at greater risk of discrimination

– Workers with lower-level qualifications, and/or limited access to training

Apply now for pre-seed funding, or see if the Bethnal Green Ventures tech-for-good accelerator programme is right for you.