Daniel Tomlinson, Researcher at the Resolution Trust

Over the long sweep of history it’s clear that one of the big drivers of increased prosperity has been technological change. It has helped make our work more productive and our lives more enjoyable. But, over recent years it looks like technology is being used in another way: to push risk in the workplace away from business and onto workers, with the rise of the gig-economy providing one of the clearest examples of this shift.

But, there’s no reason why tech can’t be used in a pro-worker fashion instead. That is why the Resolution Trust and Bethnal Green Ventures have come together to form the WorkerTech programme. It provides 6 months of support to teams (or individuals) with great ideas as to how technology can be used for good to support low-paid workers in the UK; applications for the programme have just re-opened.

So, what is WorkerTech? Why is it important? And will it actually make a difference?

WorkerTech is any use of technology that acts to support workers. We are open minded about exactly what this might look like. It could be an app, or a website, or an add-on to a web browser. Anything that workers can interact with and in doing so make a step towards improving the chances that their employment will improve. This could be an information sharing website, or a campaigning tool to enable workers that don’t work in the same location to organise. Or a way for workers and unions to communicate with one another. Or something else entirely.

WorkerTech is also by no means limited to those that get their work through an app. Of course, finding ways to help those working in the gig economy is important and applications that seek to do this are welcome. But, we shouldn’t forget that, even using generous estimates of the gig economy’s size, 97 per cent of the workforce – many of whom are in low-paid and insecure work – aren’t gigging for a living.

Low-paid work in the UK could be better, a lot better. The UK’s labour market is in good health if you look at the overall picture, with a record share of the population in work. But it’s also clear that there are sizeable pockets of insecurity. Over 900,000 people are on a zero-hours contract and a similar number are agency workers. Self-employment is continuing to rise, it accounts for 45 per cent of all the employment growth in the UK since 2008. And although the National Living Wage is helping at the very bottom of the pay scale, low pay is still endemic in the UK. Against this backdrop sits the fact that less than 10 per cent of those on the lowest wages are in trade union membership; trade unions are weakest where they are needed most. The need for innovation to come from within, and outside, the movement as pressing as it has ever been.

WorkerTech is making a difference already. Our previous research has shown that there already lots of organisations using technology in a pro-worker fashion, some of which are having a big impact. Coworker.org is a prime example, this is an online petitioning website that workers in the US have used to win better parental leave, pay rises and changes to uniform policies. The website now has 1 in 10 Starbucks employees worldwide in its database – its potential is vast. Or there is Loconomics, a cooperative that was formed with the aim of using technology to bring service professionals directly in touch with potential customers, cutting out the high fees that employment agencies and middle-men often charge. Or Turkopticon, a tool that workers using Amazon’s crowdworking site can use to rate and compare those offering tasks. Maybe your innovation could be next?

If you’ve got an idea or skills that you want to put to use on the WorkerTech programme, feel free to get in touch to discuss it further, and make sure to submit your application by June 18th.