Can apps protect workers & amplify worker voice?

Can apps protect workers & amplify worker voice?

Reflections on The Workers Lab’s SeeClickFix Design Institute

We set out to answer our title question at our first Design Institute of 2016.  In our first year of operation, The Workers Lab (TWL) heard time and time again, that enforcing laws on the books intended to protect workers was extremely difficult. With the proliferation of new minimum wage ordinances around the country, worker centers were noting that protecting workers against wage theft without resources for enforcement was paralyzing the impact of these laws. Since TWL is at the nexus of experimentation, innovation, and worker justice, we decided to use our Design Institute to devise a plan for using app technology to intervene in the enforcement landscape. Our Design Institutes allow us to bring proven entrepreneurs and technologists together with worker organizers to create real-time solutions to the pressing issues workers face.  The Workers Lab, in partnership with the Ford Foundation, National Employment Law Project, and SeeClickFix hosted worker organizations and Department of Labor leadership to develop a prototype for an app that would allow workers to report wage theft as well as health and safety violations. It was my second day on the job here at TWL and I’ll admit I was full of both intrigue and healthy skepticism. There are many unanswered questions about the role technology and social media can play in building working power. Whatever that role is and can be, we wanted it to be informed by worker organizer experience and knowledge; so we convened 40 worker centers from across the country to share their insights, ask questions, and shape the future of this work. I learned a lot – to say the least.  Here are some highlights from the day:

Exposing Enforcement System Gaps

Des Inst_2The app is intended to allow workers to document incidents of wage theft and health and safety violations while at work. There is already an infrastructure in place for enforcing these protections for workers, but we would be remiss to ignore that the system leaves a lot to be desired. Public agencies typically receive thousands of complaints they are unable to investigate, workers don’t know where to go for help, and retaliation by employers is rampant. There was extensive discussion about how to maintain worker privacy and with SeeClickFix’s assurance, the possibilities for configuring the technology to do this are quite endless. We can give workers the option to connect to services, publicly file a complaint or do so anonymously. In developing this technology, we’ve identified an opportunity to fill the gaps in the existing system by creating scalable national data infrastructure to document violations, identify sectors and places where violations are concentrated, and by creating a system where workers can access the protection they need to transform their workplaces.

Effective Apps Need Organized Workers

Des Inst_3We all know technology is amazingly powerful. In the last decade alone, we have watched the proliferation of communications technology, along with all the vulnerabilities and cyber risks that accompany it. I am sure we can all name several apps or websites that seemed promising, but faltered quickly due to lack of user uptake or market saturation. The lesson in much of this is that technology is only as good as the thought that goes into making it. Technology is a complement, not a supplement to worker organizing. No app can supplant the very critical efforts of worker centers and labor unions in the enforcement ecosystem. We are not aiming to replace government agency investigators; we can not inspire trust with workers by replacing advocates with confidentiality disclosure pop-ups; and we absolutely will not have a movement without worker organizing. These are the pragmatic concerns raised to which one person frankly replied, ‘no single app is going to solve all our problems.’

Envisioning a Stronger Enforcement Ecosystem

Des Insti_1At its core, the Design Institute process is an exercise in developing consensus, alignment, and agreement amongst people with different skills and similar beliefs about the need to build worker power. Part of our mission is to strengthen the ecosystem of partners engaged in building power for workers and protecting the rights availed to them. Doing the hard work to collectively define what we want the app to accomplish is just the first step. I have been to a lot of meetings where we had great conversation and then we all went home. This was not one of those meetings. The energy in the room was palpable; there was no idea or concern too big or small that was not put on the table. We considered several scenarios for how a worker would engage with the app and ultimately achieve the goal of building power. We mapped the flow of information in the app, the points that a worker would be connected to other workers, and the various ways worker reports could be routed to organizers, advocates, or investigators. To address the lack of open data around worker complaints, the group was especially excited to test whether the app would enable the collection and aggregation of data on worker complaints. If we are able to conduct data analysis and find trends (by industry, employer, location, etc.) we could in turn drive informed organizing strategies.

Next Steps and Invitation to Apply

We are charging forward with much excitement and momentum. Next, we will continue building out the app with SeeClickFix while simultaneously launching an application process for entities interested in testing the app in five cities. If you are interested, APPLY HERE by the April 26, 2016 deadline! The test phase will last a total of eight months.  We will begin with initial tool development and adaptation to each city’s needs in early summer 2016, five to six months of user testing, public education, and continuous improvement, and technical assistance for partners throughout the duration of the testing phase. We will be providing grant assistance, up to $30K to support implementation efforts, public awareness, and staff coordination for partners to lead the testing roll out among a target group of workers in their city. If you want to learn more, we encourage you to explore the application page for more information. We hope you apply!