Data Workers have RIGHTS !

The rise of neoliberalism as a dominant political paradigm in the 1970s and the emergence of platform capitalism in the 21st century resulted in new areas of employment and a decrease in the relative numbers of workers employed in traditional working-class jobs. Data work, that is, the labor that goes into producing data for so-called “intelligent” systems (Miceli et al., 2021), not only brings with it unprecedented forms of exploitation but, crucially, possibilities for organization and resistance in globally networked economies. 


The Data Workers’ Inquiry is a community-based project in which data workers join us as community researchers (DAIR, 2022) to lead their own inquiry in their respective workplaces. The inquiry aims to deepen the tradition of community-based participatory research (Stoeker 2013; Jason & Glenwick, 2016) by allowing data workers to guide the direction of the research, such that it is oriented towards their needs and goals of building workplace power but supported by formally trained qualitative researchers.

What is a Workers’ Inquiry?

Based on an understanding of capital’s development as dynamically changing, the Data Workers’ Inquiry is an attempt to adapt Marx’s 1880 Workers’ Inquiry to the phenomenon of data workers wo are both essential for contemporary AI applications yet precariously employed—if at all—and politically dispersed. In this spirit, we invite data workers to provide “exact and positive knowledge” (Marx, 1880) that is collectively produced and politically actionable. 

The rich history of the workers’ inquiry guides our methodological considerations. For Marx, the workers themselves are the epistemic authority concerning historically specific manifestations of capitalist exploitation and the necessary agents of social change: 

“We hope to meet in this work with the support of all workers in town and country who understand that they alone can describe with full knowledge the misfortunes from which they suffer and that only they, and not saviors sent by providence, can energetically apply the healing remedies for the social ills which they are prey” (Marx, 1880). 

This way, the workers’ inquiry is intended as a format for political intervention, a tool for mobilization and organization of workers’ struggles. This approach to knowledge acquisition was picked up both by Trotskyists and the Operaismo movement (Woodcock, 2014; Haider & Mohandesi, 2013) throughout the 20th century. Whereas the former rejected academic inquiries as too detached from workers’ actual concerns and argued for data from engaged people as a necessary tool for emancipation, the latter argued that the working-class viewpoint is imperative to decipher the precise class composition of a historical moment, comprising political, technological, and, crucially, social components. In recent years the workers’ inquiry was utilized by collectives such as Kolinko and Notes from Below to uncover the political logics of global, technologically mediated workers’ exploitation.  

The politics of each workers’ inquiry stems from an understanding of the ever-changing composition of labor in capitalist modes of production, and its potential for revolutionary social transformation (Figiel et al., 2014). Our Data Workers’ Inquiry aligns with Operaismo’s proposal of a “participatory action research” (Woodcock, 2014) agenda to engage those who might otherwise be the objects of research to actively shape research questions and methods (Howard & Irani, 2019).

How does the Data Workers’ Inquiry work?

In this project, the data workers serve as community researchers. Every community researcher works for two to four months on their inquiry and is compensated for all their working hours. We collaborate with data workers globally. A decisive sampling criterion is that these are data workers who are already organized in workers councils, unions, communities, or advocacy organizations.

Each community researcher develops their own research questions, designs and conducts their inquiry in collaboration with us and their colleagues, and prepares a presentation format for their findings. These cycles are ongoing, leading to constant exchang between us and the community researchers to systematize the findings and outputs. Each inquiry is unique both in its thematic focus as well as its geographical and organizational context. The inquiries’ findings, which are very diverse and adapted to each workplace’s material and political conditions, range from research reports over podcasts to documentaries showcasing workers’ daily lives. This breadth of knowledge mobilization allows the research to move beyond the confines of academic publishing to have a larger impact in the public sphere.

What is our role?

We, as the organizing team and “informed outsiders” (Headland et al.,1990; Naaeke et al., 2012), conjoin the workers’ experiences of exploitation into a repository that highlights structurally conditioned issues. To this end, we meticulously support every phase of the research journey. We provide guidance including adapting and condensing Marx’s original questions, training in specific data collection and analysis methods, and constantly evaluating the legal and ethical boundaries of the inquiries. We also procure financial means to make each inquiry possible and coordinate the translation of findings into the diverse presentation formats available in the project’s repository

Building and maintaining trust with the community researchers is an ongoing task as is reflecting upon our power and privilege. Our positionality is constantly renegotiated throughout the process and in the specific context of each collaboration (Stoecker, 2003; LeDantec & Fox, 2015; Marshall & Rotimi, 2015). We believe in the workers’ inquiry as a mode of collective sensemaking, where the active participation of workers from below bolsters organizing efforts based upon first-hand, in-depth perspectives on the many facets of workers’ exploitation. The goal is to be proactive supporters while deferring to the workers’ epistemic authority (McAllister, 2022; Muñoz García et al., 2022), as only they are fully knowledgeable of the multiple dimensions of data work and their struggles as data workers (Gallagher et al., 2023).

meet the team

Convenors

Adio Dinika
DAIR
Krystal Kauffman
Turkopticon, DAIR
Camilla Salim Wagner
Weizenbaum Institute
Laurenz Sachenbacher
TU Berlin
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