The impact of the digital economy on the way we work

16 February 2021
Professor Shae McCrystal on World Day of Social Justice
In the lead up to World Day of Social Justice, Sydney Law School’s Professor Shae McCrystal talks about the way the digital economy has radically changed the way we work.

This year, the theme of World Day of Social Justice is ‘A Call for Social Justice in the Digital Economy’. So, we had a chat with labour law expert, Professor Shae McCrystal, about the digital economy and how it has changed the way we work, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is the main challenge for labour law in a digital economy?

Professor Shae McCrystal, Sydney Law School

The main challenge for labour law in a digital economy is keeping pace with continuing disruption to the manner in which workers are engaged, and managing the challenges presented by an effectively border-free labour market.

Many digital platforms exploit existing regulatory weaknesses to engage low skilled and low paid ‘self-employed’ workers at rates below regulatory minimum standards set for employees.

The regulation of self-employed workers is designed for those genuinely in business for themselves, not for those labouring in the businesses of others, but the legal definitions we use have not kept pace with technological changes.

This enables low skilled ‘gig’ workers to be disguised as ‘self-employed’ and left without those regulatory protections specifically targeted at them.

Your latest book looks at strikes as a means of protecting and promoting the social and economic interests of workers. What is the future of strikes in times of growing remote and gig work?

Professor Shae McCrystal's book, 'Strike Ballots, Democracy and Law'

Industrial action, or the realistic threat of industrial action, is a crucial tool in the arsenal of working people to seek to better their working conditions. However, access to lawful industrial action is heavily regulated, and in Australia is restricted to employees in a single enterprise during bargaining for a proposed agreement.

The inability of working people to use industrial action to support their rights in self-employment, and for all workers to strike in solidarity across enterprises, limits the utility of strikes for all workers, and those engaged in remote and gig work.

This is further complicated where gig work can be done across borders, given that the use of industrial action as a toll of international solidarity is generally prohibited by domestic laws. 

Professor Shae McCrystal's research was supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council's Discovery Projects funding scheme (project DP140100902).

Read more about Professor Shae McCrystal’s latest book Strike Ballots, Democracy, and Law (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Find out more about our research in labour, employment and anti-discrimination law.


Banner image by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash.

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