Launching the Tech Workers’ Charter in Scotland

Maria Torres-Quevedo · 6 April 2023

In March Prospect launched it’s new Tech Workers’ Charter. I started the launch by asking a group of tech workers if they think that they need trade unions. I was met by a resounding ‘yes’.

scottish teck workers launch eventA few months ago, I gave a similar talk in the same location to another group of tech workers, but they were initially not so sure. There are many reasons for this, the tech sector has developed a specific culture that encourages workers not to think of themselves as workers. The pool tables, sofas, and free pizza that encourage workers to spend most of their time at the office have become a cliché, but workers across the sector are familiar with the gamification of work, the myth of meritocracy, and the relatively high pay.

While pay is generally high across the sector, it is often opaque, unequal, and based on managerial reports and other unknown factors. These factors contribute to setting extremely variable bonuses for workers. In other words, pay can be used as a tool to reward or punish workers not just for the quality of their work, but for good behaviour and compliance.

Until recently, workers also felt they had a high degree of security– their skills were in high demand, and they were unlikely to be treated as a disposable workforce. This changed with the wave of redundancies that began at big tech companies like Twitter, Deliveroo, and Spotify, with smaller tech companies soon following suit.

While the widespread acknowledgement for the need for unions in tech is relatively new, workers are building on a history of tech worker organising. The Tech Workers’ Coalition was an early example in the USA. This network grew quickly, and included workers at companies including Amazon, Facebook, and Google.

After the Trump administration hinted at building a registry of Muslims living in the country, these tech workers signed a “Never Again” pledge, refusing to work on projects that would help the US government collect data on immigrants or racialised groups.

Employees at Google staged a walkout of 10,000s of employees internationally after a report was published on the widespread sexual harassment in the company. Further actions involved open letters making demands, such as Amazon workers demanding urgent climate action.

Many of these actions have a common issue at heart: workers want a say in their work and want to contribute to a better and fairer society.

Based on monthly meet ups and a survey that went out to thousands of tech workers across the UK, Prospect identified some of the most common issues tech workers are facing.

Currently, tech has the second lowest union density of any sector. The tech sector is about to grow significantly– the Scottish Government has invested £42 million in scaling up the tech industry, which they hope will be a significant pillar of the Scottish economy.

The reason for this is that the need for tech workers is currently higher than the availability of tech workers; training more people will change this, but it will also take away some of the power tech workers have had to ensure decent conditions. It will make it harder for workers to make demands and it will make it harder to leave bad employers. It will also make it harder to unionise in an industry already in desperate need of better unionisation.

This is where the Scottish Tech Workers’ Network comes in. The network is part of a project funded by Prospect and by the Scottish Trade Union Congress through the Union Modernisation Fund. Many tech companies in Scotland are start-ups and lack the number of employees needed for union recognition.

The network meets regularly and has a Slack through which workers discuss ways to organise to improve work in the tech sector and to increase awareness about unions in the workforce. For example, we reach out to places training future tech workers to see if we can speak to students about their right to union membership; we build relationships across the sector based on the recognition of those rights, and we work to get more people involved.

The reason for this is that the power of a trade union comes directly from the workers themselves. The more workers, the more power to defend their rights. The Charter has been a central output of the network. It was developed over a year of meet ups, survey results, and conversations with workers outside of the network through various events. It includes nine rights the workers have established that would make tech work fairer and more ethical.

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