Data Protection, Employment Data and Worker Empowerment

How do laws like GDPR protect people’s data rights, and how does employment data factor in? Find out how this affects gig work and traditional work.

In 2021, data is being generated everywhere. From social media habits to online shopping preferences to mobile phone location, nearly every single digital activity performed is collected in one way or another. 

Companies process user data in order to create better products, improve their marketing techniques and better understand their customer behavior. Additionally, many companies package and sell data sets of their users’ activity to third parties, who in turn, sell that data on to other firms. 

The collecting and selling of user data has created an international marketplace that some analysts estimate was worth $169 billion in 2018

While most people may think of their data trail as search and e-commerce history, there is another little known data set that holds incredible importance: their employment data. 

So what is employment data, exactly? And how do workers, especially those in gig work, know that their data is protected? 

Data Protection Laws

One of the most sweeping data protection laws ever passed is the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation – otherwise known as GDPR. 

Introduced in 2016 and formerly enacted in May 2018, GDPR is a set of legal standards that dictates how user data may be collected and processed. The legislation was created primarily to address the meteoric growth of commercial data harvesting, which at the time, was mostly unregulated. 

At its core, the regulation treats a person’s data trail as an extension of their physical self. As such, the data subject (the person who generated the data) holds certain fundamental ownership rights over the data. 

In practice, this means that companies must attain user consent to collect and use data. Plus, a data subject may request a portable copy of their collected data at any time, and in certain circumstances, they may have the right to have their data erased entirely. 

Upon its implementation, GDPR had a massive impact around the world. Companies looking to do business in one of the world’s most lucrative economic trading blocs had to ensure they were operating in accordance with the new regulation or face massive financial penalties. 

Meanwhile, in the United States, California sought to create similar legislation through the California Consumer Privacy Act. Like GDPR, it was created to give users more rights over how their data was used. Aside from this state law, though, the U.S. data market is still fairly unregulated holistically at the federal level. Rather than one sweeping regulation, the U.S. relies on a mosaic of data protection laws for categories like financial, health care and children’s data.

Employment Data: An Often Overlooked Data Trail

Whenever we work for an employer, we generate a certain data set. At a bare minimum, companies collect employee demographic data like age, race and gender. They will also collect an employee’s social security number and tax data for IRS filing requirements. 

In addition to those basics, an employer is likely also making a note of an individual’s work status (i.e. if they work full-time, part-time, contract, gig work, etc.), attendance record, commuting distance and travel method, compensation history and employment tenure. If they receive benefits from 3rd party providers, employment data may also include retirement planning, health care expenses and financial wellness records. 

This data is often stored in employee management systems by human resource departments. Managers use this information to spot trends in the growth and losses for the company as well as improving worker satisfaction. For instance, by tracking how employees utilize their benefits, managers can create tailored packages. They can also analyze the data set holistically to make managers more engaged and receptive to workers’ needs. 

While employment data can be used to create a more engaged and productive workplace, it is also extremely sensitive information. 

Unfortunately, some organizations have been known to package and sell their employees’ data to third parties for a quick influx of cash without the knowledge of the employees. In a moment of fiscal uncertainty, some firms value the short-term monetary boost over the long-term drag on employee trust.

What Recourse Do Workers Have?

Workers in the EU, of course, are protected from their employers reselling their employment data without their consent thanks to GDPR. In the U.S., though, workers typically don’t have those same protections. 

Particularly for those in gig work, the deregulated data marketplace can make it very difficult to get a grasp on what data is out there, and who is using it. 

Imagine a rideshare driver. It is estimated that two-thirds of drivers work on more than one platform, which could mean they are generating two parallel employment data sets. While one of those platforms may treat their drivers’ data securely and responsibly, the other platform may not. 

Now extrapolate that example to the 57 million gig workers in the U.S. across gig categories like housework, delivery drivers, dog walkers, handyman services, designers and much more. 

Thankfully there are a few software tools trying to fill the gap between the sweeping protection that GDPR affords and the current U.S. regulation standards. 

Companies like Argyle have developed employment data management systems that transparently track and protect worker records. While still a growing market, Argyle already services companies like Uber, Amazon, Starbucks and more.

For workers who want to know what their employment data footprint looks like right now, allows individuals to download a PDF report of their employment data – much like a credit report. 

With that data in hand, workers can begin to understand what information is being provided to loan services, other employers and other parties. This empowers workers with the ability to dispute discrepancies in their work history and begin to take control of their own employment data trail.

Data to Empower Gig Workers

While the regulation of data distribution is vital, the ability for gig workers to utilize their data and leverage it has the potential to largely benefit the workers. While most traditionally employed workers are protected from discriminationsm, unjust biases and poor working standards, gig workers as contract individuals do not have the same safety nets.

Currently, platform workers can only establish a reputation on individual platforms and in moving to new platforms have to start from scratch. It is important to note that ratings and reputations often play a crucial role in securing work or garnering customers. Thus the ability for workers to transfer ratings between platforms would not only benefit the workers but incentivize platforms to maintain high standards of working to ensure workers’ satisfaction and retention. 

Many trade unions, lobbyists and academics argue that giving gig workers ownership of their online reputations can address some of the issues associated with the instability workers face in securing enough work especially when working across or moving to new platforms. It is argued that it is both the right of platform workers to be able to have portable ratings as well as integrate the ratings across platforms. 

Data ownership has also proven to be beneficial to gig workers in instances such as utilizing Appjobs Reward program, a meta program tailored to increase transparency of work data and also worker loyalty. Where the integration of past and present work history allows for workers to earn extra rewards for the gigs they are completing.