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Coworking spaces can sometimes seem like utopian work environments. Yet the threat of old-fashioned corporate exploitation still exists for the independent workers within them. While being free of corporate hierarchies, coworkers still struggle with unequal power relationships with their contracting employers, who can make life difficult through unreasonable deadlines, withholding pay, and general uncertainty. How to utilize coworking spaces to prevent coworker exploitation?
By Nina Pohler - Thursday, 26 January 2012

The central values of a 'coworking philosophy' that many coworking spaces are built on are collaboration, openness, community and accessibility. Sounds to good to be true?

Coworking spaces can actually feel quite utopian. You walk inside an eclectic space that looks and feels so much better than any ordinary office you've ever been to. You are surrounded by motivated people who are working on exciting projects. You share interesting thoughts and ideas over some fair-trade coffee or a delicious organic lunch. Some work or have worked together on projects. Someone might ask you to stick around for a workshop.

While coworking spaces might come pretty close to the ideal working space, at times they can also be spaces where some of the worst characteristics of a capitalist economy are being reproduced - just like in an ordinary workspace.

This article wants to address one fundamental problem of a capitalist economy - asymmetric relationships, and how they are reproduced and exploited in coworking spaces.

Asymmetric power relationships

What is meant by asymmetric relationships? Basically you have asymmetric power relations everywhere - in politics, economy, and society, and on a more vivid level, in families, schools, fabrics, and offices. They occur wherever there is hierarchy, whenever there is a relationship where one part has more power than the other. This hierarchy does not necessarily have to be obvious at first sight.

Together with new forms of work, during the past decade, new forms of work-related asymmetric power relations have emerged. These new forms of asymmetric power relations are not as easy to recognize and understand as 'classical' power relation between a capitalist and his workers. Just as new forms of work are much more variable and complex than ordinary forms of work, these new asymmetric relationships are more complex and often equivocal.

Pseudo self-employment

The term pseudo self-employment has been coined to conceptualize specific forms of work-related asymmetric relationships and make them visible. Ultimately it became a legal concept in order to regulate this relationships and to protect the weaker partner. What does pseudo self-employment mean?

You call someone pseudo self-employed who is legally independent, but who gets all, or most of his work, and therefore income, from one single employer. So the person who is pseudo self-employed is economically dependent on this one employer. The employer on the other hand, although he might always have access to the other person and can use it whenever needed, does not have to pay for social insurance or wage tax, he also does not have to pay for times when there is no work needed, nor is he bound to any restrictions concerning dismal protection or vacation-entitlement.

New kinds of flexible work-arrangements and relationships have a lot of advantages, (there’s no need to go into detail here, because you all know about them). But if there is a big difference between the partners in a work relationship, sometimes the stronger party gets all the advantages and benefits, while the weaker party has to bear the full risk and disadvantages.

Usually the strong partner is someone who is established and well connected. Often these people or companies are very good at communicating and selling, they act mainly as project managers, while contracting out the actual development or design work to other people. The subcontractors in turn are often newcomers who don't have a big network, who are rather inexperienced and not as good at selling themselves and their work. Usually these people are happy that someone subcontracts them work and they don't have to spend time on acquisition, communicating and networking. The relationship between the main contractor and the subcontractor can be win-win situation, but rather often it is not.

Common problems of the pseudo self-employed

In these kinds of relationships, the following problematic situations can often be observed:

- The main contractor calls you when he needs you, and then you're either available right away or you might not earn enough money during the next weeks or months. So you are not able to plan your work and life autonomously.

- The main contractor tells you that there is time pressure, so you have to work hard over long hours. During that time you can't concentrate on anything else and you don't have time to go hunting for other projects.

- You start working and then you come to a point where you can't continue because you need further specifications, information or any other kind of preparatory work. So you have to wait for a few days during which you can't start working on another project because your planning did not include sudden, unexpected 'free time'. Still, you can't really relax either, and what is worse, during that period you don't earn money.

- Requirements regarding your work might change over time, often due to miscommunication which you are not responsible for, so you have to re-work or re-build or re-design but you don't get paid for this additional work.

- After your work is done you have to wait for weeks or months until you get paid, because the project is either not finished or the main contractor tells you he did not get any money yet.

So, essentially the subcontractor is in a very precarious work situation. But he or she can't do much about it though, because the subcontractor is the weaker, dependent partner in this asymmetric relationship. Sometimes the problems above occur because the main contractor is deliberately exploiting the subcontractor, sometimes they just occur because of bad project-management or communication. Either way, the subcontractor is not in a position to change any of that, while at the same time has to bear the risks and costs.

Problems of work-related asymmetric relationships also occur when there are interns or volunteers working for an employer, or when someone from a better-off country is outsourcing work to another country where incomes are lower.

Coworking spaces - fixing or furthering the problem?

Work-related asymmetric relationships are not exclusively a coworking space phenomenon. But there is the danger that coworking spaces, by their existence, make establishing and reproducing these forms of relationships easier. It is easy to find young, skilled and motivated people as subcontractors, and it is easy to build relationships on the assumption that everyone is more or less the same and equal. Relationships in coworking spaces can, due to the intimacy created by a shared workspace, be very informal and feel like friendship.  It is nice to have informal work-relationships that are not based purely on economic motives, but these relationships are also more easy to exploit and for the weaker partner it is much harder to address or prevent exploitation.

A coworking space might be a very special working space, paved with good intentions, but it is still a place on earth, embedded in a capitalist economy, where there are always incentives to profit from other people's weakness. People in coworking spaces, as free and independent as they might feel, still have to work under a lot of restrictions like time, money, and skills. These restrictions can generate situations in which one is more likely to exploit someone else.

What is to be done?

So the question here is, how to prevent the exploitation of asymmetric power and how to foster truly equal win-win situations, based on the coworking values of collaboration, openness, community, and accessibility?  In order to do that, it is important that the problem of asymmetric power does not get ignored and hidden behind beautiful ideas and values. If a coworking space is a space where different and better forms of working are emerging and happening, if the coworking community really takes their values seriously, then the problems that occur with asymmetric relationships have to be made visible, they have to be addressed and discussed.


This article was written by Nina Pohler, who recently completed a thesis on the topic of coworking at the Vienna University for Business Administration and Economics. Previous Deskmag articles by Nina Pohler: Coworking 101: A new definition

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