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We Need to Protect Low Income Workers—And There May or May Not Be an App for That

Since Steve Jobs announced the very first iPhone in 2007, smartphones have been largely developed for and marketed to upwardly mobile professionals. These little devices, and the flood of applications for them, transformed the way many of us think about computing and communication. However, in the shadow of this attention-grabbing change for elites, a quieter revolution has also been taking place.

Since 2008, the market for prepaid smartphones has grown substantially, with the most growth coming from those with the lowest incomes. Despite more inconsistent and smaller incomes, low-wage workers are investing in personal electronics. In fact, even in hard times we’ve seen that spending on personal technologies increases. During the Great Recession, as many Americans tightened their belts and spent less on transportation, clothing, and many other goods, they invested more in Internet access and consumer technologies. Earlier this month, an app for day laborers called Jornalero turned up the volume on this quiet revolution.

As the New York Times reported, Jornalero—which means “day laborer” in Spanish—is a smartphone app developed by New Immigrant Community Empowerment, or NICE, a nonprofit immigrant rights group based in Jackson Heights, New York. This app, available in both English and Spanish, was designed to strengthen the position of these vulnerable workers, who are often the victims of wage theft. The app lets workers document their hours, record employer information and job site conditions, and even share their location with other users. Users’ profiles link only to a phone number. This is an important feature for a population of workers dominated by undocumented immigrants. If a user reports through the app that she was not paid or was underpaid, NICE will attempt to contact the employer. If the wages still don’t appear, Manuel Castro, executive director of NICE, told the Times that the documentation will help workers file legal complaints to get the wages they deserve.

Apps like Jornalero and HourVoice, another app aimed at empowering low-wage hourly workers, illustrate the critical role that smartphones play in the lives of the working poor. Over the past two years, the number of Americans who depend on their smartphones for Internet access has nearly doubled, with minorities from low-income households being the most likely to rely heavily on their smartphones to get online. Nationwide, according to the Pew Research Center, 13 percent of low-income Americans, 12 percent of black Americans, and 13 percent of Latinos depend on their mobile devices for internet access. If the number of people who depend on their smartphones for internet access continues to increase, we’ll likely see more apps aimed at the problems and needs of this population. As low-wage workers take on multiple jobs and navigate flexible and insecure employment markets, these applications could help simplify the complex logistics of their lives and enable them to have a modicum of control over the conditions of their work.

However, if policymakers and for-profit groups start creating tools for these communities, they’ll face a minefield of issues that could deepen existing inequalities and increase the risks faced by this precarious population. First, the high cost of mobile data and inconsistent incomes often combine to create challenges for consistent Internet access. People may successfully gather enough money to make hefty initial investments in their devices, but they could struggle to make the monthly payments on plans in order to maintain access to important tools.

These sorts of apps could also inadvertently increase the burden these workers face to document their own abuse. As we’ve seen with allegations of sexual assault, new tools that let people document their surroundings may lead to cultural changes in what counts as sufficient evidence of abuse, leading to assumptions that if an incident actually happened, there should be documentation, as everyone presumably has equal access to the digital tools to record evidence. In this way, apps might raise the bar for the kind of evidence workers are expected to provide in wage-theft cases. That’s particularly dangerous if in reality workers only have intermittent access to these services. These apps may individualize the responsibility that workers bear to document their own abuse and may deepen their inability to seek help when they need it most

Lastly, the data generated by users in an app like Jornalero—especially location-based information about where these casual and often illegally hired laborers are working—might be very attractive to those seeking to deport or intimidate the undocumented. Similarly, an application designed to help hourly workers keep track of their multiple jobs, tips, and other kinds of gray-market income may make these workers’ financial information more vulnerable to government surveillance or be used by private companies to determine credit worthiness. According to Castro, the privacy of Jornalero users’ data, including location, is a “priority,” because, “the privacy of the workers using the app is essential to its success.” Organizations that develop these systems are under added pressure to protect the privacy and anonymity of their users, as the troves of sensitive data generated by apps aimed at low-income workers could end up making them more vulnerable.

In developing these technologies, we must acknowledge the potential for these devices to help people navigate their lives, while being careful to refute the myth that equal access automatically leads to equal rights. Technological solutions can get us part of the way toward securing important protections for our nation’s most vulnerable workers. But acknowledging the potential unintended consequences of these technologies is important to ensure they don’t end up undermining the very people they hope to help.

This story originally ran on Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.

Author:

Julia Ticona is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Virginia.