"Technological changes sometimes seem harmless but bring many consequences."

Bejna Yildiz

Mattijn van den Bos (28) is a student atĀ Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences. He started last year on the multidisciplinary master programme Digitalisation in Work and Society (DWS) with a background in sociology. Currently, he is doing an internship at FNV - the largest labour union in the Netherlands - and is working on a lawsuit against Uber. Read about his experiences within the master here.

How did you end up at DWS?

I completed the bachelor programmes Sociology and Public Administration at EUR. Then I took a gap year to travel. When the corona pandemic started, I decided to follow a master programme. I spent months thinking about what exactly I wanted to do. Eventually, I ended up at DWS. For me, the most exciting thing was that you get to apply sociology to a very concrete, current situation: the increasing use of digital technologies in the context of work and organisation. There is just so much change. The most relevant thing for me was: a restructuring of society.

As a sociologist, you are mainly educated to be a scientist. But I missed the translation to practice. So in this master, I saw the opportunity to build a nice bridge by learning to apply abstract scientific knowledge in practice. And that you will find ways to transfer your knowledge.

Do you have an example of something from your bachelor that you can apply in the master?

As a sociologist, your theoretical foundations are much more substantial. Where others move much faster to do, I find that I am on a more abstract level. That is to say; I first check whether the preconditions are all right before I move on to action. This approach makes you much more precise and thorough. From sociology, we learned you always have to look at what is said and what is right or wrong. This way, it keeps you sharp, and you also learn to recognise the weaknesses. You take into account every scenario, and your analysis becomes much more comprehensive.

Is that the most significant difference you notice between sociology students compared to other disciplines?

Yes, it is. You look much more at the theory, and you also ask yourself what should be structurally different or better. A lot of people don't ask those questions.

Looking back at your year, what did you enjoy most about the master?

In the first period, during the course Introduction to Digitalisation in Work and Society, you touch upon many different things, and I really enjoyed that. Changing Organisations and Technology was for me the most sociological course in the second period. And that also felt very familiar. Then you notice that as a sociologist, you have an advantage over others. The way we handled the material also felt familiar.

In the last period, we had a course that emphasises organisational psychology, and that didn't appeal to me at all at first. The way of thinking and doing things was not like what I was used to. It seemed very reductionist, and there was, from my perspective, mostly thinking from the individual and models. But towards the end of the period, I had a eureka moment. It's a different way of approaching an issue, and I liked that the most.

Does the master fulfil your expectations?

Yes, quite a bit. My internship also has a lot to do with that. My image was that I would find a practical connection with the practice. For example, several guest speakers gave lectures and engage in discussions with us. This connects you with people in the field, so the link with practice becomes clear.

Can you tell us something more about your internship?

I am currently doing an internship at FNV, the largest labour union in the Netherlands. At the moment, FNV is working on several lawsuits to improve the current conditions of platform workers, such as a lawsuit against Uber. This is because Uber uses a sham construction in which people are wrongly treated as self-employed. On paper, Uber marks drivers as self-employed. However, in practice, they control their drivers. Thus, according to FNV, they should be treated as employees.

I joined the team dealing with the lawsuit against Uber. So I can work alongside and contribute to the FNV's investigation of drivers' working conditions. In addition, I will write my thesis for the EUR. My thesis topic is about the phenomenon of these sham constructions. Thus, I can use the research for my thesis. A the same time, FNV can use my results in their lawsuit against Uber.

What are theoretical aspects you recognise from your master's that you can apply to practice?

Within the master, there are quite a lot of researches covered about platform working. It is a hot topic within science, and there is a lot of research about it. From this research, you learn to look at the matter as a changing relationship between three different parties: the platform operator, the customer and the drivers. In the past, the employees and the organisation's owner were much more side-by-side; they had a direct relationship. Now employers and customers are much more opposite of the driver.

Take the rating system. Employees used to have a performance review within the organisation. Because of the rating system, an employee's evaluation is outsourced to the customers and placed outside the organisation. It creates an extraordinary power relationship between the customers and drivers. It seems like a very innocuous function. It is now the case that things are also made internally based on the assessments. As a customer, you determine how a driver is judged internally and reacted to from within the organisation. The Uber drivers are suffering from this. They have to work even harder to keep the ratings high.

Should we all remove Uber from our phones?

The platform is not bad. You can set it up in a lot of ways. It is just that those platforms are now set up in a way that creates this situation. If drivers earned better and had more freedom, the platform would work very well for them too. When Uber starts in a new location, the rates are often still advantageous for drivers. So they can recruit quite a lot of drivers. So, it's very nice in the beginning, and everyone is happy until they conquer the market. Then the whole digital environment is set up so that Uber makes as much money as possible. The drivers then have to work extremely hard to make the minimum wage. Sometimes their income even falls below the minimum wage. Uber tries to keep customers happy by lowering rates, but all at the expense of the driver.

How did you end up at FNV?

I ended up at FNV through a guest lecture. An FNV employee came to speak during the course Changing Organisations and Technology. The subject was platform work and the lawsuit against Uber. So, via the guest speaker, I ended up at FNV. Nice to know for future students: there are quite a few guest speakers. If you think you'll find something interesting, get in touch with them because they are certainly open to that. These people from the field are good points of contact.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I can go in many directions. I would consider continuing in science. In my internship, I am right in the middle of things while still using an outside perspective. It also gives me a good impression of what it is like to work as a researcher.

I could also work as a consultant. You could advise on introducing digital technologies into companies, for example, and what exactly that does. Sometimes it seems very innocent - for example, a new system or installing a conveyor belt - but then you see that all the relationships within companies are completely shaken up and changed. What you learn in the master programme is what changes and how does something change? That awareness of the change process is something I took away from DWS. So such a small innocent technological change as a rating system can bring a lot to the people in the company and perhaps even lead to resistance. What does the implementation of such a new system do to the employees, and can those effects be estimated? Then you can look along and make adjustments where necessary. I also see myself in international companies. Changes are pretty expensive, so small companies don't do that easily.

Is there still room for sociologists in the job market?

The biggest battle is with governments. Platforms like Uber fall precisely into a grey area. Legislation and regulations need to be made for this. It undermines society. There is also awareness. Especially from the EU, more and more guidelines are being made. With this master, you become very skilled at analysing the entire process.

If you start now, you have a head start. In science and practice, the realisation is growing that something must be done about digitisation. The discussion is getting underway about whether we approve of life becoming more and more digital and technical and whether we want it to. Especially for sociologists, it is essential to get involved in this. Digitalisation is currently presented as primarily a commercial and technical story rather than a social one. But that too needs to be told. It also has a right to exist alongside those other stories. In the end, all these stories must come together, and there is still some way to go.

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