the promises and practices of labor platforms across the ridehail, care, and cleaning industries in the US. Between Spring and Winter 2017, we conducted over 100 qualitative, semi-structured interviews with ridehail app drivers, in-home child and elder care workers, and housecleaners who use platforms to find work in primarily in New York, NY, Atlanta, GA, and Washington, DC. During this period, we also observed the online communities that these workers have formed to discuss occupational or platform-based issues. Although there is a growing body of research on platform-based work, few ethnographic studies exist, and public understanding of this area is shaped largely by journalistic and corporate-produced narratives about who workers are, what motivates them, and how they understand their work. This study contributes new insights on the operation of labor platforms in different low-wage industries and raises new questions about the role of technology in restructuring work.The authors summarise their findings
it’s not all about “uberization:”
The dominance of Uber in public understandings of on-demand labor platforms has obscured the different ways technology is being used to reshape other types of services – such as care and cleaning work – in the “gig” economy. In particular, the Uber model doesn’t illuminate differences in regulation, workforce demographics, and legacies of inequality and exploitation that shape other industries.
labor platforms don’t all do the same things:
Labor platforms intervene at different points in relationships between workers and clients. We identify two main types of platforms: “on-demand” and “marketplace” platforms. While on-demand platforms (like Uber) indirectly manage workforces through “algorithmic management” to rapidly dispatch them to consumers, marketplace platforms (like many care services) primarily impact the hiring process through sorting, ranking, and rendering visible large pools of workers. Some platforms (like many cleaning services) mix elements from both types.
platforms shift risks and rewards for workers in different ways:
Marketplace platforms incentivize workers to invest heavily in self-branding, and disadvantage workers without competitive new media skills; meanwhile, on-demand platforms create challenges for workers by offloading inefficiencies and hidden costs directly onto workers.
platforms create hard trade-offs between safety and reputation:
Workplace safety is an important issue for workers across care, cleaning, and driving platforms. While some labor platforms provide helpful forms of accountability, company policies also exacerbate risks for workers by placing pressures on them to forego their own safety interests in the name of maintaining reputation or collecting pay. Race and gender shape workers’ vulnerability to unsafe working conditions, but platform policies don’t account for the ways that marginalized workers’ face different challenges to their safety.
online communities create weak ties in a fragmented workforce, for some:
Workers on labor platforms use social media and other networked communication to find one another, share pointers, laughs, complaints, and to solve problems. However, while these groups excel at ad hoc problem solving, they struggle to address larger structural challenges, and may exclude significant populations of workers.