Tackling precarity in the platform economy—and beyond

To focus on online platforms in isolation would miss the point that they are part of a wider phenomenon of spreading and intensifying precarity at work.

By Sacha Garben – In our increasingly digitalised world, a crucial role is played by online platforms. These platforms—dynamic websites which constitute digital public squares or marketplaces—affect the economy and our society in various ways and their regulation (or lack thereof) is increasingly the subject of public and political debate. Whether it be the way in which Facebook deals with personal and public information, the influence of Airbnb on our habitat, Uber’s effects on the taxi sector or the working conditions of Deliveroo couriers or tech-workers on Amazon Mechanical Turk, the ‘disruptive’ effects of the activities of the platforms regularly make headlines.

A key social problem is the labor status of those working in the online-platform economy. These drivers, riders, cleaners, designers, translators, technicians and others are often formally contracted as independent and their working arrangements tend to exhibit features which are difficult to square with the traditional employment relationship. These include use of their own materials (such as the driver’s car), autonomy concerning working hours (logging into work via a smartphone app), the short duration of the relationship (translation of perhaps a single sentence) and its multilateral character (the platform linking the producer and consumer).

At the same time, the worker may well be economically dependent on the platform work, the contractual independence can be constructed in rather artificial ways—such as if a driver works full-time for a platform for several years yet remains formally contracted per journey—and the platform can exert significant control over the work and the person performing it.

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Furthermore, their ‘independent’ status often means platform workers lack the benefit of the social, labor, health and safety protections which in most countries are connected to an employment contract—even if their precarious working conditions and socio-economic position very much require such protection. more>

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