Politics and Ethics of Platform Labour: Learning from Lived Experiences

13 April 2021 - 14 April 2021

ONLINE

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Lead Convenor

Sian Lazar
 

Speakers

Mary Gray (Microsoft Research and Harvard University)
Alex Wood (Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham)
Alexandrea Ravenelle (University of North Carolina)
 

Summary

Digital platforms are increasingly important forms of organising work today, from the physical labour of driving, delivery, cleaning and other tasks – organised through platforms like Uber, Lyft, Deliveroo, Instacart etc., to freelance digital labour through sites like UpWork, Amazon Mechanical Turk, Fiverr. Sites connect clients to workers, organise payment, and take commission, while mostly seeking to avoid the responsibilities that an employer might have to employees. This conference seeks to explore the politics and ethics of this way of organising labour from the perspective of the lived experience of the workers themselves. We will focus especially on qualitative and ethnographic work on how people feel about their own labour situation, how they build their own networks, what they consider to be the most important aspect of this new way of working, and how it fits with their lives and values. We hope to attract a broad range of activists, social scientists, social theorists and philosophers of platform capitalism to this conversation.

Drawing on this conversation and beginning from the perspective of those doing the work, we aim to identify some of the key political and ethical questions associated with this form of labour today. Such questions might include: what is the appropriate relationship between worker, client and employer? Does the platform itself dictate that relationship? Does it make exploitation easier than conventional employment forms, or even inevitable? Could there be principals of design that would mitigate against that? What is the role of regulation in reality, and what could its role be? What is it that workers like about platform labour? How do they evaluate their own conditions, and how would they like them to improve? What are the social networks that workers develop around these forms of labour, and how does it fit together with their daily lives, hopes, values and family situations? What are the possibilities for collective action? How have all of these been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic?

The first day of the conference will focus on physical labour organised through platforms like Uber and Deliveroo, where workers and clients come into direct contact on city streets or in people’s homes. It will culminate in a public evening session where activists will be invited to consider some of the ways to engage politically to improve labour conditions. The second day will consider digital labour, from the ‘ghost work’ that drives contemporary AI and machine learning systems to the freelance personal assistance, translation, analysis, processing, writing, designing and editing of web-based data. 
 

Supported by:

CRASSH 20th Anniversary Logo      Max-Cam Institute Logo

 

Twitter Circle Logo #platformlabour

 


If you have any specific accessibility needs for this event please get in touch. We will do our best to accommodate any requests.

Conference assistance: conferences@crassh.cam.ac.uk

Call for Papers

Digital platforms are increasingly important forms of organising work today, from the physical labour of driving, delivery, cleaning and other tasks to freelance digital labour. Sites connect clients to workers, organise payment, and take commission, while mostly seeking to avoid the responsibilities that an employer might have to employees. New forms of profit and remuneration have come into being, shaping workers’ experience and livelihoods in multiple and changing ways. Via platforms like Uber, Lyft, Instacart or Deliveroo, workers and clients come into direct contact on city streets or in people’s homes, and there have been some recent attempts to engage politically to improve labour conditions; as well as reactions from the firms themselves. Another main form of platform labour is digital labour, from the ‘ghost work’ that drives contemporary AI and machine learning systems to the freelance personal assistance, translation, analysis, processing, writing, designing and editing of web-based data, available through sites like UpWork, Amazon Mechanical Turk, Fiverr.

The conference seeks to explore the politics and ethics of these ways of organising labour from the perspective of the lived experience of the workers themselves. We hope to attract a broad range of activists, social scientists, social theorists and philosophers of platform capitalism to this conversation and especially invite papers that focus on qualitative and ethnographic research with platform workers. 

We are particularly interested to hear from students and early career researchers.

Papers might address questions such as (but not limited to): 

  •  What is it that workers like and dislike about platform labour? How do they evaluate their own conditions, and how would they like them to improve? 
  • Are there specific classed/gendered/racialized experiences that mark different types of platform work?
  • What are the social networks that workers develop around this form of labour, and how does it fit together with their daily lives, hopes, values and family situations? 
  • Are new forms of social or geographical mobility enabled by platform labour?  
  • What are the possibilities for and limitations to collective action (including legal action)? 
  • What is the moral economy of platform work? Are platform workers developing new mechanisms of self-regulation and new technologies of individual and collective resistance? 
  • What is the appropriate relationship between worker, client and employer? Does the platform itself dictate that relationship? 
  • Do platforms make exploitation easier than conventional employment forms, or even inevitable? Could there be principals of design that would mitigate against that?
  • What is the role of regulation in reality, and what could its role be? 
  • How have these questions been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic? With some platform labourers becoming ‘essential’ workers, while new workers join digital platforms as their analogue employment prospects contract, how has the pandemic changed the experience of platform labour and the possibilities for its future?
     

If you would like to present a paper, please submit abstracts of 300 words by 1 February 2021 using this form.
 

The conference will be held online in April 2021, but we plan to hold an in-person meeting of some or all of the speakers in Cambridge later in the year, for which travel bursaries will be available.

We are grateful to CRASSH, the Max-Cam Centre and the EASA Anthropology of Labour network for support.