Conference convenor Sian Lazar and presenters El No and Alexandrine Royer reflect on the Politics and Ethics of Platform Labour: Learning from Lived Experiences conference which took place in April 2021.
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. The conference pulled together researchers from a number of disciplines to discuss these questions from the basis of qualitative research into lived experiences of workers.
One of the main themes during the conference emerged in the first session, where papers addressed migrant labour, examining the pull factors that drew workers towards platform-based labour despite the poor pay and precarious conditions. For the Bangalore Uber drivers Aditi Surie spoke to, purchasing a car to join the platform increased their families’ assets in a region where climatic changes threaten agriculturalists’ livelihoods. The other presenters described how foreign migrants in large North American and European cities were entrapped by the “plug-and-play” of platform labour, often unable to secure more formal employment and finding it difficult to move on from the platform. What was especially noticeable was the way that platform labour continues forms of precarity that are older than the technology of the platform itself, in these cases especially associated with migration.
The economic ‘safety net’ provided by platform labour also led thousands of Americans to shift to gig work during the pandemic, despite the health risks. Drawing on results from a 1000+ worker survey, Alexandrea Ravenelle delineated how the lack of information over pandemic relief payments, the social stigma surrounding government benefits, and the excruciatingly slow pace of the understaffed unemployment office drove jobless Americans to gig work.
The risks faced by gig workers to their health and safety resurfaced in the presentations in the second panel of Day 1. In Argentina, Venezuelan refugees turned to gig work during the pandemic. Despite their high levels of dissatisfaction with such labour, fear of the ‘virus of socialism’ contributed to migrants’ preference for gig work over state support. In Chile, food delivery workers were often the targets of criminals, with theft especially prevalent during stay-at-home orders. Yet, for Brazilian sex workers, webcamming sites allowed them to accrue followings from the safety of their homes, albeit with these workers still limited to the conditions imposed by the platform.
Both panel sessions on Day 2 focused on the politics and practices of data production, from video marketing apps to picture tagging, reCAPTCHA and click farms. These mobilise both human faculties of interpretation and automatic power of bots (or bot-like practices). Papers revealed how platforms reproduce a certain worldview through the combined labour of unwitting Internet users, controlled data annotation work, and fake accounts and bots. Further, the discussion let us reflect on how the value creation mechanisms of platforms marginalise or direct aesthetic and sensorial human faculties. For the moment, platform workers are in the last mile of the algorithmic value chain, performing tasks which are too sophisticated to be automated. Appropriately recognising platform labour would mean appreciation of the most unique faculties shared among us.
Algorithmic management and its ensuing precarity was a running theme throughout. In the keynote talks of Day 2, Alex Wood spoke of the pressures of maintaining a solid platform reputation as another source of algorithmic insecurity and its effect on workers. Having to deal with the emotional labour of managing clients, workers would go so far as to reimburse a client if they feared a negative review. In her Q&A session, Mary Gray also touched on the detrimental impact of labour arbitrage on the valuation and compensation of platform workers. Understanding the extended supply chain of task-based platform labour is essential to revealing the ‘cracks’ that workers’ movements can open up.
With governmental officials failing to intervene, the possibilities for collective action and social solidarity to advance platform workers’ rights were a central theme on Day 3 of the conference. Presentations all touched on the current difficulties in forming workers coalitions and how other forms of cooperative association could adapt to the gig economy. The ensuing conversation pointed to the need to turn against the discourse of novelty surrounding platforms and instead historicise them within the standard political economy of labour. On the other hand, the final panel session brought together Indian and Belgian cases in conversation around the theme of time, flexibility, and precarity. They suggested how platform drivers and couriers’ temporality is shaped by particular operating techniques of platforms, and in turn, flexibility turns into entrapments. If precarity is inherent to the way platform operates, it cannot be addressed without reimagining platforms’ economic and social value creation models.
- Blog post by: El No, Alexandrine Royer and Sian Lazar