Global platform labour – Negotiating the value of work in a transcultural space
Keywords: space; transculturality; performativity; power relations.
Platforms catering to a global workforce often hold the promise of making the world grow closer and granting access to those previously excluded from the field due to their location at the economic margins. As the self-description of the crowdwork platform ‘99designs’ says: “Design doesn’t do borders – Having offices located around the world is a pretty sweet deal, but we think it’s even more amazing that any designer – from Sydney to Serbia – can succeed on our platform” 1. This might be true in terms of logistics; the chances of succeeding on ‘99designs’ and other crowdwork platforms are not equally distributed, however. In fact, clients would often rather award a contract to a designer from Los Angeles than one from Lagos and are prepared to pay the latter less for the same task (cf. Beerepoot and Lambregts 2015; Graham et al. 2017). Thus, even though virtual labour markets seem to render distance irrelevant, location still matters. Discrimination based on location intersects with other dimensions of inequality in the job market, such as gender, age, or ethnicity.
My starting point is thus that in instances of geographically dispersed collaboration and global value chains, it is not just geographical distance that matters. To make sense of the spatial dynamics brought about by platform labour, we need a conceptual foundation that includes physical distance as well as power relations. I therefore propose to conceive of the relations between platform providers, clients and workers as a ‘contact zone’ , i.e. a social space “where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths [...]” (Pratt 1991, p. 34). My approach draws from Massey’s concept of ‘relational space’ (Massey 1994), defining space as “a complex web of relations of domination and subordination, of solidarity and co-operation” (ibid., p. 265). This perspective on space is helpful for research on global platform labour in three crucial ways: firstly, it is dynamic and, just like social relations, comprises different scales between local and global; secondly, it facilitates a departure from clear distinctions between online and offline spaces; thirdly, it accounts for the connection between power relations and intertwined mobilities and immobilities.
I expect that while the incorporation of online platforms into the labour market does not automatically make it more democratic or equal, it does hold the potential for marginalised groups to subvert and appropriate the performative infrastructure of the platform. Platforms are much more than tools for more efficient interactions. They have to be taken into account as actors themselves, functioning as interfaces between virtual and socio-material spaces. They frame the way users can interact, influenced by the interests of the platform companies (cf. van Dijck and Poell 2013; Langlois et al. 2009). In the context of discrimination, platforms can make a number of strategic choices such as making workers’ nationalities more or less prominent on the user interface or introduce certification mechanisms that may alleviate the effect of stereotypes in hiring practices (cf. Agrawal et al. 2013). By shaping the relations between clients and workers, they also change theirspatial dynamics. At the same time, marginalised actors can negotiate the value of their labour by subverting or appropriating hegemonic structures. The positions in this space are not pre-determined but rather continuously re-negotiated by performative practices. As workers use platforms in strategic ways, they perform augmented identities and reflexively position themselves in the contact zone. This is exemplified by the statement of a Nairobi based SEO writer interviewed by Graham et al. (2017), who regularly changes his profile location to Australia to get better jobs: “You have to create an identity that is not you. If you want to survive online you have to do that. If you don’t do that I’m telling you, nothing will come” (ibid., p. 148). On the one hand, this quote shows the effects of discrimination forcing the Kenyan worker to conceal his nationality in order to get good jobs and “survive online”. However, the statement also hints at loopholes and chances to strategically perform a different, more promising identity. The SEO writer in the example is not completely free in his performance, but he can interact with the performative infrastructure of the platform in
subversive ways to evade discrimination. The interactions between platforms and crowdworkers are thus contingent and reflect both the decisions of platform providers and what users make of the performative infrastructure provided to them. Clients’ choices and workers’ chances are influenced by unequal power relations and mediated by the affordances of platforms. At the same time, workers can exert agency and incorporate platforms into strategic practices in different ways.
I intend to contribute to research on the platform economy by bringing different strands of research together: I combine a spatial perspective on work mediated by platforms with a focus on uneven global power structures, while taking into account the specific influence of digital platforms on interactions. Furthermore, I attempt to transcend static notions of inequality by analysing ways in which marginalised individuals appropriate and subvert structures of domination.
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