On the conditions of possibility for worker organizing in platform-based gig economies: Towards a more granular research approach

Author: Niels van Doorn, University of Amsterdam

Domain: Sociology & Humanities


This paper looks back on last year’s Reshaping Work conference, which I helped organize, while looking forward to a 5-year, ERC-funded research project that I recently started, which examines how digital platforms are transforming how people work and make a living in post-welfare societies. Drawing on interviews with platform workers conducted in Amsterdam (before and after last year’s conference) and New York (during the first 6 months of my current fieldwork), I reflect on an issue that first emerged as I was trying to actively involve various kinds of platform workers in our conference program: whereas it was relatively easy to find workers riding for food delivery platforms such as Deliveroo and UberEATS, I had significantly more trouble finding workers who did cleaning work for Helpling (the largest cleaning/domestic work platform in Europe). A group of couriers had recently collectivized by founding the Riders Union and were highly visible, both in the streets and online, while Helpling cleaners were largely invisible – not just to researchers, labor organizers, and journalists, but also (as I would find out) to themselves. Moreover, this discrepancy was deeply inflected by gender and age, as the majority of platform-mediated food delivery work in Amsterdam is performed by young men, while Helpling’s workforce (by their own account) predominantly consists of middle-aged women. As such, the main question this paper engages with is: what are the conditions of possibility for worker organizing in platform-based gig economies?

Section I starts by reflecting on the European – and more specifically the Dutch – situation, briefly examining the rise of the Riders Union and explaining how its rapid emergence and growth has been driven not only by national and international debates around misclassification and “fake” independent contractors (“schijnzelfstandigen” in Dutch), but more immediately by Deliveroo’s controversial and poorly timed decision to switch the status of its courier workforce from employee to independent contractor. In response, Deliveroo couriers started to organize and orchestrate protests, using the messenger app Telegram as one of their main communication tools. The Riders Union was formed and, as this movement was quickly gaining traction and received attention from the national press, the FNV (the largest union in the Netherlands) offered their institutional support.

So far, then, this is a success story, illustrating how platform/gig workers resist the casualized and precarious work conditions of the digital economy. Yet, in section 3, I problematize this narrative by focusing on the unequal distribution of possibilities for collective action and resistance in the platform economy (and beyond). While Deliveroo’s workforce has been using its newfound leverage to push for better working conditions and more rights, other groups of platform workers – both in Amsterdam and in New York – aren’t receiving the same attention and neither are they coming together to protest. The primary argument developed here is that we – as researchers, labor organizers and policymakers – should be more attentive to the specific nature of the work that is performed through/orchestrated by different labor platforms, which each mobilize their own algorithmic management techniques to meet the goals of their particular business models. This would consequently enable a more granular and differentiated perspective on the possibilities for worker organizing in the platform economy.

We thus have to ask what options exist for those who find their cleaning gigs through Helpling (Amsterdam) or Handy (New York), with respect to meeting up with other workers, informing themselves and each other, and potentially organizing a protest, given that their work takes place in private, domestic spaces rather than the public space of city streets? While the role of networked mobile technologies in worker organization is certainly significant, so is the possibility of meeting physically in public: worker propinquity should therefore be reappraised as one vital condition necessary (albeit not sufficient) in the process of collective action. Yet who gets to partake in such propinquity and who can afford to be visible in public space, especially considering the fact that, in New York, many couriers operating through food deliver platforms are undocumented and – in Trump’s America – live in constant fear of being arrested and deported? In the fourth and final section I reflect on this question, in addition to others, as I present a working typology that details the factors that co-determine the conditions of possibility for worker organizing in platform-based gig economies. I close by explaining how my new research project aims to study the gender, class, and racial inequalities constitutive of today’s platform economy.