Futures of Workers: Understanding the platform economy from a comparative perspective

Futures of Workers: Understanding the platform economy from a comparative perspective 

Shruti Gupta, PhD Scholar, National University of Singapore 

Over the past few decades, the structural economy has undergone a drastic transformation. At the forefront of this change is the transition to the digital age. Technology has been leveraged to reorganize work, promising to increase efficiency and transparency in services and expanding opportunities for both workers and consumers. Sundararajan [3] describes this change as, one, shifting the economic “community” to a digitally vetted subset of the population and two, basing the functioning and valuation of modern economies upon a crowd of workers and not traditional corporations. 

These new forms of market exchanges and labour processes have been framed by companies as the “democratization” of technology and innovation to provide individuals with entrepreneurial work [1]. It is premised on functionally designed apps and powerful algorithms enabling a seamless interaction between consumers and workers. Technologically mediated work promises to improve the working conditions of workers and enable a reorganization of their lives to achieve personal transformation [2]. 

With regards to technologically mediated work, the platform economy is particularly interesting as only the way work is managed and allocated has changed but the way in which work is performed remains unaltered. Ride-sharing platforms such as Ola Cabs, Uber, GoJek, Lyft, etc. and service applications such as TaskRabbit, Amazon Home Services and UrbanClap are prime examples of how work is allocated through geolocation and algorithms but is executed offline. The platform economy necessitates the co- presence of bodies which impacts the way labour processes and outcomes are structured. 

We study the structural, material and gendered aspects of the platform economy in India, and explore empirically and theoretically the labour outcomes, relationality and negotiations that constitute and determine such work. The paper draws up on and builds on the work of HCI and CSCW researchers who have brought forth the invisibilisation of labour in the platform economy. Acknowledging that economic activity is deeply intertwined with gender, class and caste, the study hopes to highlight the material and structural disadvantages created for workers at the intersection of technology and business practices. 

The paper undertakes a comparative analysis of three leading on-demand services platforms in India. Two ride- sharing platforms, namely, TaxiCab and YellowCar and one on-demand services app, ServiceHelp will be studied. TaxiCab and YellowCar are the leading ride-sharing platforms in India. They have a similar, if not identical, 

business model and corporate strategy. Most drivers are engaged by both platforms simultaneously and drivers participate in either based on a number of factors such as rider demand in a particular area, pricing, incentives and company compliance requirements, all of which are constantly changing. Unlike TaxiCab and YellowCar, ServiceHelp provides a range of services such as cleaning, repairs and upkeep, salon services and fitness coaching. The majority of drivers on TaxiCab and YellowCar in India are men. While ServiceHelp engages both men and women on the platform to perform work, for the purpose of the paper, the two services primarily performed by women, that is, beauty work and makeup will be analysed. Further, the contrasting spatial and temporal configurations of work on ride-sharing applications and on-demand services will enable us to tease out the similarities and differences between “men’s” and “women’s” work on the platform economy. The paper seeks to understand the lived experiences of workers in the platform economy and in doing so, aims to reframe questions on the intersection of work, gender and technology. 

The findings of the paper are based on a semi-structured qualitative study undertaken in New Delhi in June and July 2019. Twenty drives on TaxiCab and YellowCar and twenty beauticians and makeup artists on ServiceHelp were interviewed. 

During the course of the research and in the paper, we will endeavor to address the following questions – how has technologically-mediated work changed the labour organisation and processes of workers? What are the differentiated risks faced by research participants in the platform economy? How does the identity of workers intersect with cultural practices to impact labour outcomes? What are appropriate policy and community actions that can enable risk alleviation for workers? 

REFERENCES [1] Tarleton Gillespie. 2010. The politics of ‘platforms.’ New Media & Society 12, 3 (May 2010), 347–364. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444809342738 [2] Lilly Irani. 2015. The cultural work of microwork. New Media & Society 17, 5 (May 2015), 720–739. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444813511926 [3] Arun Sundararajan. 2016. The sharing economy: the end of employment and the rise of crowd-based capitalism. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.