Trusted Strangers: Boundary-work in Domestic Work Platforms in the On-demand Economy

Trusted Strangers: Boundary-work in domestic work platforms in the on-demand economy

Julia Ticona - Postdoctoral Scholar, Data & Society Research Institute

Alexandra Mateescu – Researcher, Data & Society Research Institute



Online platforms in the “sharing” or “on-demand” economy, such as Uber, Amazon Mechanical Turk, and AirBnB have been the focus of debates about the changing shape of employment across the globe. These companies have been both lauded for widening access to paid work and scrutinized for their misleading labor practices in an increasingly fragmented labor market. While platform companies often frame their value by appealing to the democratizing potential of the internet to connect people to entrepreneurial work (Gillespie 2010, Langley & Leyshon forthcoming, Dijk 2013), scholars have pointed to the ways these multi-sided markets often casualize employment arrangements and degrade working conditions (Cherry 2016, Cherry and Aloisi 2016, Standing 2011). However, as businesses attempt to utilize platforms to offer different kinds of services, claiming to provide the “Uber for X,” scholarly conversations are missing important empirical insights about how different worker populations and labor markets are interacting with formally similar platform infrastructures. This paper will address this gap through an analysis of domestic work platforms - including, UrbanSitter, SitterCity, and HelloSitter – that are attempting to create multi-sided markets for child, and eldercare services. 

Drawing on Orlikowski & Scott’s (2015) material-discursive practices approach, this paper utilizes discourse analysis of corporate marketing and worker recruitment materials, public statements, and other company messaging, as well as a socio-technical analysis of interface design to examine the ways companies communicate their value to potential clients and construct their workforces. We find that, instead of the casualizing the employment relationship, domestic work platforms leverage new forms of visibility in order to frame their services as a more formal alternative to untrustworthy and potentially dangerous workers in informal labor markets. In contrast to other platforms’ emphasis on providing low-barriers and open access to many participants, domestic work platforms emphasize exclusivity, embeddedness in local social networks, and draw on the authority of institutional certifications (such as background checks, occupational certificates) to make workers more visible to clients and foster trust.  In addition to these measures, companies also formalize the processes of finding workers by standardizing the search process, and paying for services by providing payroll infrastructures.  

We argue that through these discursive and technical design decisions, companies are engaging in a form of “boundary work” that constructs and maintains distinctions within the sphere of domestic work (Hatton 2015, Lamont & Molnár 2002). This boundary is constructed between the trustworthy and safe workers that clients can access through platforms, and those uncertified and unknown workers who offer their services in informal markets. Domestic work is a paradigmatic example of “invisible” work as domestic workers have historically suffered from formal exclusion from federal workplace protections and are now subject to contingent and informal employment relationships that take place in clients’ private homes (Glenn 1992). This history shapes the politics of increased visibility and formalization efforts of domestic work platforms, and may shape these platforms’ future trajectories. These findings suggest the importance of context-specific analyses of platforms, which account for the type of work being done and for grounding empirical analysis of new forms of work in the dynamics of existing labor markets. As the field of care work is among the fastest growing and most resistant to automation, these findings have implications for ongoing public discussions about the future of work. 



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