Q&A  | 

Platform work, a booming economy of unknown scale with Agnieszka Piasna

"Hanging phones on trees by Amazon riders is one manifestation of how this business [platform work] model increases competition"

Tags: 'Agnieszka Piasna' 'Big data' 'Big Tech'


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Agnieszka Piasna works as a senior researcher at the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) in Brussels. She conducts research in the areas of job quality, labour market regulation, gender and digital labour. She currently carries out research on the platform economy in Europe and she coordinates the ETUI Internet and Platform Work Survey. The project includes developing tools for data collection on the extent and characteristics of work through platforms, and assessing their social and economic impact. She holds a PhD in sociology from the University of Cambridge.

In your paper Counting Gigs you mention that questions about the proportion of workers engaged in platform work remain largely unanswered. Why is that?

The paradox with the economy platform is that although its operations generate an enormous amount of data and all transactions are digitally recorded, one of the biggest unknowns is still the scale of platform work.

Every gig mediated by online labour platforms leaves a digital trace containing information such as the nature of the task, the compensation provided, the number of hours worked or tasks completed, and the identity both of the requester or client and of the worker. But platforms are highly protective of their proprietary databases on work and compensation flows and thus research that uses such data is almost non-existent.

We should also realize that access to the administrative records of one platform provides the precise number of workers on that particular platform. However, we are interested in a complete picture of the platform workforce at a country level, and for this we would need such information from all platforms and some indication on the scale of overlap; that is, how many workers are registered on more than one platform. No-one has done this so far.

Aren't there other methods to estimate the escale of the platform economy?

In the paper ‘Counting gigs’, I review also other, at times very creative ways of gathering information about the size of the platform economy. For instance, by web scraping new vacancies on most popular platforms, using Google search statistics, accessing individual bank accounts’ records to track payments from most recognised platforms, or using tax records, although this is not the strongest side of the gig economy. Unfortunately, they all have serious weaknesses and do not take us much beyond rough estimates.

Another way to count platform workers would be to follow the same methods that are used in official labour market statistics, collected through frequent largescale population surveys. National statistical offices, however, have long been rather hesitant to include direct questions on platform work in their conventional labour force surveys. An important reason is a lack of an agreed definition and a good operationalisation of platform work. The rare cross-national surveys provide such divergent results that they raise even more questions than they set out to answer.

Nevertheless, could you give us an approximate figure for riders in Europe?

The number of people who do platform work of any sort at least on a monthly basis was estimated to vary somewhere between 0.2% and 10% of an adult population, depending on the source and a country in question. According to the Internet and Platform Work Survey carried out at the ETUI, the only cross-national study of platform work based on random probability samples, this number lies between 0.4% and 3% of the working age population. To put it into perspective, at the EU28 level, 1% of an adult population corresponds to about 3 million persons. These numbers are thus non-negligible.

It is difficult to give a fair estimate of the share of riders within this group. Based on our case study of Deliveroo, one of the main food delivery platforms operating in Europe, we know that in Belgium in the course of 2017 they worked with around 3,500 riders. While many of them would only do a handful of deliveries before quitting, this nevertheless corresponds to about a tenth of all postal and courier service workers in Belgium, or 3% of land transport workforce. Not surprisingly then, food delivery riders are such a common sight in many big cities.

Following Bloomberg, Amazon riders are hanging smartphones in trees to get more work. Does this reflect the ferocious rivalry for gigs in a bad economy?

To efficiently match requesters with workers, online labour platforms rely on an access to a large pool of readily available workers.

To secure such an access, platforms are constantly recruiting new workers and it is very easy to start working for them, which contrasts with an often lengthy and formal recruitment process in the traditional economy. Such a business model leads to an oversupply of workers, a situation where there are more people willing to do work through a platform than there is available work. This inevitably increases competition between workers. While it allows platforms to keep prices at very low levels, for workers it often turns into a genuine struggle to secure enough work.

Hanging phones on trees by Amazon riders is one manifestation of this, but there are examples of comparable strategies on other platforms too. For instance, remote platform workers (crowdworkers) develop browser plugins to filter tasks or to instantly apply for them as soon as they appear online.

The same article mentions that there are persons or entities acting as illegal intermediaries between Amazon and the Riders and charging the latter to secure more routes, which is against Amazon’s policies. Drivers say Amazon knows and does nothing. Is this an issue too big for Big Tech to handle?

This issue very much boils down to the role that online platforms are willing to assume in the market they organise. Most importantly, they explicitly renounce the role of an employer and any related responsibilities.

Platforms argue that they are only a technology provider, and they offer a paid access to this technology to service providers and requesters. Even the vocabulary they use has as an objective to remove any association with an employment relationship. Accordingly, riders are ‘onboarded’ rather than hired, they are ‘partners’ not workers, and a platform ‘processes rider invoices’ rather than pays them a wage.

With such narrowly defined role, additional layers of intermediaries that build up between riders and a platform might indeed go unnoticed (more or less purposefully) by that platform.

However, these are not issues that I would see as exceeding the capacity of platforms to act upon. With some regulatory encouragement, for instance recognising platform work as subordinated employment, a requirement of a personal delivery of service could easily be established. This would curtail the exploitative practices of additional intermediaries.

Are riders self-organising and how?

Due to their ambiguous employment status, riders lack recourse to any effective mechanisms for voicing their concerns vis-à-vis the platform and improving the terms and conditions of their work. An ‘independent contractor’ status is generally not considered compatible with trade union membership, and it is even not allowed in some countries in light of EU competition law. Therefore, self-organising is not uncommon among the riders as an attempt to rebalance the power and information asymmetries between them and a platform. It can take different forms, such as grass-roots unions, union-affiliated guilds, worker-led platform cooperatives or quasi unions. What these initiatives have in common is their bottom-up character. They also tend to replicate the technology used by the platform they work on, such as Internet-based apps and social media, for recruiting and mobilising members. Such initiatives can start as a Facebook group used for exchanging work tips and sharing experience, evolve into collectives with their own name and visual identification, to then get support and recognition from long standing unions.

It seems that at least some unions are willing to represent platform workers’ interests, even if they cannot always be formally their members. Such ‘union inclusiveness’, which was found also towards non-standard workers more generally, can derive from the union’s ideological orientations, but also more pragmatic considerations that allowing platforms to operate unchallenged risks undermining work and employment conditions also for other workers in these sectors.

What can the consequences of the gig economy on labour rights be if we don’t regulate already?

The aim of regulating platform work is to grant workers access to labour rights, including occupational safety and health. How important this is has become apparent in the light of the current health crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic. While workers are requested to isolate themselves and stop working when they are unwell, for riders, and many other groups of platform workers, these expectations are unrealistic. Without access to social protection and public health policies, in particular access to sickness benefits and leave, these workers simply cannot afford to stop working for fear of losing their income or even being disconnected by the platform.

How does platform work affect the rest of the job market?

This also extends to other rights and worker protections, for instance minimum wages, insurance, or protection against unfair dismissals. Allowing platforms to contract workers to perform work but without recognising it for employment relationship, means de facto denying access to basic rights and protections to this low-paid and vulnerable group of workers. But it was shown to have negative consequences also for other workers in these sectors, exerting downward pressures on wages or prompting employers to adopt similar technological solutions to allocate tasks and schedule work in a way to closely match staffing levels to demand, which results in unpredictable work hours and uncertain incomes. Regulating platform work is thus necessary to safeguard fair conditions of work for all, as well as serves public and social interests. Good news is that when we see past the technological hype, platform work shares many characteristics with other forms of non-standard or undeclared work, and so existing rules and policy options provide a sufficient starting point to regulate it.