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Women in the Gig Economy (Platforms, Social Reproduction)


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This paper explores the series of dramatic, digital transformations of work, employment and labour relations that have accompanied the extraordinary growth of on-demand labour in the so-called ‘platform economy’. Underpinning these transformations, internet technologies are used to unbundle production and value creation from formal employment, with digital algorithms and artificial intelligence used to manage and motivate work carried out beyond the spatial and temporal boundaries of ‘typical’ workplaces. In seeking to move beyond a distinct masculinist focus within this extant research agenda (typically focused on men working via publicly visible transport and delivery platform apps), this paper presents new findings from 50 in-depth interviews (Jan – July 2018) with women using popular online jobs platforms in the UK (PeoplePerHour, UpWork, Fiverr, Elance, TaskRabbit, Copify, Freelancer) to access white-collar desk work (most commonly: communications, marketing, business devt, HR, office support, web, design, graphics). The majority of these women have young children and typically carry out online gig work from their own homes. The paper shows how gendered identities and varied responsibilities of care differently shape workers’ abilities to participate and succeed as digital labour in the platform economy. A number of practical steps are outlined for improvements to algorithms and platform models, based on suggestions from women gig workers themselves

Published in: Internet
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Women in the Gig Economy (Platforms, Social Reproduction)

  1. 1. Women in the Gig Economy: Platforms as ‘a Godsend’? Al James @Re_AlJames Artists in the Gig Economy (Edinburgh) Gigs, Economies and Social Reproduction 24 August 2018
  2. 2. Platform Work-Life Possibilities? ‘The dawn of a new humane era’ (Rifkin, 2014) Third Industrial Revolution – Internet reduces cost of production (eliminates middlemen) ‘The optimally efficient state for promoting the general welfare and represents the ultimate triumph of capitalism’ (p. 10-11) Unbundling of production from employment Result: ‘a more humane and efficient capitalist market’ (p. 27).
  3. 3. Gig Work Platforms In a Nutshell… Image of 24/7 on–demand digital labour, instant availability through mobile phone apps Requesters post discrete job tasks / gigs / HITs Taskers bid on posted jobs Platform matches buyers with tasker offers (mediated by algorithms, feedback scores); buyer chooses tasker Platforms eschew any responsibility as ‘employers’ Taskers identified as ‘self-employed’ ‘independent contractors’ (cf. recent lawsuits) Pay deposited in taskers’ platform account; requests made for release. No minimum wage
  4. 4.  FORBES (2015) interview with founder and CEO of Moonlighting (Jeff Tennery):  “Mobile Optimized Mothers, or as we call them M.O.M’s… are empowering themselves, choosing to work from home and earn a living on their terms. We’re very honored to help them on their mission to achieve that balance between career and life.”  ‘For professional women, the on-demand economy is already a godsend… to advance in their careers or at least stay in the game while being the kind of parents they want to be’ (Andreasson 2015:2). [!!!] Sickly-Sweet Celebrations of Female Work-Life Emancipation in the ‘Platform Economy’
  5. 5. RESEARCH FOCUS: (Invisible) Women Using Work Platforms - UK 1.Everyday realities of gig work for mothers? 2. Work-family supports through platforms? 3. Experiences of management by algorithms? 52 x 1 hr interviews + 26 image sets home work spaces (Jan-July 2018 – PPH, Upwork, Copify, Fiverr, Taskrabbit, TimeEtc, Yuno Juno) – mix of full-time freelancers and platform top-ups (from highly paid, to low paid) White collar desk work from home: communications, marketing, business devt, HR, office support, web, design, graphics, voice overs – majority mothers Includes creative practitioners: writers, photographers, graphic designers, voice over artist (strong consistency of experience with wider participant group) Lack of analysis – despite women well represented in UK on- demand workforce (see Huws et al. 2016 survey, 52% UK platform workers) Majority research focus: public facing male dominated apps, especially transport and delivery
  6. 6. 1. Women Gigging in the Platform Economy: Multiple Drivers / Motivations Seeking greater ‘flexibility’ of work Time and space constraints of ‘proper jobs’ Bad managers and lack of WLB support Denied request for flexible working Demoted in previous role after childbirth Illness (personal and child) Search for reduced commute Better fit work with husband’s schedule Lack of local employment opportunities Income top up
  7. 7. 2. New Female Work-Life Flexibilities? Greater ‘flexibility’ of work (cf. previous jobs) Enabling better fit: pockets of gig work around care (and around PT work - and FT work!) Greater sense of self-esteem after career break But: lack of line manager + employer support: ‘it’s all on me’ – no paid sick leave / holiday leave / pension (‘1 hr child time = 1 hr lost income’) Regular evening and weekend working Jackpot jobs demand instant proposals Excessive customer demands Servicing overseas clients in real time Stress: variable income flows (& non-payment)
  8. 8. 24/7 Availability of Atomised ‘Digital Labour’? Gender Constraints on Taskers Competing ‘My work is always set for the times when she’s already in the bed, but … it happened to me twice… my daughter didn’t want to go to sleep. My computer is downstairs. Her bedroom is upstairs. And I was stuck, like, what do I do? Do I go to the computer with the baby in my arms... there is nothing you can do.’ (female freelancer, PPH, Jan 2018) ‘I… set that precedent as well that I'm not available 24/7. So I do the nursery run, the school run and then… meetings, phone calls, catch ups. Then it's normally pick up, spend a couple of hours with my daughter and a pocket of two or three hours in the evening, so from 7pm until 10pm where I really catch up’. (female freelancer, PPH, Jan 2018)
  9. 9. 3. Female Health and Safety in the ‘Gig Economy’: New (?) Digital Insecurities LOWER / NO maternity pay for female freelancers (UK) Hiding pregnancy from clients Working close to due date Cutting maternity leave short Loss of clients General silence on these issues in platform research and policy literatures ‘I actually had a customer last year, I was put off freelancing for a little while … would ring me at 5pm, for an hour, an hour and a half every evening. He knew I had a child. He'd always be calling… I found that very uncomfortable. Also, he was a man, he had my address because my invoices were there and I didn't feel safe. He also had my mobile number so I ended up having to block him … I was living in paranoia that he was going to turn up here. That's awful. No one should have to feel like that’. (female freelancer, PPH, Jan 2018)
  10. 10. Autonomy? C.f. managed by algorithms rooted in customer feedback scores Upwork Work Tracker tool (key strokes, mouse movement, webcam screen caps) Taking work offline vs. dangers of non- payment + not being seen in algorithm Customer feedback as reputational capital: biting tongue, not requesting payments to disable, constraints on post- divorce surname change Hefty service fees taken by platforms, need to set competitive (low!) rates  longer work hours Variable workflow and income precarity promote overwork (‘while the sun shines’) 4. Female Online Freelancer Autonomy? vs Algorithms, Surveillance, Platform Overwork ‘This is my income. This isn't a joke. This is me paying for my rent. This is me paying for food, paying for uniforms, things like that." I was like, "You cannot drop my ranking." How ridiculous is that, that I'm begging them not to drop my ranking. But I'm like, "You can't drop me out of the algorithm because people won't find me and I won't be able to get any work”’. (female freelancer, PPH, Jan 2018)
  11. 11. Effecting Positive Change? Suggestions from Female Platform Workers Bring back the support desk and make it much more accessible Platform minimum wage + fairer pricing structures List 3 most recent / top reviews rather than all (to lessen effect of bad reviews) Stricter monitoring (and exclusion) of bad buyers Female managed platforms