The ‘Equal opportunities in platform work’ (‘Chancengerechte Plattformarbeit’) project released two studies in February and March on the relationship between platform work and social exclusion/participation. The authors write for the Gig Economy Project summarising their findings, and what the next steps are for the project.
Anna-Elisabeth Hampel is a research associate, Eva Luise Krause is a student assistant at Minor – Projektkontor für Bildung und Forschung.
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“I sometimes feel that I have to be careful not to do this job for too long, because otherwise I would get stuck on it. If I want to develop my potential, I have to get out of there as soon as possible. I think overall it’s more of a job that socially excludes.” Vincent (name changed), Rider in Berlin, Interview 2023
When Vincent started working for a delivery service six months ago after moving to Berlin, he quickly needed a job in order to get health insurance. However, the job does not correspond to his ideas of a professional future, nor of fair working conditions.
Connections between platform work and social exclusion/participation are the focus of the project “Chancengerechte Plattformarbeit” at research institute Minor’s ‘Projektkontor für Bildung und Forschung’. People who depend on platform work to make a living are particularly affected by precarious conditions in platform work. And it is precisely for them that the question of fair working conditions is a key to participatory justice for society as a whole.
In our first two studies, which have now been published, we focus on the situation of these workers (primarily in the German context), on future-oriented characteristics of platform work and on different approaches to its regulation. In doing so, we include both crowd/cloud work and geographically-tethered gig work.
For our analysis, we have brought together existing academic studies, initiatives and recommendations for action from various actors from politics, research, trade unions and interest groups of platform workers and platform operators with our own findings from interviews, expert discussions and an online survey among platform workers conducted in autumn 2022. This article gives an overview of the contents of the two studies.
Digitalisation, flexibilisation, precarisation
Platform work is significant – as we show in our first study – not only because of the strong growth of the platform economy, but also because its essential features will be groundbreaking for the future of work: These include digitalisation and algorithmic labour management, internationalisation and the division of labour into micro jobs. From the perspective of the workers, this means that they increasingly find themselves in flexible and hybrid employment constellations, work and private life overlap more strongly and the social factor of work is severely diminished by the scarcely occurring relationships with colleagues, superiors and customers.
The fact that neither platforms nor clients usually see themselves as employers in the case of platform-mediated work, and that most platform workers are formally self-employed, also leads to strong deficits in labour and social security. The entrepreneurial and social responsibility is shifted onto the platform workers. As (formally) self-employed, they fall through the cracks of the labour and social security systems, but at the same time often do not have the resources of entrepreneurial responsibility and negotiating power that are attributed to the self-employed in the logic of these legal systems.
Platform workers often receive only low payments for their piecework, are highly dependent on fluctuating demands for their work and often do not have any social security. In an online survey we conducted, 64.4% of the platform workers surveyed in Germany demanded better pay or more regulation of pay, 23.5% demanded better social security.
“The basic principle of assigning work in the smallest possible parts without labour contracts is an intensification of the capitalist system through digitalisation,” Johanna Wenckebach, scientific director of the Hugo Sinzheimer Institute for Labour and Social Research of the Hans Böckler Foundation, told us.
In addition, the effects of algorithmic work management used extensively in platform work on working conditions are usually not transparent to the workers, nor can they influence them. This creates a knowledge hierarchy that enormously increases the workers dependence on the platforms. The high degree of isolation of platform workers and their self-employed status also make it difficult for them to organise collectively in order to improve their working conditions.
The power imbalance caused by these factors is also problematised by platform workers. In our survey, 35.1% expressed the need to be able to evaluate clients (instead of being unilaterally evaluated by them), 26.1% saw the need for independent quotes on quality and working conditions at platforms, and 23.1% would like to see advocacy groups collectively negotiate the rights of platform workers. In addition, a third of respondents called for more transparency in algorithmic management systems.
Precarity through dependency – who is particularly affected?
Preventing the undermining of the labour and social rights system in the platform economy is especially important for those who are particularly dependent on platform work as a form of employment due to their marginalisation in the traditional labour market. These include migrants, people with disabilities or (chronic) illnesses, people with relatives to care for or a high level of unpaid reproductive work (often women) and people without (recognised) qualifications and work experience. Platforms offer them participation in the labour market, mainly through simple entry procedures and the promise of flexibility regarding working time and location.
However, those who are particularly dependent on this participation opportunity are also particularly vulnerable to the often precarious conditions of platform work. In the case of low-skilled, platform-mediated work, the pay is particularly low and can hardly be planned in the long term. Plus, the competition is big and thus the one-sided dependence on the (evaluations) of the clients and on the conditions of the platforms is particularly strong. The promise of temporal flexibility often becomes obsolete with the dependence and the pressure to be constantly available. The monitoring and incentive systems of algorithmic management also contribute to this.
In addition, marginalised groups often have hardly any resources to assert their rights against platforms and clients. And because platform work offers few opportunities for professional development, social networking or language acquisition, it is rarely a bridge to more stable employment. So there is a risk that structures of inequality are reproduced in platform work.
Our surveys also provide evidence for this. For example, women were much more likely to say that they pursue platform work primarily because of compatibility with other tasks (17.3% compared to 7.1% for men) or lack of career alternatives (13.3% compared to 5.5% for men). Women platform workers tend to be able to do platform work less extensively than men, often working in anti-social hours (evenings/night) and thus also receive less lucrative assignments and lower pay. In our first study, we demonstrate the connection between dependency and vulnerability by analysing the situation of women and migrants in platform work.
Regulatory approaches to action
The need for regulatory action is obvious. Existing labour and social law systems no longer do sufficient justice to the developments described. The regulatory challenges of platform work will also shape the future of a more flexible and digitalised world of work as a whole.
So how can platform work be regulated in a way that offers low-threshold and flexible labour market access without undermining labour and social rights? In our second study, we compared and analysed different approaches. To do this, we analysed ten key fields of action:
- Status clarification
- Social security
- Protective regulations and fair labour practices
- Fair and transparent contracts and terms and conditions
- Communication opportunities, collective bargaining rights and fair balance of interests
- Transparency and control of algorithmic management
- Use of AI and processing of personal data
- Reporting and statistical obligations
- Further training, qualification and certification
- International regulability
The most important and simple message is: there will not be one regulatory path to fair conditions in platform work. While, on the one hand, legal initiatives aim to combat bogus self-employment and thus place more platform workers under the protection of established workers’ rights, on the other hand, it is necessary to strengthen the social protection of (genuine) solo self-employed workers, because they, too, often find themselves in strong dependencies.
Furthermore, regulations on algorithmic management, professional training and more transparency obligations are being discussed in such a way that they could apply regardless of the status of the workers. In addition to the heterogeneity of the different forms of platform work and the employment situations in which platform workers find themselves, regulation must also consider intersections with other forms of work and areas of law. Our analysis focuses on regulatory possibilities for platform work in Germany, always taking into account the international dimension of the platform economy.
In our analysis, we have looked at legal proposals, such as the draft EU Platform Work Directive, political position and strategy papers, e.g. from the German Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, the initiatives of trade unions, social insurance institutions and interest groups and representatives – both of platform workers and platform operators. So-called “soft” regulatory approaches are also part of our analysis. These are an important complement to legal regulation, precisely because agreeing on cross-border regulatory standards for the extremely international platform economy is difficult and lengthy, and existing laws are not implemented enough. Soft regulation approaches include both voluntary commitments on the part of platforms, such as the Code of Conduct for Paid Crowdsourcing/Crowdworking, and assessment and certification systems on working conditions at platforms by independent researchers, such as the international Fairwork project.
In addition to the creation of new regulatory instruments, it is important to enforce existing law in all the fields of action described, also in view of the great dynamism with which platforms can adapt their business models to changing regulatory frameworks. This requires the necessary resources and clear responsibilities of the supervisory authorities. Most importantly, platform workers must be better informed about their rights and supported in enforcing them in order to redress the existing imbalance that exists between them and platforms in terms of knowledge, resources and power.
What happens next in the project “Chancengerechte Plattformarbeit”?
In order to work out needs and possibilities for regulation even more precisely and to strengthen the perspective of platform workers themselves in the debate about regulations, we will conduct further focus groups and interviews with platform workers this year. The focus will be on the topics of social security and representation of interests.
If you are a platform worker based in Germany and are interested in contributing your experiences and demands in interviews and focus groups, please contact us (firstname.lastname@example.org).Of course, we pay expense allowances for the participation.The results will be used in further publications and in dialogue processes with various actors in the field of platform work.
This article is a summary of our two studies:
Hampel, A.-E. / Krause, E. L., 2023: Plattformarbeit: Experimentierfeld für die Arbeit der Zukunft? Minor Kontor. https://minor-kontor.de/plattformarbeit-zukunft-der-arbeit/
Hampel, A.-E. / Krause, E. L., 2023: Plattformarbeit: Neue Arbeit, alte Regeln? Minor Kontor. https://minor-kontor.de/plattformarbeit-neue-arbeit-alte-regeln/
The studies have been published in German. The project is funded by Stiftung Mercator.
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