On the conditions of possibility for worker organizing in platform-based gig economies: Towards a more granular research approach
IRS Seminar with Niels van Doorn | University of Amsterdam
This presentation starts with a reflection on an issue that first emerged as I was looking for Amsterdam-based platform/gig workers who would be willing and able to participate in the first Reshaping Work conference I co-organized in 2017: whereas it was relatively easy to find workers delivering food via platforms such as Deliveroo and Uber Eats, I had significantly more trouble finding workers who performed cleaning work for Helpling (the largest domestic cleaning platform in Europe). At the time, a group of couriers had recently collectivized by founding the Riders Union and were highly visible, both in the streets and online, while Helpling cleaners were largely invisible – not just to researchers, labor organizers, and journalists, but also (as I would find out) to themselves. Moreover, this discrepancy was deeply inflected by gender and age, as the majority of platform-mediated food delivery work in Amsterdam is performed by young men, while Helpling’s workforce (by their own account) predominantly consists of middle-aged women. As such, the main question this presentation engages with is: what are the conditions of possibility for worker organizing in platform-based gig economies?
Section one starts by reflecting on the European – and more specifically the Dutch – situation, briefly examining the rise of the Riders Union and explaining how its rapid emergence and growth has been driven not only by national and international debates on misclassification and “fake” independent contractors (“schijnzelfstandigen” in Dutch), but more immediately by Deliveroo’s controversial and poorly timed decision to switch the status of its courier workforce from employee to independent contractor. In response, Deliveroo couriers started to organize and orchestrate protests, using the messenger app Telegram as one of their main communication tools. The Riders Union was formed and, as this movement was quickly gaining traction and received attention from the national press, the FNV (the largest union in the Netherlands) offered their institutional support.
So far, then, this could be understood as a success story, illustrating how platform/gig workers resist the casualized and precarious work conditions of the digital economy. Yet in section two I problematize this narrative by focusing on the unequal distribution of possibilities for collective action and resistance in the platform-mediated gig economy (and beyond). While Deliveroo’s workforce has been using its newfound leverage to push for better working conditions and more rights, other groups of platform workers – in Amsterdam, New York and Berlin – aren’t receiving the same attention and neither are they coming together to protest. The primary argument developed here is that we – as researchers, labor organizers and policymakers – should be more attentive to the specific nature of the work that is performed through, and orchestrated by, different labor platforms that each mobilize their own algorithmic management techniques to meet the goals of their particular business models. This would consequently enable a more granular and differentiated perspective on the possibilities for worker organizing in the platform economy.
We thus have to ask what options exist for those who find their cleaning gigs through Helpling (Amsterdam, Berlin) or Handy (New York), with respect to meeting up with other workers, informing themselves and each other, and potentially organizing a protest, given that their work takes place in private, domestic spaces rather than the public space of city streets? While the role of networked mobile technologies in worker organization is certainly significant, so is the possibility of meeting physically in public: worker propinquity should therefore be reappraised as one vital condition necessary (albeit not sufficient) in the process of collective action. Yet who gets to partake in such propinquity and who can afford to be visible in public space, especially considering the fact that, in New York, many couriers operating through food deliver platforms are undocumented and – in Trump’s America – live in constant fear of being arrested and potentially deported? In the third and final section I reflect on this question, in addition to others, as I present a working typology that details the factors that co-determine the conditions of possibility for worker organizing in platform-based gig economies. I close by explaining how my new ERC-funded research project – Platform Labor (2018-2023) – aims to study how the opportunities and challenges of today’s platform economy continue to be distributed along gender, racial, and class-based lines, deepening some existing inequalities while potentially (and temporarily) countering others.
Bio: Niels van Doorn is an Assistant Professor of New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam. He is also the Principal Investigator of the ERC-funded research project Platform Labor: Digital Transformations of Work and Livelihood in Post-Welfare Societies (2018-2023). This cross-national comparative study examines the gendered, racialized, and classed distribution of opportunities and challenges associated with platform-mediated markets for labor and household assets in New York City, Berlin, and Amsterdam.
His research is guided by two fundamental questions: how do people sustain themselves and each other in precarious circumstances?; and how does the notion of value emerge at the intersection of political and moral economies? He has published widely, in international peer-reviewed journals including New Media & Society, Cultural Politics, Qualitative Inquiry, Cultural Studies, and Environment & Planning D.