Digital freelance platforms advertise flexibility, independence and access to a global labour market. But what does it mean to organise and position yourself in this environment? In her doctoral dissertation "Global Platform Work", cultural scientist Anna Oechslen sheds light on the everyday life of graphic designers who receive orders from India via digital platforms worldwide. She shows how important it is for gig workers to constantly present themselves in a positive light, build relationships and adapt to a working environment that is constantly changing. The book was published open access by Campus.
The designers at the centre of "Global Platform Work" are part of a development that has rapidly gained momentum in recent years: In the "gig economy", a large number of work assignments are now arranged via digital platforms, from taxi rides and food deliveries to childcare. Designers can use freelance platforms to connect with clients on a global scale, for example by taking part in competitions or applying for projects directly.
By using freelance platforms for their work, designers gain access to a wealth of potential commissions, but at the same time compete with an overwhelming number of other workers who are also interested in these commissions. In a context where working relationships are reduced to individual 'gigs', designers spend a lot of time sifting through offers, applying and adapting to new clientele.
Additionally, while designers are technically connected globally, they are also part of a system where clients are predominantly from high-income countries such as the US, UK or Australia. For designers in India, this often means working across different time zones and putting in extra effort to avoid being seen as cheap labour.
Based on interviews, observations and photo diaries, Anna Oechslen describes the multitude of unpaid and often neglected tasks that make up the everyday life of online freelancers in India. The focus is on the volatility and complexity of working relationships in a global labour market mediated via digital platforms.
Building on feminist research approaches, the author considers platform work as one element in a constellation of paid and unpaid labour. It also becomes clear that whether platform work is worthwhile depends very much on the role it plays in the lives of the workers and how they are integrated into support networks.
Dr Anna Oechslen is an empirical cultural scientist and works as a postdoc in the "Creativity and Work" research group at the IRS. She holds the junior professorship for empirical cultural studies at the University of Hamburg until March 2024. The book "Global Platform Work. Negotiating Relations in a Translocal Assemblage" is based on her dissertation at the University of Hamburg, which was written as part of the IRS lead project "Platform Ecology" (2019-2021).