Access to work & markets: Are there income generating opportunities for those who want
them? Research suggests that many (but not all) workers and sellers experience broader
markets and more ready access to a broader supply of work. Some feel it is the only livelihood
available. Questions remain about how big these markets may be (and thus, how many
platform workers and sellers there are). Other studies report platform workers and sellers being frustrated by the algorithmic assignment of availability, dynamic pricing, and ebbs and flows of demand that characterize platform marketplaces.
This is, in a way, the most basic of the questions: Is there work for those who want it? Keep in mind that there is a skew in sampling throughout the literature. The studies draw almost exclusively on active participants in platform livelihoods, so those who cannot find work are not represented to share their perspectives. That said, there is still a mix of positive and negative sentiments reflected when we focus on access to work.
One key frame is that it is the only work that is available—people expressed a version of “If not this, what else” or “It’s better than nothing” to several researchers (Lehdonvirta 2016; Gray and Suri 2019; Reilly and Lozano-Paredes 2019; D’Cruz and Noronha 2016; Garcia et al. 2020).
Another common framing presents platforms as a reliable or large source of customers. This can be offered enthusiastically, particularly when offered by the platforms themselves or research carried out on their behalf (Wisana et al. 2017; Gachoka and Winiecki 2020). But just as often, this framing appears as almost an initial stipulation rather than a standalone finding—that while we might argue that of course, the platform offers access to more customers, there’s more to it than that, both for the functioning of markets and the livelihoods of the individuals involved (Zollmann and Wanjala 2020; B. Chen et al. 2020; Aneja and Sridhar 2019).
Other studies seek to determine the number of individuals and small enterprises involved in these platform livelihoods, quantifying the amount of work by quantifying the number of workers. Such estimation was not the primary task in this review, and for the most part, when we found studies that looked at numbers, they were doing so within one or two segments at a time, and perhaps for one geography at time, e.g., the number of workers on Mechanical Turk as early as 2016 (500,000) (Martin et al. 2016) or the number of workers in various segments in Kenya (Melia 2020; Genesis Analytics 2019). A fuller inventory of these studies is necessary, as is more investment in cross-national, multisectoral estimation of the number of people involved in platform livelihoods.
There are also several ways to express concern about access to work. Some researchers and workers suggested that from day to day, work was not always available, leading people who wanted to work idle (Lehdonvirta 2016; Berg 2016; D’Cruz and Noronha 2016; Berg et al. 2018; Muhindi 2019) and eroding the flexibility that is often part of the promise of platform work (Gupta 2020). This availability dynamic is further complicated by the algorithmic assignment of availability and (depending on the platform) dynamic pricing, such that the platforms are acting not simply as passive connectors between supply and demand, but the shaper of it. From a platform’s perspective, this dynamic matching of supply and demand makes sense—the system clears probably better than analog approaches that preceded it. However, as this experiential element makes clear, and particularly when linked to earnings and flexibility, to individual livelihood seekers (the supply), these ebbs and flows in demand are palpable (J. Y. Chen, Sun, and Qiu 2020; Geitung 2017; Graham et al. 2017; Hunt et al. 2019) especially in 2020 during the COVID-19 crisis (Krishna 2020; Fairwork Project 2020).
Indeed, if platforms act as doors leading to customers, sellers and workers find those doors are often locked, sometimes arbitrarily. Across all of these livelihood categories, marketplace platforms act as two-sided markets and thus as gatekeepers and arbiters of who is qualified, visible, or otherwise able to work. In the system, the first challenge is to get on the platform at all (a dynamic we discussed in Inclusion). Once on it, however, that visibility and eligibility is not assured. Infractions or mistakes, whether justified or not, can have considerable ripple effects on a seller’s ability to access future customers on that platform. Through such blocking mechanisms, qualifications, and ratings, each job affects access to the next job, each day’s performance affects access to the next, and so on, in a way that power accrues to the platform and to the customer, not necessarily to the producer (Gupta 2020; Graham, Hjorth, and Lehdonvirta 2017; Gray and Suri 2019; Anwar and Graham 2020; Wood et al. 2019), and especially not to those without “the hunger” to hustle for the next gig (Raval and Pal 2019).
Sometimes the door itself disappears. Few studies directly probed the viability of the companies themselves, perhaps because most of them represent the pre-COVID-19 period when digitization and platformization was growing rather quickly. However, it is worth noting that in depending on platforms as a vehicle for accessing customers, vendors have to make an assumption that the platform will deliver. And yet, there is considerable churn in the viability of platforms (Makuvaza, Johnson, and Smit 2018). Zollmann and Wanjala (2020) heard from a few retailers in Kenya who were concerned about the stability of Jumia as a platform. In 2019-2020, Jumia struggled post-IPO and scaled back from a few other African markets. These respondents felt more comfortable building their own versions of social commerce, using Facebook and WhatsApp to interface with customers instead of relying on Jumia.
Aneja, Urvashi, and Aishwarya Sridhar. 2019. “Show Me the Money! Worker WellBeing on Labor Platforms in India.” Delhi: IT for Change. https://itforchange.net/platformpolitics/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Platform_Politick_ShowMeTheMoney.pdf.
Anwar, Mohammad Amir, and Mark Graham. 2020. “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Freedom, Flexibility, Precarity and Vulnerability in the Gig Economy in Africa.” Competition & Change, April, 102452942091447. https://doi.org/10.1177/1024529420914473.
Berg, Janine. 2016. “Income Security in the On-Demand Economy: Findings and Policy Lessons from a Survey of Crowdworkers.” ILO Working Paper 74. Conditions of Work and Employment Series. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Organization. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_protect/—protrav/—travail/documents/publication/wcms_479693.pdf.
Berg, Janine, Marianne Furrer, Ellie Harmon, Uma Rani, and M Six Silberman. 2018. “Digital Labour Platforms and the Future of Work: Towards Decent Work in the Online World.” Geneva: International Labour Office (ILO). https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_645337.pdf.
Chen, Bin, Tao Liu, Lin Guo, and Zhenglin Xie. 2020. “The Disembedded Digital Economy: Social Protection for New Economy Employment in China.” Social Policy & Administration n/a (n/a). https://doi.org/10.1111/spol.12603.
Chen, Julie Yujie, Sophie Ping Sun, and Jack Linchuan Qiu. 2020. “Deliver on the Promise of the Platform Economy.” Bengaluru, India: IT for Change. https://itforchange.net/platformpolitics/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/China-Research-Report.pdf.
D’Cruz, Premilla, and Ernesto Noronha. 2016. “Positives Outweighing Negatives: The Experiences of Indian Crowdsourced Workers.” Work Organisation, Labour & Globalisation 10 (1): 44–63. https://doi.org/10.13169/workorgalaboglob.10.1.0044.
Fairwork Project. 2020. “Gig Workers, Platforms,and Government During Covid-19 in South Africa.” https://fair.work/wp-content/uploads/sites/97/2020/05/Covid19-SA-Report-Final.pdf.
Gachoka, Anne, and Jacob Winiecki. 2020. “Assessing the Impact of Tech-Enabled Urban Mobility.” Boston, MA: Shell Foundation and BFA Global. https://bfaglobal.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Shell-Foundation_BFA_SafeBoda_MAX_Impact.pdf.
Garcia, Liza, Teresita Barrameda, Jessamine Pacis, and Arlen Sandino Barrameda. 2020. “Digitization and Domestic Work: The Policy Environment in the Philippines.” Bengaluru, India: IT for Change. https://itforchange.net/platformpolitics/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Philippines-Research-Report.pdf.
Geitung, Ine. 2017. “Uber Drivers in Cape Town: Working Conditions and Worker Agency in the Sharing Economy.” MA Thesis, University of Oslo. https://www.duo.uio.no/bitstream/handle/10852/60423/MA-Geitung.pdf?sequence=1.
Genesis Analytics. 2019. “Towards a Digital Workforce: Understanding the Building Blocks of Kenya’s Gig Economy.” Mercy Corps Youth Impact Labs. https://www.mercycorps.org/sites/default/files/2020-01/Youth_Impact_Labs_Kenya_Gig_Economy_Report_2019_1.pdf.
Graham, Mark, Isis Hjorth, and Vili Lehdonvirta. 2017. “Digital Labour and Development: Impacts of Global Digital Labour Platforms and the Gig Economy on Worker Livelihoods.” Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research 23 (2): 135–62. https://doi.org/10.1177/1024258916687250.
Graham, Mark, Vili Lehdonvirta, Alex Wood, Helena Barnard, Isis Hjorth, and David Peter Simon. 2017. “The Risks and Rewards of Online Gig Work At the Global Margins.” Oxford, UK: Oxford Internet Institute. https://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/publications/gigwork.pdf.
Gray, Mary L, and Siddharth Suri. 2019. Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Gupta, Shruti. 2020. “Gendered Gigs: Understanding the Gig Economy in New Delhi from a Gendered Perspective.” In Proceedings of the 2020 International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development, 1–10. ICTD2020. New York, NY: ACM. https://doi.org/10.1145/3392561.3394635.
Hunt, Abigail, Emma Samman, Sherry Tapfuma, Grace Mwaura, Rhoda Omenya, Kay Kim, Sara Stevano, and Aida Roumer. 2019. “Women in the Gig Economy: Paid Work, Care and Flexibility in Kenya and South Africa.” London, UK: Overseas Development Institute. https://data2x.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/WomenintheGigEconomy_ODI.pdf.
Krishna, Shyam. 2020. “The Role of a Gig-Worker during Crisis: Consequences of COVID19 on Food Delivery Workers in South India.” IFIP 9.4 Blog (blog). April 13, 2020. https://ifip94.wordpress.com/2020/04/13/the-role-of-a-gig-worker-during-crisis-consequences-of-covid19-on-food-deliver-workers-in-south-india/.
Lehdonvirta, Vili. 2016. “Algorithms That Divide and Unite: Delocalization, Identity, and Collective Action in ‘Microwork.’” In Space, Place and Global Digital Work, edited by J. Flecker, 53–81. London: Palgrave-Macmillan.
Makuvaza, Leonard, Chernay Johnson, and Herman Smit. 2018. “The Rise of African Digital Platforms.” Insight2Impact (blog). October 2018. https://i2ifacility.org/insights/blog/the-rise-of-african-digital-platforms?entity=blog.
Martin, David, Jacki O’Neill, Neha Gupta, and Benjamin V. Hanrahan. 2016. “Turking in a Global Labour Market.” Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) 25 (1): 39–77. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10606-015-9241-6.
Melia, Elvis. 2020. “African Jobs in the Digital Era: Export Options with a Focus on Online Labour.” Discussion Paper. https://doi.org/10.23661/DP3.2020.
Muhindi, Abas Ben. 2019. “Towards Decent Work On Online Labour Platforms: Implications Of Working Conditions In Online Freelance Work On The Well Being Of Youths In Nairobi County.” MA thesis, University of Nairobi. http://erepository.uonbi.ac.ke/handle/11295/109681.
Raval, Noopur, and Joyojeet Pal. 2019. “Making a ‘Pro’: ‘Professionalism’ after Platforms in Beauty-Work.” Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction 3 (CSCW): 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1145/3359277.
Reilly, Katherine M. A., and Luis H. Lozano-Paredes. 2019. “Ride Hailing Regulations in Cali, Colombia: Towards Autonomous and Decent Work.” In Information and Communication Technologies for Development. Strengthening Southern-Driven Cooperation as a Catalyst for ICT4D, edited by Petter Nielsen and Honest Christopher Kimaro, 425–35. IFIP Advances in Information and Communication Technology. Cham: Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-18400-1_35.
Wisana, Dewa, Inaya Rakhmani, Alfindra Primaldhi, Primaldhi Walandouw, Aditya Nugroho, and Turro Wongkaren. 2017. “GO-JEK Impact towards Indonesian Economy.” Jakarta. GO-JEK-Impact-towards-Indonesian-Economy.pdf.
Wood, Alex J, Mark Graham, Vili Lehdonvirta, and Isis Hjorth. 2019. “Good Gig, Bad Gig: Autonomy and Algorithmic Control in the Global Gig Economy.” Work, Employment and Society 33 (1): 56–75. https://doi.org/10.1177/0950017018785616.
Zollmann, Julie, and Catherine Wanjala. 2020. “What Is Good Work? Perspectives of Young Workers in Nairobi.” Text report and accompanying slides. Nairobi, Kenya: The Mastercard Foundation. https://www.juliezollmann.com/are-new-jobs-good.