Access to work & markets

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.

Find references for this section at the bottom of this page or see the PDF for in-text citations.

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.



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