Association, Organization & Support

Association, Organization & Support: Are people in this together? Several of the studies shared ways in which platform workers and sellers were not alone. This could be as simple as identifying oneself as a platform worker, could extend to having venues for mutual support and information sharing, especially online, in some cases went all the way to forms of collective action, although the presence of actual unions or worker’s associations remains variable, as does individuals’ interest in joining them.

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In some sense, platform livelihoods are inherently atomizing and individualistic. Each vendor worker supposedly represents one’s own account. But is that actually the case? Several participants across various studies shared ways in which individuals seeking platform livelihoods were not alone. This could be as simple as identifying oneself as a platform worker, extending to having venues for mutual support and information sharing, especially online, and in some cases, going all the way to forms of collective action.

Some researchers were interested in whether individuals described themselves as platform workers or plying a livelihood via platforms—was it an identity? After all, electronic freelancing affords few avenues for socialization or shared passion (Zollmann and Wanjala 2020). As one freelancer in the Philippines put it, “Even in one of those more expensive coworking spaces in Makati, my friend told me that it’s just really quiet. You’re all seated beside each other, you work, but it’s just quiet” (Tintiangko and Soriano 2020).

Lehdonvirta (2016, 65–66) tackles this directly by interviewing microworkers and finding that 

A particularly consistent finding was that microworkers did not experience identification with their detached and transitory employers, the firms that provided them work over the platform. Many MTurk workers had “favorite” employers, favored thanks to paying well, providing stimulating tasks, or generally dealing in a fair way. But this favor did not seem to amount to experiences of belonging or membership, perhaps because workers were well aware that the distant working relationship that they enjoyed could end without notice, and often did. Another potential focal point for identification is the platform that mediates between the worker and the employer … relative to what might be expected of standard employees in a firm, microworkers’ identification with the formal organizations closest to them seemed weak. 

Lehdonvirta (2016) found some distinctions between the degree of association with different microwork platforms (Mechanical Turk being the least associative) but the general point is notable; it can be lonely out there. However, identification as a platform worker may vary between sectors and countries, and is worthy of further testing.

That said, it is understandable and yet remarkable how much digital social media has allowed for the spontaneous organization of support forums and interest groups to break through the in-built atomization of platform work (Lehdonvirta 2018). Researchers speaking with microworkers in India (N. Gupta et al. 2014; Newlands and Lutz 2020; Gray and Suri 2019) and around the world (Anwar and Graham 2019b; 2019b; Berg et al. 2018), from freelancers in Kenya (Melia 2020; Partnership for Finance in a Digital Africa 2019) and the Philippines (Soriano and Panaligan 2019), to drivers in Indonesia (Budiman 2020; Nastiti 2017), Africa (Gachoka and Winiecki 2020) and Colombia (Reilly and Lozano-Paredes 2019); home care workers in India (Aneja and Sridhar 2019), Kenya and South Africa (Hunt et al. 2019), use such forums for guidance, coordination, sharing of alerts about bad clients, and so on. Some have used words like “friends” and “family” (Gachoka and Winiecki 2020) to describe their importance. Sometimes these forums may be hosted by the platform (Garcia et al. 2020), but more often, there were references to Facebook, WeChat, or WhatsApp depending on the market. At times, these mediated connections began to supplant face-to-face advice and support among place-bound communities (Crosby and Cahaya 2017).

As Gray and Suri (2019, 131) put it,

Over and over again, workers told us that they were on the brink of giving up on ghost work platforms before they found the forums. They say it would be impossible for labor platforms to operate if workers weren’t collaborating behind the scenes and that they wouldn’t survive the grueling aspects of the work without the connections they forged.

One of the most interesting uses of online forums bridges the line between coordination and support, as described above, and more adversarial resistance, protests, and strikes. These forms of organizations, mostly by platform workers as opposed to platform sellers, is intriguing and important, and as such is reflected in several studies from around the world, from groups monitoring social networks used for transmitting information about strikes and collective activism in China (Chen 2018; Chen, Sun, and Qiu 2020), to organizing protests in Amazon’s microtasking platform that have led to rule changes in India (Panteli, Rapti, and Scholarios 2020).

The presence of actual unions or worker’s associations remains variable, as does individual user’s interests in joining them (Wood, Lehdonvirta, and Graham 2018; Geitung 2017), partly for the issues of betweenness and entrepreneurial identity described elsewhere. We did not enumerate them for this paper, but among the studies, there were mentions of motorcycle taxi cooperative (Gachoka and Winiecki 2020), and a “Turkopticon” for organizing microtaskers (Irani and Silberman 2016). This is underexplored, and the overall efficacy and scope of worker organizations in the Global South is a topic that deservers further scrutiny (Graham, Hjorth, and Lehdonvirta 2017; S. Gupta 2020; Anwar and Graham 2020; 2019a), particularly in ways that extend beyond microwork, driving, and freelancing. Perhaps one alternate way forward begins with collaboration as Malik et al. (2020) argue. Freelancers in Pakistan have started taking work as a group rather than just individual jobs:

Networks built on kinship, friendship, and social connections have a smaller reach than formal unionization, and clearly do not yield the bargaining power of a workers’ union. Nevertheless, the emerging forms of solidarity—rather than competition—among workers in Pakistan suggest the opportunity for alternative forms of cooperation to develop in contexts where legal and cultural factors make unionization difficult or impossible (Malik et al. 2020).


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