Betweenness and Protection: How is this space between employment and self-employment experienced? And how are people protected in it? By design, marketplace platforms sit in the middle between sellers and buyers. When workers aren’t employees, and when sellers aren’t regular vendors with contractual relationships to buyers, that sets up gray areas both in terms of who workers and sellers experience autonomy, and, importantly, whether a state’s ‘social protections’ and labor laws, including insurance and pension and health, are configured to include them The studies suggest this is an essential vulnerability by design. Some workers do prefer an arm’s-length arrangement, while others feel the lack of protection. Some are confused and do not know how to describe themselves, vis a vis the traditional constructs of employee and entrepreneur. We argue this his is not merely matter of semantics, and that instead betweenness is an essential experiential element of platform livelihoods.
This element is a reflection of one of the essential tensions in the platform livelihoods space. From an economic or structural perspective, multisided marketplaces for goods and services put platforms in the middle of transactions that they don’t entirely control. Platforms get to be lean, not having to hold inventory, physical spaces, or formal employees. These promise remarkable and flexible allocations of labor and investment, but challenge established ways in which societies understand livelihoods, and how those societies protect the dignity of work and the well-being of those doing work when so many benefits are tied to formal employment.
Among the studies in this review, all of which involved first-person/primary research in the Global South, this essential challenge was often revisited as a matter of fact stipulation or framing statement. Projects like Fairwork (2020) can describe the “numerous risks” of platform work, risks others have enumerated like the lack of a country-mandated minimum wage (Martin et al. 2016), lack of social protection from the state (Rani and Furrer 2019; Wood et al. 2019b), the lack of employment contracts to sign and thus the instability of work (B. Chen et al. 2020; Wood et al. 2019a), low participation in insurance programs (J. Y. Chen 2018), and the lack of company-supplied benefits (Genesis Analytics 2019; Hunt et al. 2019). It’s why people who work part-time as microtaskers are more likely to have benefits and protections from the state or elsewhere than those who work full-time as microtaskers (Berg et al. 2018, 20). In the light of the “digital Taylorism” evident in daily practices and regulations governing microwork and freelancing (Anwar and Graham 2019b), it is easy to punch holes in the idea that all platform livelihood seekers are entrepreneurs. It’s also the reason why platform workers turn to families for protection and support when formal state and company structures fail them (J. Y. Chen 2018), and why platform workers are hurt so dramatically by the downturns associated with COVID-19. When demand plummets, they are on their own (Krishna 2020).
Yet despite the clear misalignment between how individuals, platform companies, their customers, and the state frame the nature of the work, these studies also nevertheless indicate that the solutions are not clear-cut. The experience of betweenness is embedded in contexts that reinforce—nay, demand—this misalignment.
Speaking about microwork, Grey and Suri (2019, 75) explain:
The harsh irony is that ghost work platforms and individual requesters wash their hands of the pain they inflict on workers. Companies … view workers as mere customers who are selling their labor, as they might sell their used record collection or rent a spare bedroom. In the eyes of ghost work companies, customers come to their sites strictly of their own volition. And, as customers, they can leave at any time.
This is a vulnerability by design, something Raval and Pal (2019, 10) echo in their study of workers in India. They said that platforms can
“govern at a distance” by having instilled the disciplinary logics of accountability and the individualization of risk without having to employ these gig-workers. Further, in the case of HouseHelp, this professional discourse is extended in a very culturally specific way where upwardly mobile urban Indians are offered convenience, comfort (of at-home service), and hygiene as hallmarks of professional service, mirroring what they also often receive from support staff at-work. At the same time, the pros are encouraged to demonstrate professionalism through the individual absorption of risk and the demonstration of vulnerability. The platform comes to hold this asymmetry of power in balance.
This vulnerability is embedded in the complexity and absence of protections. When operating in segments or national contexts with a lot of informality in the existing workforce, this intentional betweenness is difficult to regulate (Anwar and Graham 2019a). It can be more difficult to decry a lack of protections when so many in the nondigital informal sector lack them, too (Surie and Koduganti 2016).
Nor does every worker occupy the same position vis-à-vis the platform. As we discuss in the crosscutting theme on hidden hierarchies, some individuals have employers, landlords, or asset lessors sitting between them and the platform. There are talent aggregators (Soriano and Panaligan 2019) and “virtual MSEs” in freelancing (Melia 2020), and lots of different ways to get a taxi or motorcycle on the road. For example, in China,
Apart from the division between full-time and part-time, we found a proliferation of informal employment types. The online ride-hailing market consists of, at least, taxi drivers, independent (moonlighting) private drivers (namely the independent contractors), drive-to-own drivers, and subcontracted drivers. Subcontracted drivers include those directly hired by the platform companies and those who are hired by fleet companies that affiliate with platform companies. Each group of drivers face different levels of income deductions by the platform or the employer company. Similarly for the online food-delivery market, there are at least four different types of riders: 1) platform-hired riders, 2) crowdsourced riders, 3) subcontracted riders who are hired and 4) in-house riders. The discrepancy between each employment type illustrates varied levels of informality and collective bargaining power (J. Y. Chen, Sun, and Qiu 2020, 19).
What does it mean to be “self-employed” or “an employee” in such a context? Bosses abound even if the platform can’t see them. Indeed, the platform may not want to see them.
Some workers do prefer an arm’s-length arrangement (Nastiti 2017). “Workers often view themselves as entrepreneurs and buy into the individuality of owning risks and responsibility” (Aneja and Sridhar 2019), even if they miss out on state benefit schemes. According to Reilly and Lozano-Paredes (2019, 6),
Contributions to social security are voluntary in Cali, and only 8% of surveyed ride-hailing workers made contributions to insurance, sick, and/or maternity leave, or pension plan…. Indeed, they saw future formalization of the sector as a threat, and saw the ability to avoid taxes as a benefit of informal work.
Others feel the lack of protection. For example, the “misclassification” of South African drivers as independent leaves them at risk of dismissal (Selabe 2017). Thus, in a survey of such drivers, 58% said they would quit online work if they were employed with better terms, i.e., permanent contacts and social benefits. To these respondents, stability of income and social protection were important (Muhindi 2019).
Perhaps most notably for this review section, many others are literally confused or unclear as to where they sit and how to describe their status (Gray and Suri 2019; Hunt et al. 2019; Garcia et al. 2020). Our contention is this is by design. For example, Tintiangko and Soriano (2020) note that online freelancers in the Philippines feel outside the target market for coworking spaces, since they do not consider themselves as entrepreneurs. This is reflected in their constant use of phrases such as “If I were a startupper or an entrepreneur….”
This ambiguity isn’t always evident; it’s pretty clear to those involved in social commerce, for example, that they are their own bosses, even reflected in the way they set up separate social media identities for their business distinct from their personal activities (Zhao 2020). But the experience of betweenness is widespread, and the ambiguities are intentional. If individuals do not know how they are classified, and platforms are taking liberties with how they are classified, then we as researchers and development practitioners must be attuned to these ambiguities as well. It’s part of the reason we propose “platform livelihoods” as a coherent superset of platform labor and platform sales; it allows us to see the ways in which the stand-off, arm’s-length approach to engagement on a task-by-task or sale-by-sale basis can be both an enabler and a constraint for those trying to make a living. The policy implications of this vary widely per sector and by country, and are thus outside the scope of this review. However, it should be clear from the section that this is not merely a matter of semantics. Betweenness is an essential experiential element of platform livelihoods.
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