Flexibility: Can people work and sell, when and where they want? Flexibility is at the heart of many of the narratives surrounding ‘gig’ work and the labor elements of platform livelihoods, and this element is reflected how study participants around the world stressed the importance of choosing times of day to work, the ability to work from home (often to take care of family), to manage one’s workflow, or to work part-time. But sometimes this flexibility was not available – other research describes brutal time zone and long hours, lots of unpaid time, pressures to work long enough to make enough money, or the need to always stay focused on getting another.
Flexibility is at the heart of many of the narratives surrounding gig work and the labor elements of platform livelihoods. This element is reflected in some of the stories that participants have told researchers around the world. Drivers in Bangladesh (Kumar, Jafarinaimi, and Bin Morshed 2018) and South Africa (Geitung 2017) value autonomy. Microworkers and freelancers do, too (Graham et al. 2017). More specifically, the ability to choose the times during the day that one works appeals to microworkers in the Philippines and Nepal (Lehdonvirta 2016), Pakistan (Malik et al. 2020), Kenya (Muhindi 2019), and more across six countries in sub-Saharan Africa (Anwar and Graham 2020; 2019). “Nobody will shout at me if I’m late,” said one freelancer in Kenya (Zollmann and Wanjala 2020). For some, it’s not just when one turns up, but how one looks when one does it. That presentation of self is easier to control working remotely and for oneself (Tintiangko and Soriano 2020).
The ability to work from home so one could mind children or family isn’t necessarily only valued by women (see Tintiangko and Soriano 2020). Nevertheless, several studies link the appeal of remote and/or flexible work to women and childcare in South Asia (Gray and Suri 2019; Berg et al. 2018; S. Gupta 2020; Bandaranayake et al. 2020; D’Cruz and Noronha 2016), and ride hailing in sub-Saharan Africa (Budiman 2020).
We discuss fractional work as a crosscutting theme elsewhere in this report, but it is worth noting that some participants framed the appeal of flexibility as the ability to work part-time outside a main job (Partnership for Finance in a Digital Africa 2019), to be able to work from home while working for “more serious jobs” in India (Martin et al. 2016), or to use microwork as part of a constellation of livelihoods in which it is difficult to determine which is the primary and which is the secondary (Crosby and Cahaya 2017).
There’s also an appeal to managing one’s own workflow, to have the flexibility to drop freelancing tasks and walk away from clients who aren’t working out (Berg et al. 2018), or to change the order in which an individual pursues tasks and clients during the day (Wood et al. 2019), even if that choice is simply to work for a few hours and then take a break (Aneja and Sridhar 2019).
Flexibility has a flip side as well; the inverse of being able to work or not work as one chooses may also manifest as being forced to work just to stay in the game. For example, working across time zones can be brutal for microworkers and freelancers (Martin et al. 2016; Muhindi 2019; N. Gupta et al. 2014; Anwar and Graham 2020).
The sheer amount of work, and long, long hours (Muhindi 2019; Graham et al. 2017) forces what Gray and Suri (2019, 77) call “hypervigilance,” noting that
Flexibility is a myth. Instead of the utopian vision of an endless stream of online work that a person can dip into between other pursuits, on-demand labor more closely resembles the infamous I Love Lucy television comedy sketch with Lucy and Ethel working on the assembly line at a chocolate factory. As they scramble to keep pace, the pace of work comes faster and faster.
These pressures are echoed in studies by Zollman and Wanjala (2020), who, in discussing different livelihoods in various countries, discover a similar dynamic in noting that some respondents called flexibility “a mirage.” That is, if one worked 60 hours a week to maintain a car, it was no longer flexible. If one worked in outsourcing overnight and constantly on call, it was no longer flexible. If one had to switch to work a 6 AM cleaning shift to serve corporate clients, it was no longer flexible and even impossible for women with families.
These pressures were found in a third country, in yet another industry. Chen, Sun, and Qiu (2020) spoke to delivery workers who found the pace grueling, and lived in a state of anxiety with no time for breaks or meals, and no off days.
In the section on earnings, we discussed how many felt frustrated by the amount of unpaid time they must put into platform livelihoods. This unpaid time has an impact on flexibility as well. The grind of looking for work—if not working, looking for work creates insecurity that cuts against the ideal of flexibility (Anwar and Graham 2020; Rani and Furrer 2019; Geitung 2017; Aneja and Sridhar 2019). So too, does the time required to travel to work (Hunt et al. 2019). As one respondent puts it, “24-hour availability gives me the flexibility I need but not the money I deserve” (Kiarie, Singh, and Obiko 2020). Similarly, in the section on Access to Work & Markets, we discuss how when tasks/gigs are scarce, it undermines flexibility (S. Gupta 2020).
In sum, flexibility, access, and wages retained are profoundly interconnected. Around the world, those engaged in platform livelihoods are constantly calculating how much time they must spend, and when, in order to take home what they need for the day or the week.
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