Hidden hierarchies

Hidden hierarchies: How many workers and sellers are there? And how many have bosses we can’t see? We argue it is important not confuse the entrepreneur with the enterprise, and to look for cases where enterprises are growing, even when it seems like a sole proprietor. These are not always rigidly hierarchical in an employer/employee or even lessor/lessee sense—they can be cooperatives, or family activities—but many are, as those with assets or power or prestige pull others in to work for them or rent from them, under the banner of a single account.

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

In understanding platform livelihoods as a heterogenous category, it is important not to confuse the entrepreneur with the enterprise, and to look for cases where enterprises are growing beyond the visible footprint of a single account. Melia (2020, 43) finds “successful writers have expanded their operations into informal writing shops, most of them casually employ between three and ten writers (mostly university students and mostly on a seasonal basis).” Building on others in this review (Gray and Suri 2019; Wood et al. 2019b; Anwar and Graham 2019), he terms this phenomenon “virtual SMEs.”

In Kenya, re-outsourcing cannot be understood as a small sideshow of online labour. It is the core of the sector’s ecosystem and the reason for physical agglomeration of online workers. That most successful online platform accounts in Kenya are not run by individuals but by virtual SMEs has certainly not yet been reflected in any quantitative estimates of the sector’s size. That is, existing estimates are built on the assumption that each successfully earning account amounts to one single online worker. (Melia 2020, 44)

These hierarchies are not limited to purely online activities like freelancing (see also Partnership for Finance in a Digital Africa 2019) and microwork. For example, Uber, in Bangladesh, “listed three distinct roles through which individuals could serve as a part of its ecosystem…. (1) non-driving partners, (2) drivers under partners, and (3) driver cum partners” (Kumar, Jafarinaimi, and Bin Morshed 2018, 4). This dynamic is observed in Kenya (Kibe 2020; Zollmann and Wanjala 2020), the Philippines (Limpin and Sison 2018), India (Surie and Koduganti 2016), and in China, where there is a

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 (Chen, Sun, and Qiu 2020, 19)

These groups are not always rigidly hierarchical in an employer/employee or even lessor/lessee sense. Others have noted more collaborative arrangements, rooted in peer networks or among family members (Gray and Suri 2019; Wood et al. 2019b; 2019a). “People are working in groups here. Some of the freelancers are getting local small projects and they are working on it for $300 to $400 together” (Malik et al. 2020). Zollman and Wanjala (2020) even note forms of shared housing where freelancers work and live together (but for someone else) under one roof. Muhindi (2019) describes commission fees that individual freelancers can pay to those who operate successful profiles.

All told, research in several sectors and several countries has uncovered an array of arrangements that collectively challenge the idea of one account, one worker. It’s part of the rationale for this review’s use of the overarching phrase “platform livelihoods,” and signals how difficult (though important) it will be to unpack the actual footprint of platform labor and platform sales around the Global South. The good news is there may be more platform-mediated livelihood activity than a mere count of active accounts would indicate. The bad news is not all of those roles may be equally fulfilling or high-quality—those leasing cars don’t do as well as the owners (Kute 2017), those working for a freelancer don’t do as well as the account holder, and those cleaning the bedrooms in an Airbnb may not do as well as the person advertising the property. As is often the case of technology, even a simple set of rules and code that underpins an online marketplace can support the emergence of complex structures. It’s what humans do with technology. 


Anwar, Mohammad Amir, and Mark Graham. 2019. “Hidden Transcripts of the Gig Economy: Labour Agency and the New Art of Resistance among African Gig Workers:” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, December. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0308518X19894584.

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.

Gray, Mary L, and Siddharth Suri. 2019. Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Kibe, Josephine. 2020. “How Are Kenya’s Youth Experiencing the Gig Economy?” May 28, 2020. https://www.cgap.org/blog/how-are-kenyas-youth-experiencing-gig-economy.

Kumar, Neha, Nassim Jafarinaimi, and Mehrab Bin Morshed. 2018. “Uber in Bangladesh: The Tangled Web of Mobility and Justice.” Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction 2 (CSCW): 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1145/3274367.

Kute, Sebabe William. 2017. “The Sharing Economy in the Global South: Uber’s Precarious Labour Force in Johannesburg.” Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand. http://wiredspace.wits.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10539/24466/540932%20MA%20submission.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y.

Limpin, Laiza L., and Raymond C. Sison. 2018. “Drivers’ Tactics in Ridesharing Economy in the Philippines.” In . Sydney, Australia: University of Technology, Sydney. https://doi.org/10.5130/acis2018.at.

Malik, Fareesa, Richard Heeks, Silvia Masiero, and Brian Nicholson. 2020. “Digital Platform Labour in Pakistan: Institutional Voids and Solidarity Networks,” June. https://repository.lboro.ac.uk/articles/conference_contribution/Digital_platform_labour_in_Pakistan_ Institutional_voids_and_solidarity_networks/12520100.

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.

Partnership for Finance in a Digital Africa. 2019. “Micro-Entrepeneurs in a Platform Era.” Farnham, Surrey, UK. https://www.financedigitalafrica.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/FiDA-Micro-entrepreneurs-in-a-platform-era.pdf.

Surie, Aditi, and Jyothi Koduganti. 2016. “The Emerging Nature of Work in Platform Economy Companies in Bengaluru, India: The Case of Uber and Ola Cab Drivers.” E-Journal of International and Comparative Labour Studies 5 (3). http://ejcls.adapt.it/index.php/ejcls_adapt/article/view/224.

Wood, Alex J, Mark Graham, Vili Lehdonvirta, and Isis Hjorth. 2019a. “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.

———. 2019b. “Networked but Commodified: The (Dis)Embeddedness of Digital Labour in the Gig Economy.” Sociology 53 (5): 931–50. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038519828906.

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.