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.
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.
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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.
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