Beyond Disruption

How Tech Shapes Labor Across Domestic Work & Ridehailing

Julia Ticona, Alexandra Mateescu, Alex Rosenblat

Published 06.26.18
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New Data & Society ethnographic report Beyond Disruption uses interviews with over 100 domestic and ridehailing platform workers in major U.S. cities to reveal how technology is reshaping the future of labor.

While ridehail driving and other male-dominated sectors have been at the forefront in conversations about the future of work, the working lives of domestic workers like housecleaners and nannies usually aren’t included.

Beyond Disruption featured in The New York Times

“Nannies, elder care workers, and housecleaners might have years of experience, but that isn’t enough to thrive on a marketplace platform.”

–Alex Rosenblat
“There’s an App for Wrecking Nannies’ Lives”

By bringing these three types of platforms and workers together, this report complicates simple narratives about technology’s impact on labor markets and highlights the convergent and divergent challenges workers face when using labor platforms to find and carry out their work. Interviewees reported increased financial and personal risk due to platform policy and design loopholes. For example, workers with marginalized identities (e.g. people of color and undocumented workers; largely women) report inequitable conditions that arise from common features such as rating systems.

“Beyond Disruption” highlights important differences, challenges, pressures, and inequalities within the two different types of labor platforms and sets the stage for more nuanced understandings of how technology is shaping the future of work beyond the “gig economy.”

“Marketplace platforms incentivize workers to invest heavily in self-branding and disadvantage workers without competitive new media skills; meanwhile, on-demand platforms create challenges for workers by offloading inefficiencies and hidden costs directly onto workers.”

Authors Julia Ticona, Alexandra Mateescu, and Alex Rosenblat define two categories of labor platforms: on-demand platforms (such as ridehailing app services) and marketplace platforms (such as online careworker directories), which differ in the way they intervene in the client-worker relationship:

  • On-demand platforms facilitate the matching of client and worker. Ridehailing services such as Uber are an example of these.
  • Marketplace platforms provide a ranked and sorted pool of candidates from which clients may choose. Domestic work directories such as Care.com are an example of these.

Workers for both types of platform share challenges in navigating platform policies, ensuring workplace safety, and hedging against instability.

Based on findings from research sites in New York City, Atlanta, and Washington D.C., the report further illustrates how digital labor platforms reshape legacy industries such as domestic work through new regulation, shifting workforce demographics, and changing dynamics of inequality and exploitation.

This report is the first research release from Data & Society’s newly-formalized Future of Labor research initiative.

Insights from Beyond Disruption for consumers of platform services:

  • Incorrect information supplied to workers can force them to create “invisible work strategies,” such as notifying a ridehail passenger that a driver has arrived at a pick-up location when they are still a block away.
  • Workers may be highlighted on ranked lists for reasons other than performance, such as opting into mobile alerts or accepting credit card payments.
  • Platform workers use online fora to socialize and solve problems, but these groups are largely inadequate for workers seeking to organize and petition for changes to platform policies.

Insights from Beyond Disruption for platform services:

  • One-sided ratings and ineffective policies require workers to handle “unfair, prejudiced, or vindictive actions” by clients themselves. Workers will often ignore small disputes and “absorb the risk” themselves because of the amount of time and effort it would take to address them.
  • Workers receive little advance information about clients and jobs, making it harder for them to assess safety and these risks can be heightened for certain workers (e.g., women of color). They might conduct their own research on clients and send information to friends and family in the case they do not hear from the worker.
  • Workers are uncertain of the risks of not completing a job, causing some to put themselves in harm’s way so as not to be penalized by receiving a lower rating and being less likely to procure future work.
  • Workers with marginalized identities (based on race, gender, class, or citizenship status) expressed feeling under stronger scrutiny on marketplace platforms than their counterparts, and platform policies can fail to take into account racism and power dynamics.
  • Because responsiveness is a ranked metric on marketplace platforms, it disadvantages workers who do not have access to high-speed internet. “Digital fluency” is particularly difficult for older workers who did not grow up with technology. By requiring digital literacy, marketplace platforms make digital skills a determining factor in securing work, often above actual domestic care skills.
  • The visibility of workers on marketplace platforms is not “symmetrical.” While workers are ranked and rated, there is no feedback loop for workers to comment on clients.

Insights from Beyond Disruption for labor researchers and advocates:

  • Workers often turn to their own methods of accountability, like collecting missing pay, taking screenshots, or using time tracking apps to have evidence in disputes.
  • Workers for on-demand platforms (e.g. ridehailing/transportation apps):
    • Are highly surveilled when using the app, including vehicle braking, acceleration, and by the passenger. If their ratings fall, they risk being kicked off the app.
    • Are removed from the decision-making process because the app coordinates the worker-client match-up, pressuring workers to make quick fixes to ensure a “seamless” experience for clients.
    • Are subject to penalties if they reject a job offered by the platform, even if the job comes with veiled details.
    • Feel safer in some cases going into more risky neighborhoods because the platform has the information of the client if an incident were to occur.
    • Compare screenshots and experiences that may reveal unfair practices.
  • Workers for marketplace platforms (e.g. care work services):
    • Are subject to inequalities embedded in the history of domestic work: Because women were tasked with unpaid household labor historically, paid-care work is often viewed as “lesser” compared to other service work. There is also stratification within the labor force, as workers face different levels of inequality based on varying factors (i.e. gender, race, citizenship, religion, etc.) and the legacy of domestic workers typically being people of color (including immigrants).
    • Are pressured to be constantly “online” and must be adept at self-branding and attentive to online metrics such as response rates. Workers’ skills and work experience are devalued in relation to the actual job but are used as status markers. Hypervisibility is encouraged but careworkers of color feel greater pressure around self-branding online because of stereotyping.
    • Experience challenges addressing problems within their online communities, as they do not all work for the same employer. Instead, they might unveil abusive practices by individual employers.
  • Workers for hybrid platforms (e.g. cleaning work services):
    • Have their communications limited so that all transactions occur in the app and receive penalties when a transaction occurs off-app.
    • For example, a cleaning worker the authors interviewed could not return a key to a client after a gig because the client’s home address disappeared. This resulted in a complaint from the client and her suspension from the platform.
    • On the flipside, many workers also prefer to keep all communications on the platform because of the small amount of accountability it provides if something were to go wrong.

To dig more deeply into some of the key themes explored in “Beyond Disruption,” check out our curated reading list.

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This report was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with additional support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Ford Foundation. The views expressed here are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funding organizations.

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