The Appeal and Challenges of Platform-Based Work from the Perspective of Three Migrant Workers - Part 3

Niels van Doorn
Darsana Vijay

In the first two blog posts of this series, we have been tracing the experiences of three migrant gig workers – Mohammed, José and Andrei. Here, we continue our discussion of some of the challenges they encountered while doing platform-mediated work, while also touching on the question of what – if anything – comes after platform labor. We close with a brief reflection on potential institutional and regulatory measures that are responsive to the predicament of many migrant platform workers.

Blocking, fines and deactivation

Platforms do not just encourage circumscribed forms of good behavior; they punish bad behavior too. Andrei explained that if he cancels three accepted offers in a short period of time, his Uber Eats account can be put on hold while it is “under review” (which can take up to three days). This punitive measure obstructs his capacity to earn money through the app during that time. Termination of the service contract is much more drastic and permanent. As mentioned in the previous blog post, Andrei was removed from Deliveroo’s platform altogether after he had an altercation at a restaurant. He found it very unfair that the platform did not even check his side of the story, even though he had been working with Deliveroo for quite a long time and had successfully completed so many deliveries.

Helpling cleaners also risk temporary deactivation if they frequently cancel jobs or do not respond to new cleaning offers during a period when they are not working through the platform. Mohammed noticed that once Helpling implemented its new “Countdown Offers” feature, he found himself having to cancel appointments more often and thus risk penalties. This feature asks cleaners to respond to job offers and – instead of being matched with a client right away, as is the case for regular cleaning offers – wait 12 hours to find out if they have been selected from a pool of competing cleaners. This creates a situation where cleaners feel the need to respond to multiple Countdown Offers in order to maximize their chance of being selected, which can subsequently result in scheduling clashes and last-minute cancellations – especially when a cleaner only learns about being accepted right before the cleaning appointment. Whereas this used to mean one’s performance score took a hit on the “Reliability” metric, these days the platform gives cleaners a 15 euro fine if they cancel a cleaning less than 24 hours in advance. If they fail to show up, they will be charged 50 euros. (See also this article, about comparable measures on the Handy platform).

José has so far never been blocked or deactivated, but he has heard from other couriers that Relay blocks people if their rating falls below 75 out of a maximum 100 points. While this rumor is unconfirmed, the fear of being blocked (instigated through such rumors) works to enforce labor discipline in a work environment pervaded by uncertainty.

Platforms do not shoulder extra-wage responsibilities

Labor platforms leverage migrant workers’ entrepreneurial spirit and, in many cases, their lack of familiarity with national social security, labor, and fiscal legislation, expecting them to take care of their own insurances, learn about tax regulations, and bear any unforeseen expenditures. Although Mohammed is doing alright financially, due to his household’s dual income, he could imagine that other Helpling cleaners in Berlin struggle to make ends meet after paying for their insurances, taxes, and (steadily rising) rent. Accordingly, he does not intend to stay on with the platform for much longer, unless they would offer the possibility of formal employment or at least would contribute to cleaners’ health insurance.

Andrei also acknowledged that it is difficult for gig workers to make insurance payments when their earnings fluctuate from week to week. He has a system in place where he splits his income in four parts: rent, taxes and insurance, day-to-day expenses, and money for his family. Because he has always done informal and contract-based work, he does not consider it a real issue that platforms do not provide insurance or cover work-related expenses (like bicycle repair). For him, the solution was and still is to work as much as he can, 10-12 hours each day, and meticulously put aside money to pay all his bills.

José, who supports five children (four in the US and one in Mexico), cannot meet all his expenses just through app-based work and depends on tax deductions and child support. Some of these benefits are easier to claim when you are an employee, which is why José makes sure he is on the rolls of some business, such as the bagel shop, even if it is just a few hours a week. Currently, he also works as a part-time courier at a high-end Italian restaurant, precisely for this reason. Without these additional jobs and welfare provisions, which are (still) available to undocumented immigrants in New York State, he would not be able to get by and support his family.

Platforms treat them as dispensable

José, Mohammed and Andrei repeatedly referred to their high ratings and other performance indicators as a source of pride. It is therefore poignant that they also feel like this dedication to their work is largely unrecognized, or at least unrewarded, by the platform companies. Platform representatives responsible for dealing with worker complaints are often rude, unresponsive, and/or unhelpful. This makes Mohammed believe that Helpling cares only about its customers and not at all about cleaners. This resonates with Andrei’s feeling that Deliveroo cared more about its relationship to the restaurants than about the people doing the deliveries. He felt insulted and devalued after Deliveroo threw him off the platform without consulting him about what happened, which was to his mind the least they could have done

José and Andrei, who have been working at least 40 hours per week for these platforms over the past few years, find it extremely unfair that they are treated on par with students and other temporary workers who put in only a few hours every couple of days and usually quit after the summer. This becomes even more unjust considering that they complete two to three times as many orders than these newbies do. By making reputation and experience crucial for couriers’ income opportunities, platforms encourage workers to invest mentally, physically, and economically in the job. At the same time, however, these companies do not incentivize them to remain on the platform for a longer period of time. Instead, they seem more focused on ensuring a steady supply of fungible labor in the short run.

As Mohammed points out, this objective is not very difficult to achieve because there are always migrants, students, or other people who are looking to make a quick buck. In the absence of seniority-based incentives or rewards, such as a gradual reduction in a platform’s commission or bonuses/privileges tied to the total time one has been active on a platform, Mohammed does not see any motivation to stick around. Helpling is only a gig for him: a stopgap opportunity. Even though he is an undocumented refugee, he is in a less precarious position than the others, owing mostly to his education and linguistic proficiency but also to the fact that Berlin is a cheaper place to live compared to NYC or Amsterdam. Moreover, he does not have a big family to provide for, in contrast to José. For Andrei and José, on the other hand, gig work is much more of a profession; a crucial part of their lives and their main source of income for the foreseeable future. This puts them in an uncomfortable and risky position, given the fact that – especially with few alternatives – they remain more dispensable to the platform than the other way around.

Exit strategies

The only way Mohammed can see himself meaningfully continue his work with Helpling in the long run is as an app developer. At times, he spoke more from an app-developer’s perspective than from the position of a cleaner. He constantly mentioned how the app design could be improved, how the bidding system nudges cleaners to bring down their rate (negatively affecting the earnings potential of both the cleaner and the platform), and how most of these qualms can be attributed to Helpling’s lack of professionality. Mohammed was planning to leave the platform in a few months and he was actively working on a prototype that would be able to compete with Helpling’s platform/app.

Leaving the platform is not an option that is immediately available to Andrei and José, given their lack of viable alternatives. Andrei does not know for sure how long he will stay on with Uber Eats. He hopes to open a restaurant in the future; one that serves good quality food at affordable prices. Every month he puts aside a little money towards this goal and he estimates that he could also get a loan to get it off the ground eventually. José also wants to open a restaurant once he achieves more financial stability. He sees himself continuing with Relay and the job at the Italian restaurant for the next five years. Then, if all goes according to plan, he will open a restaurant along with his siblings who, like him, have been saving some money towards this shared goal.

Concluding remarks

Reflecting on the trajectories of these three workers, it is clear that platform-mediated gig work serves as a crucial source of income for all of them. Finding other kinds of work that offer more stability and protections is incredibly difficult – if not impossible – for José and Andrei in particular. The most accessible alternatives are other (informal) jobs in the low-wage service sector, which usually offer very little flexibility and autonomy – and in the US context provide no benefits when working less than 30 hours per week. Abolishing platform-mediated work will thus not solve the exploitation of vulnerable workers; it will merely displace their problems and force them to look for other – less favorable – options.

At the same time, our research also points to a number of serious challenges/problems pertaining to platform labor – which is to a large extent migrant and minority labor. It is clear, then, that we should not let these platforms off the hook either. Instead, we should work toward a broader set of protections and benefits for all workers, across industries and sectors. Moreover, such protections should be responsive to the specific challenges migrant workers face on a daily basis. This requires proactive state intervention, which does not solely concern itself with platform-centric regulation but also furthers the development of a safety net covering all low-wage workers. Again, this should be an institutional arrangement that recognizes migrant workers’ struggles as well as their right to a decent standard of living. The options available to migrant workers should not be limited to a binary choice between precarious platform labor and conventional forms of exploitative, insecure and/or criminalized work.