Those who earn their living cleaning private homes often do so without social protection, providing their services in working conditions that are far from ideal. While such a situation has been prevalent in domestic cleaning long before digital intermediation entered the world of work, platforms like Helpling do little to improve the situation.
Platforms that mediate labor have penetrated the sector of household-related services in recent years, often clad in promises of challenging the weak socio-historical position of the respective workforce. Helpling is no exception. It is the largest online platform that provides matching services for house cleaning in Germany, with around 10.000 registered cleaner profiles. In a study funded by Hans Böckler Foundation last year, our team of four researchers analyzed the risks and benefits of Helpling for cleaners. We aimed to contribute to a better understanding of the working conditions of formally self-employed cleaners, and to dig deeper into the perceptions of their clients. What we found was a general feeling of dissatisfaction among the interviewed cleaners – particularly with regards to the high commission, lack of social security, and overall power inequalities vis-à-vis the clients.
Our findings draw on interviews with 11 cleaners from Chile, Argentina, Ghana, Uruguay, and Spain and 10 clients between November 2020 and October 2021, as well as additional data from 27 cleaners collected in an online survey between June and October 2021. Our respondents exclusively used Helpling’s matching for households and self-employed individuals (although by now, Helpling has added a possibility to hire cleaners employed via partner companies—the “Helpling Premium” option). We also took a detailed look at the digital infrastructure of Helpling via a netnographic study. Finally, we received two written statements from Helpling answering a few open questions.
The attractiveness of working through Helpling boils down to easy access to potential jobs, which translates to flexible earning opportunities for people for whom the “regular” job market is hard to access—for example, migrant laborers. According to the interviewed cleaners, Helpling is an easy way to earn money quickly, in an uncomplicated manner, without knowledge of the German language. Another positive aspect is the fee imposed on clients in case of late cancellation of an appointment, and the support provided by Helpling in communicating between the two involved parties if the cleaner falls ill.
A lot to wish for…
Nevertheless, both in the interviews and the survey, a general feeling of dissatisfaction with the working conditions surfaced. The high commission for using the platform, the lack of social security, and user equality leave a lot to wish for.
The cleaners can set their own hourly rates within a preset range, but many consider the commission of 25 to 39 percent that Helpling collects too high. In the end, they are left with 10 to 15 euros per hour, from which they still need to deduct taxes and social contributions. In addition to the 18 hours per week that the respondents spend on average on cleaning services, there are about 6 hours of commuting time and 3 hours for administrative work such as managing bookings and communicating with clients. These hours cannot be billed through the platform.
One day a client asked me: how are you going to declare your taxes? I was like “I don’t know.” […] And we started searching together how Helpling works and then I realized I was working like illegally because I didn’t have this license and I knew everybody was doing this and no one knew that we should have a license and declare taxes. And I called Helpling, and they said they cannot give me any information because they are not tax persons. (C7)
Cleaning with a smile: Reviews and rating in platform mediated cleaning
As in the case of other platforms that mediate labor, reviews and ratings play an important role on Helpling, influencing platform workers’ chances of receiving advantageous offers. However, the system poses a number of issues. Responding directly to client reviews is technically impossible, and the space for action against unjustified negative reviews is limited. As one of the survey participants remarks:
It took me six months to recover my rating level from one single negative false review by a client who took it very personally when I did not want to work with her more than once. (S22)
In principle, cleaners can also rate clients, yet they are asked to do so only selectively (Helpling states that this aspect is currently being improved). This is a clear imbalance of power between the two types of users on the same platform. Furthermore, both the interview data and our netnographic study of Helpling’s digital interface expose affective labor as part and parcel of house cleaning – a well-known fact for feminist scholars dealing with devaluation of (reproductive) work. The cleaners’ friendliness is rated on a five-point scale, weighted equally with their reliability and the quality of the cleaning. As one of our interviewees puts it:
…I would say, if you are having a bad day as a cleaner and you are going to a customer you need to keep that bad day at home and you go with a smiley face. It is your job and then you go back to your bad day. Because I don’t think the customer is welcoming a problem to their home. (C8)
Sweeping the issues under the rug?
Cleaners face difficulty in addressing such inequalities and bringing about actual change due to the high degree of isolation among workers, which is typical for the domestic sector. Helpling cleaners struggle to jointly identify and defend their interests because of their status as self-employed workers, their work being essentially hidden behind closed doors of private houses, and language barriers. Further, there is no “virtual meeting space” in the platform infrastructure itself.
Yet, the “burden” of improving aspects such as isolation (as well as the working conditions per se) falls not only on Helpling or other platforms, but also on policy actors on the national and international levels. And the policy front is increasingly filled with on-point suggestions. For example, in the German context, digital access rights for trade unions and a statutory minimum protection independent of employment status, as demanded by the DGB, would significantly improve the conditions of work and worker isolation. In the EU context, the Directive for improving the working conditions of platform workers proposed a year ago by the European Commission, though criticized for its shortcomings, can still be seen as a bold attempt to deal with the employment status issue and worker misclassification directly related to the current social security issues. The proposal finally sees practices of algorithmic management and control as integral to the control and organization of the work process. Moreover, platforms would be required to provide a digital space where workers could communicate with each other – a direct step to increase the possibilities of connection. Nevertheless, the fact that such attempts are brought to a halt is discouraging. As shown by the recent impasse in finding a political consensus on the implementation of the Directive, concerns with the growth of the platform sector are blatantly prioritized over the social costs of the very same growth.
Paradoxically, though, such failures might still be seen as tiny steps of progress for the domestic sector, which has been practically invisible to the eyes of policy makers. Though platformization of this sector does not guarantee a transition towards decent working conditions for those who provide the respective services (for example, cleaning), it does make it harder to continue to sweep the topic under the rug.
Katarzyna Gruszka is a postdoc researcher at the Data Society Research Program at the Department of Computer Science and Media Technology at Malmö University. Her core fields of exploration are platform capitalism, platform labor, and invisible work.
Stefanie Gerold is a post-doc researcher at the Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus - Senftenberg (BTU) at the Chair of Sociology of Technology and Environment. She focuses on critiques of work, sustainable work and social-ecological transformation.
Anna Pillinger is a prae-doc researcher currently affiliated with Johannes Kepler University (JKU) in Linz, Austria, where she explores the topics of digitalization and care work.
Hendrik Theine is a post-doc at the Department of Economics at the WU Vienna University of Economics and Business. His research and teaching are situated at the intersection of media, inequality, platform capitalism, and the climate crisis.