Platform Work and Participation? New Studies in the "Fair Chances in Platform Work" Project

Anna-Elisabeth Hampel
Eva Luise Krause
Published on: 2023-06-26

"I sometimes feel that I have to be careful not to do this job for too long, because otherwise I would get stuck on it. If I want to develop my potential, I have to get out of there as soon as possible. I think overall it's more of a job that socially excludes." Vincent (name changed), Rider in Berlin, Interview 2023

When Vincent started working for a delivery service six months ago after moving to Berlin, he quickly needed a job in order to get health insurance. However, the job he found does not correspond to his ideas of a professional future, nor does it correspond to his ideas of fair working conditions. Connections between platform work and social exclusion and participation are the focus of the project "Chancengerechte Plattformarbeit" at Minor – Projektkontor für Bildung und Forschung. People who depend on platform work to make a living are particularly affected by precarious conditions in platform work. And it is precisely for them that the question of fair working conditions is key to equal participation chances in society as a whole, including social relationships, taking part in public life and civil society, housing, social protection and others.

In our first studies, we therefore took the following questions as starting points: To what extent do the specific characteristics of platform work affect the participation opportunities of socially and structurally marginalized platform workers? What do working conditions in the platform economy have to do with participatory justice? And how should different approaches to regulating platform work be examined from this perspective?

In two successively published papers, we have brought together existing academic studies, initiatives, and recommendations for action from various actors from politics, research, trade unions and interest groups of platform workers and platform operators with our own findings from interviews, expert discussions and an online survey among platform workers conducted in autumn 2022. This blog post is a summary of our two studies: “Plattformarbeit: Experimentierfeld für die Arbeit der Zukunft?" And "Plattformarbeit: Neue Arbeit, alte Regeln?".

In order to describe the background of the debate, we present in our first study which characteristics of platform work make it a "trendsetter" for the future of work, who we are talking about when we refer to platform workers, and how marginalization on the traditional labour market, dependency on platform work, and precariousness are connected. It is well known that the division of work into often low-paid microjobs facilitated by digitalization, the shifting of entrepreneurial and social risks onto workers, the use of hardly transparent and contestable algorithmic management systems based on human decisions to maximize effectiveness, and the lack of opportunities for social networking and collective bargaining lead to sometimes precarious conditions. Our survey results confirm that platform workers also see considerable need for improvement here: 64.4% of the platform workers surveyed in Germany demanded better pay or more regulation of pay. The power imbalance caused by the lack of transparency about the logics behind algorithmic management and the one-sided dependency on the ratings of clients is also problematised by platform workers. In our survey, 35.1% expressed the need to be able to evaluate clients (instead of being unilaterally evaluated by them), 26.1% saw the need for independent quotes on quality and working conditions at platforms, and 23.1% would like to see advocacy groups collectively negotiate the rights of platform workers. In addition, a third of respondents called for more transparency in algorithmic management systems.

Precarity through dependency: who is particularly affected?

Preventing the undermining of the labour and social rights system in the platform economy is especially important for those who are significantly dependent on platform work as a form of employment due to their marginalisation in the traditional labour market. These include migrants, people with disabilities or (chronic) illnesses, people with relatives to care for or a high level of unpaid reproductive work (often women) and people without (recognised) qualifications and work experience. Platforms offer them participation in the labour market, mainly through simple entry procedures and the promise of flexibility regarding working time and location. However, those who are particularly dependent on this participation opportunity due to a lack of alternatives are also especially vulnerable in the context of the often-precarious conditions of platform work. In the case of low-skilled, platform-mediated work, the pay is notably low and can hardly be planned in the long term, the competition is big and thus the one-sided dependence on the client ratings and the terms and conditions of the platforms (e. g. regarding fees, payment procedures, communication options with clients, algorithmic control, and the blocking of user accounts) is particularly strong. The promise of temporal flexibility often becomes obsolete with this dependence and the pressure to be constantly available. The monitoring and incentive systems of algorithmic management also contribute to this precarity. Additionally, marginalised groups often have few, if any, resources to assert their rights against platforms and clients. And because platform work offers little opportunity for professional development, social networking, or language acquisition, it is rarely a bridge to more stable employment. So, there is a risk that structures of inequality are reproduced in platform work.

To give an example: Our surveys show that women were much more likely to say that they pursue platform work primarily because of compatibility with other tasks (17.3% compared to 7.1% for men) or lack of career alternatives (13.3% compared to 5.5% for men). Women platform workers tend to be able to do platform work less extensively than men, often work at marginal hours (evenings/night) and thus also receive less lucrative assignments and lower pay.

For migrants—especially newcomers—platform work repeats what is known from other forms of unstable work. Lack of language skills and networks, unrecognized degrees, and racism in application procedures close many paths to qualification-adequate, stable and well-paid jobs. Therefore, they often have to pursue low-paid, low-skilled and precarious jobs. In the platform economy, they are particularly visible as riders and passenger ride service providers, and beyond that, their share is also very high in other forms of platform work. The fact that in many cases they are unaware of their workers' rights and support structures, are financially and sometimes legally dependent on a job, and have few financial resources for legal proceedings makes them particularly vulnerable to rights violations and unfair treatment.

Even the supposedly "neutral" algorithmic management systems are based on human decisions and biased data sets and thus bring with them the danger of reproducing patterns of discrimination.

Regulatory approaches to action

The need for regulatory action is obvious. Existing labour and social law systems no longer do sufficient justice to the developments of precarity, marginalisation, and dependency described above. Platform workers often fall through the cracks of existing protection systems that are supposed to ensure fair pay, safe conditions, social security and representation of their interests against employers. The regulatory challenges of platform work will also shape the future of a more flexible and digitalised world of work as a whole, for example, when it comes to the protection of workers' data and privacy and the restrictions on algorithmic labour management. So how can platform work be regulated in a way that offers low-threshold and flexible labour market access without undermining labour and social rights? In our second study, we compared and analysed different approaches. To do this, we analysed ten key fields of action, which we have identified from existing regulatory proposals and debates, and which affect the participation and exclusion of platform workers:

  • Status clarification
  • Social security
  • Payment
  • Protective regulations and fair labour practices
  • Fair and transparent contracts and terms and conditions
  • Communication opportunities, collective bargaining rights and fair balance of interests
  • Transparency and control of algorithmic management
  • Use of AI and processing of personal data
  • Reporting and statistical obligations
  • Further training, qualification and certification
  • International regulability

The most important and simple message is: there will not be one regulatory path to fair conditions in platform work. While, on the one hand, legal initiatives aim to combat bogus self-employment and thus place more platform workers under the protection of established workers' rights, on the other hand, it is necessary to strengthen the social protection of (genuine) solo self-employed workers, because they, too, often find themselves in strong dependencies. Furthermore, regulations on algorithmic management, professional training and more transparency obligations are being discussed in such a way that they could apply regardless of the status of the workers. This also shows that the various regulatory fields overlap and cannot be addressed separately. In addition to the heterogeneity of the different forms of platform work and the employment situations in which platform workers find themselves, regulation must also consider intersections with other forms of work and areas of law. Our analysis focuses on regulatory possibilities for platform work in Germany, always taking into account the international dimension of the platform economy.

Our study provides a comprehensive overview of different regulatory approaches. In our analysis, we have not only looked at legal initiatives such as the currently negotiated EU directive to improve working conditions in platform work and political position and strategy papers, e.g. from the German Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, trade unions, social insurance institutions and interest groups and representatives - both of platform workers and platform operators. So-called "soft" regulatory approaches are also part of our analysis. These are an important complement to legal regulation, precisely because agreeing on cross-border regulatory standards for the extremely international platform economy is difficult and lengthy, and existing laws are not implemented enough. Soft regulation approaches include both voluntary commitments on the part of platforms, such as the Code of Conduct for Paid Crowdsourcing/Crowdworking, and assessment and certification systems on working conditions at platforms by independent researchers, such as the international Fairwork project. With our compilation, we thus want to make the respective limits and opportunities of different approaches visible and stimulate discussions on how they can complement each other. We look at these regulatory approaches and challenges mainly from the perspective of the most dependent and vulnerable platform workers, using existing studies and our own findings from surveys and interviews to illuminate what specific regulations would mean for this group.

In addition to the creation of new regulatory instruments, it is important to enforce existing law in all the fields of action listed above, also in view of the great dynamism with which platforms can adapt their business models to changing regulatory frameworks. This requires the necessary resources and clear responsibilities of the supervisory authorities. Most importantly, platform workers must first be better informed about their rights and supported in enforcing them in order to redress the existing imbalance that exists between them and platforms in terms of knowledge, resources and power.

In our project, the studies form the starting point for the further development of strategies with various actors. The studies bring together political strategies with empirical and theoretical studies on precarious platform work. The perspective of the workers and the outlook on the connections with social participation remain the focal point of our work. By working with platform workers, as well as platform operators, researchers, and political actors, the perspectives of all parties included get highlighted and discussed. At all points so far, we were made aware that the field is very heterogenous and the problems and difficulties of navigating platform work as well as the regulations cannot simply be described and solved in a one-size-fits-all-manner. Through a continuously advancing digital work field in the world, the studies attempt to recognise platform work as the emerging labour market that it already is and as a “trendsetter” for the future of work. The two studies highlight the various fields of action and supply practice-oriented, comprehensive analyses of the emerging problems. The work is far from being done but the key aspects that need to be furthered have been identified and are to be followed up by subsequent research and dialogue with involved actors.

Anna-Elisabeth Hampel studied Islamic and Middle Eastern studies with a focus on migration and is since working as a research associate at Minor – Projektkontor für Bildung und Forschung. Her work currently focuses on multiperspective Holocaust remembrance in Europe and platform work.

Eva Luise Krause studied English and Gender Studies and is currently studying Political Science. She is working as a student assistant at Minor-Projektkontor für Bildung und Forschung in the project “Chancengerechte Plattformarbeit”.

The studies have been published in German. The project is funded by Stiftung Mercator.