Workers on tap. The social impact of platform capitalism – CAPLA
Workers on tap. The social impact of platform capitalism
The Capla research program aims at analyzing the social effects of the rise of platforms. Those platforms are considered as new labor market places, where workers are independent, and sometimes amateurs. We seek to analyze work practices, employment statuses, social protection levels, but also the impact on professionals, or the repercussions on the private life of those digital workers.
Analyzing the transformations of employment statuses and work practices linked to the outsourcing to independent workers
Drawing on an interdisciplinary reflection in sociology (economic sociology, sociology of work and employment), law and economics, this projects aims at giving answers to four main theoretical and practical sets of questions: Who are the workers offering their services on digital platforms? And how does it relate to social stratification ? How do these amateurs’ markets impact the position of the professionals? How are the workers linked to the firm? How can we rethink the ties of subordination? How are these platforms regulated, both legally and politically? We aim at thinking as a whole the way platforms operate and the way regulations are emerging (or not): the hybridization of statuses, the commodification of certain activities, the blurring of boundaries between professional and amateur.
These inquiries will be thoroughly coordinated, and will draw on mixed methods: qualitative, quantitative and documentary. Ethnographic investigations will be conducted, with interviews (with workers, managers and employees of the platforms) and direct observations. Several platforms will be inquired in multiple fields: individual transportation, food delivery, microwork, private chefs, crafts or organic food marketplaces. Quantitative data will be gathered, in order to analyze the workers’ trajectories and position, and also to map the emerging markets. On the one hand, public database on employment will be used in order to analyze precisely the evolution of independent work, and more specifically platform work. On the other hand, we will gather more specific data on the platforms we investigate: through webscraping and questionnaires. This project should provide part of the empirical evidence necessary to the debate on the future of work.
At this point of the research, the team has been able to gather information on the social profiles and trajectories of platform workers, on the segmentation of this online labour force, on the (limited) income and (fragile) statuses associated with these activities. Regarding the private hire vehicle drivers, their mobilizations are a result of the degradation of their remuneration that followed a strong initial investment and that is associated with the suspension of social assistance. The analysis of several cooperative platforms sheds light on other forms of collective organization, to be compared with capitalist platforms. The food distributions set up by « The Food Assembly », emphasize how some activities, whose status is unclear between work, leisure and militant commitment (here ecological), can appear to be to some extent attractive for workers.
Regarding micro-work platforms (microstasking crowdsourcing), the research has allowed to take a critical look at a business model based on the principle of merchandising the spare time of Internet users, in exchange for additional income. Concerning labor platforms such as private chef platforms, amateurs seem less likely than professionals to have a profile on these platforms and it seems difficult for them to earn the equivalent of a full-time salary. Platforms are used either for obtaining an income or a supplement of income in a period of unemployment, or in the prospect of launching an activity which will then be developed mainly outside the platform. Amateurs are however much more numerous on platforms dedicated to the online sell of handmade products such as Etsy. Indeed, the platform’s motto “Turn your hobby into a business” does not fit most of its users who consider Etsy as a hobby on the side of an often-salaried work. Moreover, among the most professionalized of them, only a few manages to earn a living thanks to the platform.
The collective research on platforms is still ongoing, and will be enhanced with more interviews and more data (drawn from webscraping and questionnaires). The comparison between the different platforms under observation will provide a solid basis for generalizations.
The team has already several publications in progress: a special issue of a journal (Nouvelle Revue du Travail), articles submitted and accepted (Réseaux, NRT), a collective book, and a book chapter.
These last few years, many digital platforms have emerged and developed worldwide, such as Airbnb, Deliveroo, Uber, etc. They constitute a new kind of intermediary between clients and workers, the latter being freelancers or even private individuals. The surge of these firms aroused the interest of the media. The resulting debate is often polarized between the praise of the “sharing economy” and the denounciation of “uberization” as a new form of exploitation. Oddly, even though the proliferation of these platforms initiates a profound transformation of capitalism as we know it, no empirical enquiry has yet been carried out. This project intends to address this shortcoming.
This research project aims at analyzing the actors taking part in the development of the digital platforms. Rather than focusing on the consumers, we will take interest in the production of services, on different levels. First, the workers offering their services on these platforms; then, the platforms themselves (organization, strategies…); finally, the actors and institutions involved in the regulation of these new economic activities (lawyers, professionals, workers’ unions, etc.). In order to grasp the plurality of this phenomenon, the study will be carried out on seven platforms, each of them shedding light on one particular aspect: markets, professions, work or tax issues. First, the markets of individuals (Uber, Airbnb), then the market of microtasks (Crowdsourcing, Deliveries), and finally, the amateurs’ market (Etsy, Private Chefs).
Drawing on an interdisciplinary reflection in sociology (economic sociology, sociology of work and employment), law and economics, this projects aims at giving answers to four main theoretical and practical sets of questions:
- Who are the workers offering their services on digital platforms? And how does it relate to social stratification ?
- How do these amateurs’s markets impact the position of the professionals?
- How are the workers linked to the firm? How can we rethink the ties of subordination?
- How are these platforms regulated, both legally and politically?
These inquiries will be thoroughly coordinated, and will draw on mixed methods: qualitative, quantitative and documentary. An ethnographic investigation will be conducted, with interviews (with workers, managers and employees of the platforms) and direct observations. Part of the project will be led in the United States, in order to compare the legal and political frameworks of these firms and activities. Quantitative data will be gathered, in order to analyze the workers’ trajectories and position, and also to map the emerging markets. This project, gathering twelve sociologists, economists and lecturers in employment law, will provide the empirical evidence necessary to the debate on the future of work.
Madame Sarah Abdelnour (Institut de Recherche Interdisciplinaire en Sciences Sociales)
The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.
IRISSO Institut de Recherche Interdisciplinaire en Sciences Sociales
Help of the ANR 319,248 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: September 2016 - 36 Months