Platform Labor: On the Gendered and Racialized Exploitation of Low-Income Service Work in the ‘On-Demand’ Economy
How does one value something one cannot and often does not want to see? How do contemporary digital platforms and their infrastructures of connectivity, evaluation, and surveillance affect this relationship between value and visibility, when it is mediated through the problem of labor as at once a commodity and a lived experience? And how can these infrastructures be mobilized in projects that aim to build different kinds of platforms – the kinds that support the revaluation low-income service work? This essay addresses these questions by examining the gendered, racialized, and classed distribution of opportunities and vulnerabilities associated with digitally mediated service work, or what I call platform labor. The argument will unfold in four parts. First, I briefly situate the ‘on-demand’ economy within the context of neoliberal socio-economic reforms that have, over the past four decades, shaped our present circumstances. Second, I argue that labor platforms should be understood as new players in the temporary staffing industry, whose devices and practices exacerbate the already precarious conditions of contingent workers in today’s low-income service economy. They do so by (1) bolstering the immunity of platform intermediaries and clients, (2) by expanding managerial control over workers, and (3) by orchestrating a pervasive sense of fungibility and superfluity with respect to this workforce. Third, after a short overview of the gendered and racialized history of service work, I analyze how this history extends into the networked present of our platform economy. Finally, I address the potential of ethnography, on the one hand, and platform cooperativism, on the other, to critically empower low-income service workers operating through platforms.