In today’s society, getting a ride or finding a place to stay is as easy as a few clicks in an app. There are numerous platforms that offer to be the convenient middleman for a worker and consumer to match up in their time of need, but there is always a price for this convenience. Digital platforms, more specifically lean platforms that connect buyers and sellers of services, are built to exploit their workers in exchange for corporate profit. By being the middleman, lean platforms create the façade that they are giving their workers stable employment in exchange for monetary gain, yet these workers neither set their rates or receive the full funds charged to the consumer. This essay will argue that lean platforms are inherently extortionist and rely on the needs of survival of the working class to prosper. Moreover, it argues that the outsourcing of responsibility and the culture of competitive individualism purposefully pin workers against each other as opposed to the platform itself. Lastly, this essay will offer a potential solution through the idea of platform cooperativism.
The historical context
The world is becoming more technologically advanced each day with both mechanization and automation becoming commonplace. On the one hand, this mechanization is speeding up processes and creating new types of jobs for those in tech, but on the other it is completely erasing the need for certain skills. Those whose jobs are being taken over by technology have little voice in the mechanization process whereby society is enjoying major progress at the expense of the few (Frey 2019, 5). Overwhelmingly, the profits from this progress benefit the corporations or industrialists at the top as opposed to the workers themselves (Frey 2019, 8). Productivity growth occurs with technology as it becomes possible to produce more with less, but even though growth productivity is a prerequisite for growth in worker income, it is not a guarantee (Frey 2019, 13). The ease and accessibility of machinery begins to cheapen the labor that is still needed while diminishing the jobs in general.
The more jobs that are being replaced by machines, the more people are left in precarious working situations, meaning they lack stability in jobs. This is where the “gig economy” or “sharing economy” comes into play allowing lean platforms to flourish. This outsourcing is only made easier as unemployment in traditional and salaried jobs remains high. According to Schor et. al. “if jobs are plentiful elsewhere, platforms will be forced to improve conditions” (Schor 2020,856). Given that jobs are not plentiful, these platforms can get away with extortionist policy. Lean platforms profit off of a large number of users seeking to work on the platform, where the platform itself matches individuals who need tasks done with workers seeking to do said tasks - an example being Uber, which pairs people seeking a ride somewhere with a driver to take them.
The role of outsourcing
By definition, lean platforms are considered “lean” because they rely on a heavily outsourced business model. The platforms themselves are only the software, algorithms, and data analytics that exist to facilitate the pairing of those in need of work. There are no physical assets necessary to keep the platform running, even the software itself exists on cloud platforms. By skimming down to the bare necessities, lean platforms seek to outsource not only the work itself but also the responsibility and liability.
Lean platforms use a misleading rhetoric of “being one’s own boss” and “being an entrepreneur” to sway workers into believing they are getting the better part of the deal. Srnicek writes “the gig economy simply moves these sites online and adds a layer of pervasive surveillance. A tool of survival is being marketed by Silicon Valley as a tool of liberation” (Srnicek 2017, 44). Workers are being told that being a freelancer with the platform is freeing their time and salary, but in reality they lack benefits that traditional employees receive. Health care, sick leave, and other basic worker’s protections do not apply to these platform workers because they are not considered employees of the company. Workers are liable for their own occupational risk (Visser et. al. 2021, 35). Further, these platforms refuse to cover any work expenses the workers incur, all while taking a cut of their pay. Although the platforms want self-employment to seem liberating, the platforms continually exploit people where becoming a freelancer has been forced upon them due to precarity rather than free will (Srnicek 2017, 46). Profitability from lean platforms is already slim, so these corporations inherently rely on exploitation to make profit.
The focus on competitive individualism
Lean platforms not only create a toxic relationship between worker and corporation, but also between the workers themselves. Workers are pitted against each other to provide the best service, and work more hours to rank up reviews, so that they are deemed the best fit by the consumers looking for a match. There is no space for workers to communicate and discuss their experiences with each other as the outsourcing model promotes the idea that every person is responsible only for their own success. As Vallas states, “An equally important threat stems from the worker’s exposure to an entrepreneurial rhetoric that individualizes workers and invites them to view economic activity as a competitive game that provides little space for mutual support or labor solidarity” (Vallas 2019, 53). Lean platforms do not want their workers to have the space to discuss their rights, rather they preoccupy them with the need to continually keep working for a falsified sense of stability.
In a traditional employee-employer setting, there is space for discussion and even potential unionization of employees together. A lack of shared space, which allows people to discuss inequalities, is missing in lean platforms because everyone is an outsourced individual rather than a communal employee (Vallas 2019, 54). The culture of individualism takes power and voice away from the workers. Without collectivism on the worker level, the platforms can exploit the individual through framing other workers as their competition as opposed to their colleagues.
Platform cooperativism and the way forward
A potential solution to move away from the current hierarchical lean platform model involves the democratisation of digital platforms. As opposed to the success of the few at the expense of the many, a democratic digital platform gives the workers equal say as the technicians on top of the app. Also known as platform cooperativism, this democratization takes the power away from the corporations and unites software developers and precarious workers together on an equal playing field. Platform cooperativism is built on three basic tenets of democracy, shared ownership, and being open-source. These tenets aim to break down the barrier of big-tech and allow anyone to enter the digital platform even without prior tech knowledge.
Platform cooperativism aims to cut out the middle-man, the lean platform owners, to bring the power back to the workers and users of the app themselves. As Sandoval writes, “it [platform cooperativism] challenges individualisation and competition, while at the same time offering a way to generate commercial income to fund paid work and sometimes also provide resources for activist causes.” (Sandoval 2020, 812). Not only is platform coopeartivism’s goal to centralize power within the people, but it also provides the opportunity for growth of ideas and knowledge due to its open-source nature. Rather than workers being exploited and data analytics remaining privatised, the platform cooperativism model is built on community and public knowledge. Unlike the profit-led lean platforms, cooperative platforms are focused on contributing to the common good (Sandoval 2020, 806). Platform cooperativism can turn the platform capitalism dystopia onto its head in crushing the monopolistic structure.
In conclusion, the current set-up of lean platforms will continuously undermine the worker in favor of corporate profit. The very structure of lean platforms is to minimize the amount of responsibility on the corporate side while gaining a large working body through a false narrative of freelance empowerment. Due to precarious work situations, the working body then creates a dependency on the platform and a heightened sense of individual drive to succeed. Without being a coherent and collective union, the workers are unable to hold any bargaining power against the platform for better working conditions. The democratization of lean platforms is necessary if these gig workers are to have a say in their rights and working conditions because it equalizes their voice with those on the technical side of the platform. As they are right now, lean platforms will simply continue to exploit until enough workers band together to demand change.
Amanda Claire Monroe is a master's student at the Geneva Graduate Institute concentrating in Mobilities, Spaces, and Cities
This article has been written for the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy’s series of commentaries on the need to redesign the platform economy on a more democratic and sustainable basis.
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