ILPC 2021, 12th to 14th April London

ILPC 2021 Streams

Precarity, Changing Work and the Platform Economy  

Stream Organizers

Valeria Pulignano (KU Leuven - Belgium) valeria.pulignano@kuleuven.be

Steven Vallas (Northeastern University, US) S.Vallas@northeastern.edu

Markieta Domencka (KU Leuven – Belgium) markieta.domencka@kuleuven.be

 

Even before the pandemic started, worrisome shifts had emerged in the work situations that large proportions of the global labour force confronted. Outsourcing, agency work, zero-hours contracts, and mini-jobs had all entered our lexicon, indicative of shifts that were greatly accelerated by the rise of the platform economy. Now, with COVID-19 and the economic devastation it has wrought, work and labour have been enveloped with uncertainty. Once-secure professionals have been forced to become crowdworkers or food delivery workers, competing desperately for projects or “tasks.” If still employed, service workers have faced exposure to life-threatening conditions. The general trend has been one that has underscore the fact that a signal feature of late modernity is the many-faceted nature of precarity as an overarching condition of working life today. 

Under these conditions, it becomes incumbent on social scientists to identify the nature of the production regimes that have arisen not only as the result of the pandemic, but also due to the growth of the platform economy, whose growth has if anything been accelerated by the need for physical distancing. Against the dominant belief that platform work broadens the space for freedom and autonomy, with the potential improvement of the work and life conditions for individuals, much if not most of the research on platform work has generated a worrisome picture: surveillance and monitoring techniques has gained growing power and prevalence (Moore, 2017; Gandini, 2018; Neufeind, O’Reilly & Ranft 2018). The availability of a labour surplus has enabled employers to weaken workers’ bargaining power (Vandaele, 2018) and undermined job quality and working conditions (Piasna, 2018). Especially, individuals work unpredictable and unsocial hours (e.g. warehouse work) (Doerflinger, Pulignano & Vallas, 2020) or else they can only gain casualized blocks of time or digital “requests” that generate little income (Wood, Graham, Lehdonvirta, Hjorth, 2019). In many cases, workers are compelled to perform labour that is uncompensated, as when “it is considered to be unproductive” and “out of the remit of paid labour” (Moore & Newsome, 2018: 475). This is particularly the case with dependent work disguised as self-employment. Workers holding many types of labour contracts find themselves employed in ‘grey zones’ of work where the boundaries between public and private life, or between work and ‘non-work’, can no longer be defined. This raises important implications for the traditional understanding of precarity as reflecting the traditional dichotomy between paid (productive) and unpaid (domestic/socially reproductive) work (Pulignano & Morgan, 2020). In short, precarious work often positions workers within liminal spaces in the economic and social landscape, with consequences that have far reaching effects on worker subjectivity and health and the very meaning of “work” under contemporary capitalism. These changes also pose major challenges for the employment policies and social insurance arrangements that capitalist societies have embraced (Vallas, 2015).

The thread will help to focus theory and research on the new production regimes (Burawoy, 1979, 1985) and accumulation processes (Thompson, 1990) that are bound up with the spread of precarity generally (Alberti et al., 2018). As organizers, we are especially keen to provide a forum for research on the new modes of labour exploitation, and to explore their implications for the work and life of individuals (Pulignano & Morgan, 2020). A central part of the thread will be the question of worker agency, or what the new production regimes portend for workers’ voice and resistance in the platform economy. In particular, we invite theoretical, empirical and methodological contributions from the global North and South, and across fields of study, which will enhance theoretical and empirical knowledge on precarity, accumulation regimes, and the new forms of employment emerging as the result of the economic, political and public health crises now taking their toll. The thread we envision will enable participants to share the results of their thinking on questions in the following three research areas:

1.Work & Employment    

  • What production regimes have emerged within various sectors of the platform economy? How have these regimes begun to reconfigure those which govern labour within the conventional economy? Has the availability of crowdwork accelerated the erosion of the standard employment relation?
  • What are the new forms of surveillance (or control) in the production of value, and how are the communicative, affective and relational activities exploited? How is surveillance expanding during the pandemic, and how are workers’ rights being protected?
  • How are algorithms transforming jobs and the task content they entail? What biases are built into the digital affordances that apps embody? How do workers struggle to defeat algorithmic controls?
  • How have employers in the platform economy sought to evade or defeat regulatory and social protection systems? Which social groups are able to secure relatively better working conditions and which are more vulnerable and precarious, and why? How can we understand the segmentation dynamics that platforms implicitly perpetuate?
  • What are the consequences of labour platforms for collective representation and workers’ voice? How have trade unions and other union-like organisations responded to the challenges posed by the new accumulation regimes and the precarization they impose? 
  • What political possibilities exist for an alliance between the struggles of platform workers and high tech workers who design the algorithms and apps on which platform economy relies?
  1. Work & ‘Grey Zones’  
  • How does the emergence of ‘grey zones’ of work under new production regimes affect job quality, occupational wellbeing, and work-life balance? 
  • To what extent does the emergence of ‘grey zones’ of work contribute to reduce existing social boundaries? Are new social boundaries created, and how? 
  • How do different categories of workers experience and make sense of the blurring of boundaries of paid (productive) and unpaid (socially reproductive) work as well as professional and private times and spaces? How does unpaid as unremunerated labour account for precarity?
  • As workers find themselves occupying liminal spaces in the economy –essentially, suspended in a condition of uncertainty and precarity—how are their social lives transformed? As the pandemic has undermined access to social support generally, how are workers coping with uncertainty, isolation, and life held in abeyance?

3.Precarious Trajectories

  • How do people become enveloped by precarious labour? What combination of structural conditions and personal trajectories expose them varying levels of precarity? In other words, how is precarity biographically experienced and explained?
  • How do workers in precarious positions reconcile previous biographical achievements (e.g. academic qualifications, previous career) with their current forms of making a living? How do they make sense of their current positions in the context of their whole biographies, i.e. how will it help or hinder them to achieve their long-term professional and personal goals?
  • Which sectors of the labour force are at particular risk of scarring, owing to the long term effects of joblessness, insecurity, and biographical uncertainty?

 


 

 

References 

 

Alberti G., I Bessa, K Hardy, V Trappmann, C Umney (2018) In, against and beyond precarity: work in insecure timesWork, Employment and Society 32 (3), 447-457

Burawoy, M. (1979). Manufacturing consent. The University of Chicago Press.

Burawoy, M. (1985). The politics of production. Verso.

Gandini, A. (2018) Labour process theory and the gig economy. Human Relations 72, 1039–1056. doi: 10.1177/0018726718790002

Moore, P. V. (2017) The quantified self in precarity: Work, technology and what counts. Routledge.

Moore S. and Newsome K. (2018) Paying for free delivery: dependent self-employment as a

measure of precarity in parcel delivery. Work, Employment and Society, 32 (3), 475-492.

Neufeind, M., O'Reilly, J., and Ranft, F. eds. (2018) Work in the digital age: challenges of the fourth industrial revolution. Rowan & Littlefield, London

Piasna A. (2018) Regulating uncertainty: variable work schedules and zero-hour work in EU employment policyETUI Policy Brief. 

Pulignano V. and G. Morgan (2020) Advancing Research and Theory of Precarity: Emerging ‘Grey Zone’ at the Continuum of Paid and Unpaid Work, Paper presented at the SASE Conference 17-22 July – On-line. 

Doerflinger N., Pulignano V., and Vallas S. (2020) "Production Regimes and Class Compromise among European Warehouse Workers", Work & Occupations, DOI: 10.1177/0730888420941556

Pulignano V. (2019) Work in Deregulated Labour Markets: A Research Agenda for Precariusness, ETUI Working Papers Series, 03 ISSN: 1994-4446.

Thompson, P. (1990). ‘Crawling From the Wreckage: The Labour Process and the Politics of Production’, D. Knights and H. Willmott (eds) Labour Process Theory, London: Macmillan.

Vallas S. (2015) Accounting for Precarity: Recent Studies of Labor Market Uncertainty, Contemporary Sociology, 44(4): 463-469.

Vandaele, K. (2018) Will trade unions survive in the platform economy? Emerging patterns of platform workers’ collective voice and representation in Europe. Emerging Patterns of Platform Workers’ Collective Voice and Representation in Europe. ETUI Research Paper-Working Paper.

Wood A., Graham M., Lehdonvirta V., Hjorth J. (2019) Good Gig, Bad Gig: Autonomy and Algorithmic Control in the Global Gig Economy, Work, Employment and Society, 33(1) 56–75