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Platform Labor: Digital transformations of work and livelihood in post-welfare societies

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - PLABOR (Platform Labor: Digital transformations of work and livelihood in post-welfare societies)

Reporting period: 2019-08-01 to 2021-01-31

Digital platforms like Uber and Airbnb are transforming how people work, create and share value, and sustain themselves in their everyday lives. As such, platforms are becoming increasingly ubiquitous as new institutional actors that redraw relations between civil society, the market, and the state. Yet, as many scholars - including the Principle Investigator - have shown, such relations have historically been shaped by pervasive inequalities based on gender, race, class, and legal status. It is therefore crucial to ask to what extent platforms, as new sites of capital accumulation, governance, and norm-making, remediate existing inequalities and if/how they also generate new vulnerabilities or tools for empowerment. Accordingly, this research project aims to determine how digital platforms are reconfiguring the gendered, classed, and racialized organization of labor and social reproduction in post-welfare societies. To achieve this aim, four objectives have to be met:

• determining how on-demand labor platforms distribute new opportunities and vulnerabilities for workers along lines of gender, race, class, and legal status (subproject 1);
• determining how short-term rental platforms, specifically Airbnb, create new opportunities and challenges with respect to social reproduction in post-welfare societies (subproject 2);
• determining how platform that organize care and social support are creating new opportunities and challenges with respect to social reproduction in post-welfare societies (subproject 3);
• determining which policy and regulatory issues arise when labor and social reproduction are increasingly organized through platforms and identifying ways to tackle these issues (subproject 4).

These objectives are met through a cross-national comparative study that examines how platforms operate in three cities Amsterdam, Berlin, and New York City. To gain a detailed and nuanced understanding of how platforms reorganize labor and social reproduction in these cities, one should thus determine to what extent and how they operate differently in each setting, and how users operate differently through them. In order to do so, the study encompasses four subprojects which are carried out by the PI (subproject 1), two PhD students (subprojects 2 & 3), and a postdoc (subproject 4). Subprojects 1-3 combine ethnographic fieldwork and methods from software studies into a 'hybrid ethnography' that studies people as they traverse physical and digital spaces, thereby rooting often globally operating platforms in local places, routines, and infrastructures. Subproject 4 combines historical and critical comparative approaches to policy and regulatory analysis in order to investigate how the multi-scalar governance challenges of platformization resonate across jurisdictions.
During the first half of the Platform Labor project, the Principle Investigator (Niels van Doorn), has hired two PhD students (Eva Mos and Jelke Bosma) and a research assistant (Darsana Vijay). He has also contracted a web developer who has designed, updated and maintained the research platform that grounds and publicly represents the Platform Labor project. To meet the stated objectives, the team has conducted - and, in the case of the two PhD students, is still conducting - ethnographic fieldwork in the three cities central to the research project. This fieldwork has so far resulted in a total of 283 formal interviews as well as a large collection of field notes and other research data. Research data was also collected and shared at four multi-stakeholder workshops which the PI has (co-)organized so far - two in New York and two in Berlin. These workshops focused on ways to study and promote the work experiences and wellbeing of gig workers in these cities.

Members of the research team have so far presented findings from their subprojects at various universities and other venues around the world - and since the outbreak of Covid-19 also via online channels, contributing presentations at 10 international academic conferences and six international workshops. The PI has also given a keynote lecture at the Brazilian DigiLabour conference (held online) and has given multiple lectures and talks at (online and offline) stakeholder events. Additionally, the team has so far produced three peer-reviewed articles in international journals, two peer-reviewed chapters in academic books, one contribution to a collection of scholarly policy briefs, one contribution to a collection of conference proceedings, as well as multiple contributions to scholarly and professional blogs (published in English, Dutch, French and Italian). Results from the Platform Labor project have also featured in numerous (news) media, including the New York Times and New York Review of Books.
The Platform Labor project has established progress beyond the state of the art in the relevant fields of study (e.g. sociology of work, labor studies, platform studies, sociology of welfare, housing studies, tourism studies, social policy studies) by building on critical insights from these fields in order to carry out a cross-disciplinary, cross-national analysis of the platformization of labor and social reproduction in Berlin, Amsterdam and New York. Specifically, it has moved beyond the state of the art by 1) highlighting and elaborating an in-depth comparative study of the role of migration and migrant labor in three urban gig economies, focusing on delivery and domestic cleaning platforms, 2) by contributing a long-term, granular analysis of how Airbnb operates in/across three of its main markets and how it engineers inequalities between different classes of hosts, and 3) by developing an account of a relatively new type of platform - what we term 'post-welfare' platform - and its growing role in mediating in the provision of care and welfare services on a local level, thus moving beyond a focus on large, corporate platforms and zooming in on community-based, publicly initiated or supported platform initiatives.

Taken together, the Platform Labor project is moving beyond the hitherto fragmented state of the art in platform economy research, not just by synthesizing various disciplinary approaches, perspectives, and findings, but also by contributing original research demonstrating how the platformization of particular industries and sectors is a path-dependent and embedded process that happens across (analytical) scales and locales. Digital platforms are indeed changing relations between market, state and civil society, but they are doing so in a variegated, complex, and multi-layered manner depending on local (urban) contexts. At the same time however, the project is identifying common platform tendencies, dynamics and developments across field sites, such as the professionalization and expansion of user bases and the development of partnerships with public and private organizations. In the process, we are finding, digital platforms are perpetuating - if not exacerbating - existing inequalities rooted in gender, race, class, and legal status. We expect to further consolidate and confirm these findings during the second half of the Platform Labor project.
Screen shot of Platform Labor project site