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A solution for whom?

Digital work platforms and the crisis of social reproduction

Among other things, the so-called crisis of social reproduction refers to the fact that many households have less and less time and energy available for housework and care work. Digital work platforms that offer access to inexpensive and flexible delivery, cleaning, or care services in just a few clicks seem to provide a solution. But how does the platform model affect the everyday lives of those who relieve others of these tasks? Isabella Stingl investigates this question based on the experiences of platform workers in the cleaning and care sector in Berlin and Zurich.

Who cleans the shower, who cooks dinner, who helps the kids with their homework, who attends the neighborhood meeting? All these questions refer to activities of social reproduction, which, broadly speaking, ensures the daily and generational renewal of human life. This concept of social reproduction originated among feminist Marxists in the second wave of feminism. They criticized that mainstream economic analyses excluded all those activities that lie outside the immediate production process, even though they play an essential role in the “renewal of the workforce.” This highlighted the importance of housework and care work, which even today is mostly underpaid or unpaid and disproportionately performed by women, for the functioning of the capitalist system.

Feminist research has for some time identified a crisis of social reproduction. It is evident, for example, in the fact that more and more people no longer have enough time and energy for housework and care work. The crisis of social reproduction is attributed, among other things, to the erosion of the “breadwinner model” and the growing labor force participation of women since the 1970s. Because more and more women are working, less unpaid work is available in the home and the community. This situation is further exacerbated by the dismantling and (re-)privatization of public services in the fields of health, care, child rearing, and education, as well as a trend toward more flexible and intensified working hours. With real wages falling and the cost of living rising, few can afford to outsource activities of social reproduction to paid third parties.

Digital platforms such as Lieferando, Gorillas, Helpling, or seem to offer a solution: They enable users to order grocery deliveries, to book cleaners, or to use care services for their children, the elderly, and pets in just a few clicks via a website or app. The idea is to enable customers to outsource socially reproductive activities in a flexible and cost-effective manner. For the workers, the platforms seem to offer an easily accessible, often additional income opportunity with many freedoms. But how do the promises of the so-called platform economy hold up in reality? This is what I have been exploring in my current research – in cooperation with my colleague Marisol Keller from the University of Zurich – based on the lived experiences of platform workers in Berlin and Zurich.

The conditions under which socially reproductive labor is performed, whether paid or unpaid, are an important dimension of the postulated crisis. Together with Marisol Keller, I therefore investigate the effects of platform work and the power imbalances inherent in the platform model on workers’ everyday lives. Qualitative interviews with platform workers from the cleaning and care sector in Berlin and an autoethnography by Marisol Keller in Zurich serve as our empirical basis. The research approach of autoethnography aims to understand a phenomenon from the researchers’ personal experiences. Following this approach, Marisol Keller herself worked as a cleaner and in other roles for various platforms in Zurich for several months, producing a systematic documentation and analysis of her daily work routine as a platform worker.

Platform workers in the cleaning and care sector are usually self-employed. However, the platforms determine which activities associated with platform work are defined as paid work. In the case of cleaning, for example, only the two to three hours that workers usually spend in the clients’ home are considered paid work. In our analysis, we follow feminist perspectives that call for a broader understanding of work and look beyond the activities classified as directly productive. To this end, we examine the interplay between paid platform work and the activities that are directly related to this work but not paid in the platform model, as well as other activities from the realm of social reproduction.

Unpaid activities in the platform model include, for example, the time that workers need to commute to and between individual jobs. For this reason, many respondents in our study refer to these phases of the workday as “dead time.” The interviews show that newcomers to platform work often do not distinguish between jobs that are far away and jobs that are closer to their previous work location or their home. To them, it is much more important to accept as many jobs as possible to collect initial positive customer reviews on the platforms. Positive feedback allows workers to raise their self-determined hourly rate in their profile and promises a better choice of jobs moving forward. Having to divide their working day into multiple units of paid and unpaid work leads to extremely long working hours and forces workers to be highly mobile. Especially respondents who receive their main income from platform work find this extremely exhausting.

When to take breaks is up to the workers to decide in the platform model. They often take place in public between two jobs, on the way to the next job, or, as Marisol Keller’s autoethnography shows, even in clients’ homes. This is possible, for example, when a job is completed faster than planned and when the client is not at home, leaving the workplace to be used for a moment of relaxation. This means that breaks in workers’ everyday routine usually occur relatively spontaneously and are therefore hard to align with the rhythms of friends, family members, or roommates. As a result, many respondents feel isolated – a feeling also reinforced by the lack of contact with co-workers. Unlike workers in other types of platform work, workers in the cleaning and care sector usually don’t have a headquarter where they can meet co-workers, exchange ideas and experiences, and relax together.

There are numerous other activities that platforms consider unpaid work, even though paid platform work would be impossible without them: creating and updating one’s online profile, continuously applying for individual jobs, and responding to and coordinating job offers and customer inquiries. Respondents say they do not have fixed times and places to perform these unpaid activities. Instead, they are active on the platforms seven days a week, often describing their relationship with the app as addictive.

Platform work thus extends to spaces and times that are really for relaxation and recovery. Marisol Keller’s autoethnographic data offer impressive evidence of this: using communication tools such as express messages, the apps kept invading her home via laptop and smartphone, with messages popping up in her living room or bedroom even at night or on weekends. Marisol Keller says she usually responded right away, for fear of missing a good job opportunity, but also because she was unaware of the consequences of responding to messages too late. Her predominant feeling was that the apps demanded her constant attention. The lines between work, home, and leisure time were blurring.

By creating information asymmetries, refusing to guarantee paid work, and defining many activities as non-work, platforms produce workers who are constantly available and may hence be accessed and booked by clients whenever they need them. The pressure to be “always on” and the dissolution of spatial and temporal boundaries in the working day result in a lack of recreation and social interactions on the workers’ part, in other words, a lack of social reproduction. This shows that digitally mediated work, in its current dominant form, is not an adequate solution when it comes to the (paid) provision of socially reproductive work. Rather, it reinforces the one-sided shift of socially reproductive crises from customers to workers. However, there is little evidence to date on whether, and if so for whom, the situation actually improves in the households that use platforms to outsource these activities.

Likewise, digital work platforms fail to improve the low social status of socially reproductive work. On the contrary, activities of social reproduction are further devalued as useless pursuits of time, something to get rid of in a few clicks without learning much about the working conditions in the platform model. Against this backdrop, it is worth considering projects that seek to improve the future of housework and care work through alternative forms of platformization. Platform cooperatives, where workers themselves own the platform and manage it independently, are one example.

This article is based in part on an article I co-authored with Marisol Keller of the University of Zurich. The article is scheduled for publication in 2024 by Springer Nature under the title “Machtvolle Rhythmen: Zum Einfluss digitaler Arbeitsvermittlungsplattformen auf die Zeit-Räume der Re/Produktion” in the edited volume “Geographien der Arbeit (Geographies of Work).”


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