New Discussion Paper

Studying the Working Crowd

The platform economy is heralded as an innovative model for organizing and distributing labor. At the same time, it is often criticized for exploiting workers and exacerbating inequalities. Based on survey data and qualitative case-studies of 15 companies operating as so-called crowdwork platforms, Martin Krzywdzinski and Christine Gerber compare platform work across the US and Germany.

Crowdwork is a prevalent form of platform labor in both countries. Similar to platforms such as Uber, crowdwork platforms like Upwork or Amazon Mechanical Turk facilitate formally independent contracts intended to carry out tasks on demand. Yet unlike the former, crowdwork is performed virtually, in front of a computer. Overall, crowdwork is currently more common in the US than in Germany.

Comparing working conditions and job satisfaction, Martin Krzywdzinski and Christine Gerber find that while American crowdworkers tend to be happier with their work, contentment also seems to depend on a lack of alternative employment as well as earnings and educational levels. In an additional step, the authors assess different institutional backgrounds and how they bear on a type of work already precarious in itself. In the US, platforms operate in a largely deregulated context which is likely to harden power imbalances, such as those existing between companies and workers, the educated and uneducated, or men and women.

In Germany by contrast, a differently constructed welfare system, along with legal barriers and union initiative have so far sought to mitigate the risks associated with the proliferation of hyper-flexible and self-employed working crowds.

Martin Krzywdzinski and Christine Gerber (2020): Varieties of platform work: Platforms and social inequality in Germany and the United States. (Weizenbaum Series, 7). Berlin: Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society - The German Internet Institute. Discussion paper available here.