The on-demand economy promises a hyper-networked world where everything we need is at our fingertips—from an emergency babysitter to a midnight cab ride home. But while services are on-demand 24-7, good jobs usually aren’t. One of the first studies of the impact of “gig work” on the domestic- and family-care sectors shows that while nannies and housekeepers are shifting to new on-demand platforms, old forms of economic insecurity still haunt the sector, and might even accelerate as technological changes shake the industry.
Data and Society’s ethnographic study of about 100 domestic workers using on-demand platforms shows that “platform policies and practices that create conveniences for consumers may end up amplifying worker vulnerabilities.” Though still just a small share of the total workforce, the gig economy is shaping our work lives in many ways, whether it’s catching a rideshare for your daily commute or fetching takeout via Taskrabbit. But in the domestic sphere, jobs for nannies and housekeepers are also shifting toward the networked on-demand labor market.
Employment platforms like Care.com enable users to browse thousands of listings for babysitters, from Anaheim to Auckland. Jobseekers can post their profiles to advertise their specialties, whether that’s tutoring French or caring for kids with learning disabilities. It seems breathtakingly convenient to find a perfect match.
But hyper-convenience raises new questions about whether on-demand work is making decent work more accessible, or simply absorbing more people into marginalized job sectors. In domestic and caregiver jobs—where employment decisions are often colored by cultural, gender and racial bias—the “marketing” of care can blur the line between maximizing personal assets and masking uncomfortable and dangerous realities of the job. The interviewees revealed that, while many valued the convenience of networking with clients digitally, the impression of seamless convenience could elide harsh and exploitative conditions. On-demand work might be negotiated online, but always happens in real-life workplaces, subject to the same intense stresses and discrimination as traditional casual work.
Workers may have even less control over the kind of work they get when they’re forced to absorb the risk of negotiating one-on-one with a client without an agency monitoring the transaction. There’s often no way to know whether a client has a reputation for snubbing black or Latina candidates, or sticking cleaners in a basement filled with toxic fumes. And how do they protect themselves from being branded with a low rating from an employer after arguing over a pay dispute, or trying to report sexual harassment?
Dora, a young black interviewee, recalled a housecleaning job she was hired for that put her in an uncomfortable bind: “I had this one creepy guy client that kind of just watched me the whole time I was cleaning to the point I was just, ‘I think I’m just gonna leave.’” She hesitated, though, having been punished previously by low ratings “in retaliation from clients who made her feel uncomfortable.” When weighing those pressures as a job-seeker, she reflected, “I think that’s what really upsets me, because I realize how sensitive I am because of this app. It’s almost a lot of pressure to keep up a [good] review cause that’s how you would get more gigs. And that determines your pay.”
“It is naive, going forward,” the researchers warn, “to assume that technology can flatten entrenched inequalities through standardization and scale.” Moreover, domestic and care work is especially lacking in regulatory safeguards—typically, no minimum wage, insurance, union representation, or antidiscrimination protections.
Workers navigating the platform alone, without understanding industry standards, “must weigh saying ‘no’ to a request, turning a job down, breaking a platform rule, or engaging in other self-protective behaviors against the potential negative consequences for their livelihoods.” Negative reports could lead to suspension of an account, whether deserved or not. One interviewee recalled getting suspended because she could not return a client’s home key when the listed address “disappeared.”
It’s possible for work platforms, by requiring registration and public documentation, to encourage formalization of gig jobs. But Care.com, one of the largest platforms with more than 9 million “profiles,” avoids setting formal wage scales; workers are hired on an individual short-term basis. According to co-author of the report Julia Ticona: “They encourage ‘professional pay’ [Care.com’s phrase for on-the-books household employment], but they don’t enforce it,” and workers can pick up off-the-books or on-the-books jobs through the site. Pressures to pursue less-desirable jobs are compounded for workers facing extreme poverty or without legal immigration status, according to the researchers, as the labor market “incentivizes workers to stay off the books so they can maximize their immediate income.”
Nonetheless, researchers observe that workers have developed their own online communications networks, not necessarily as organizing platforms, but “as forums for discussing and establishing collective norms about work, both in terms of working conditions and interpersonal relationships with employers.” So one way to resist the power asymmetries intrinsic to their work might be building solidarity through online networking.
In other app-based workforces, including Uber and Mechanical Turk, parallel platforms for worker dialogue could form the basis for this. But so far, Data & Society notes that, despite some outreach efforts from advocacy groups’ online campaigns, “there’s no real direct path to solidarity. We found in the online groups that just because people are doing similar work doesn’t mean they see themselves as having a similar identity. The things that most closely resemble ‘organizing’ in the online communities are often around frustration with bad platform features—like unfair termination or suspension of accounts—since these are problems that span beyond individual employers.”
Whether networked job markets have the effect of alienating workers from one another or unifying them in a shared struggle for equity depends on whether workers can harness technological innovations to build their own power, on and offline. While a digital platform might be the tinder for a more just care economy, turning that disruption into class struggle requires a political spark.