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?