The precarious future(s) of gig work: Migration, datafication & financialization
Dr. N.A.J.M. (Niels) van Doorn | Assistant Professor in New Media and Digital Culture
Department of Media Studies, University of Amsterdam
Host: Karin Schwiter, Assistant Professor in Labour Geography, University of Zurich
Wednesday March 9. 2022, 17:45-19:15
The gig economy is not the future of work. This is not just because, as will be argued in this talk, the gig economy may not have a future, but also because it presently is not an economy in which work is a primary concern. To be sure, labor – especially migrant labor – drives urban gig economies around the globe and without workers there would be no gig economy. But from the perspective of corporate gig companies, providing work is only a marginal (albeit heavily promoted) part of what they do and if they could automate the labor input they would. These companies will tell you that they are in the business of data-driven services and it may be analytically useful to take their word for it. After all, data generated during service provision can be used to achieve operational efficiencies and create new service/product markets, while also serving as an asset class that can increase a company’s market valuation. Meanwhile, from the perspective of venture capital firms, gig platforms are vehicles for generating potentially large financial returns if they manage to scale rapidly, attract new rounds of funding, and allow early investors to make a successful exit after an IPO or acquisition. What happens to a platform and its majority migrant workforce after this exit is a concern offloaded to public shareholders and regulators.
Drawing on four years of research conducted in the context of the Platform Labor project, this talk will examine the three pillars of the gig economy – migration, datafication and financialization – in order to elucidate its turbulent history, ambivalent present, and precarious future(s). Part one starts by recounting the gig economy’s “golden days”, marked by rapid capital-induced growth, high pay incentives and regulatory voids/arbitrage. Part two then explains how increased public scrutiny and investor demands for a road to profitability put dual pressure on gig companies to adjust their operations, spurring labor cost-cutting and gamification, on the one hand, and regulatory entrepreneurship on the other. During this period, workers with access to better alternatives left the gig economy behind and urban gig work increasingly became migrant work. Part three reflects further on the convergence of migration, datafication and financialization in the gig economy, particularly in light of recent court decisions across European member states as well as national and EU-wide regulatory initiatives. It concludes by outlining the potential and fiercely contested futures of platform-based gig work, all of which signal the end of platform exceptionalism and the increased institutional integration of gig work into the low-wage services sector. This integration, it is suggested, may entail the end of the gig economy as we know it today.
Dr. Niels van Doorn is an Assistant Professor of New Media and Digital Culture in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. His research focuses on how digital platforms are transforming the organisation of labour.