Digital Platforms: Creating “Servant” Economies or a Step Toward Empowerment?

Co-authored by: David Porteous and Amolo Ng'weno
April 1, 2019 - 4 mins read

Potential Benefits to “More than a Gig and Less than a Job” Employment in the Global South

Photo: John Won

In his recent article in the Atlantic, Alexis C. Madrigal looked at the experience of a number of US-based gig platform companies, which all launched “Uber for X” services in the decade after Uber launched its epochal ride sharing service in 2009. His research found 105 of these gig platforms, of which only a few, like Uber itself, had achieved elite “unicorn” (a start-up valued at more than $1 billion) status. A quarter had disappeared and the rest soldier on, fuelled by venture capital while often struggling to become profitable.

Madrigal’s evidence base is primarily the survival rates of service gig platforms in the United States, but his real concerns are far wider: do these gig platforms exacerbate income inequality in the U.S. and turn gig workers into digital servants? To him, the answer is clear: “[The gig platforms] have brought hundreds of thousands of people into new work arrangements that are more than a gig but less than a job.”

Essentially, Madrigal argues, venture capitalists have subsidized the creation of platforms for low-paying work that deliver on-demand ‘servant’ services mainly to rich people, while subjecting all parties to increased loss of privacy. The marginal increase in convenience to buyers of these services, he writes, may not be worth the overall societal cost of increased surveillance.

The main question, however, which Madrigal raises but doesn’t fully answer remains: is the rise of platforms offering “less than a job but more than a gig” a good thing for societies and workers? We don’t have the evidence to answer for the U.S. Others are already doing this in different ways. Our concern is what we have raised in our previous blogs on the future of work: whether the answer would be different in the global south.

The biggest difference between north and south is simply this: what is the nearest feasible work alternative to gig work? In the north, the benchmark is the full-time formal job, by which standard gig work may indeed fall short on many metrics. In much of the global south, the formal job just does not exist as an option for most people. A recent ILO report estimates that 61 percent of work globally, and 85 percent of it in sub-Saharan Africa, is informal.

Work in the informal economy lacks enforceable rights and protections for workers, let alone benefits. For self-employed survivalists in developing countries, work life is already a portfolio of uncertain “gigs”, which often pay badly and sometimes not at all. If this work is the nearest feasible alternative, then the relative formality and structure of platform work can be appealing.

It’s not enough, however, for platform work to be simply better than the next alternative. The issue Madrigal raises about whether gig works are just re-invented servants raises a question of what we find unappealing about the role of a servant.

In the past, the “Uber for X” roles of cooking, laundry, shopping, delivery, and driving was the unpaid work of mothers and wives. Rising incomes and urbanization in the Industrial Revolution allowed a new middle class to outsource these activities to servants. Peaking around 1900 with 19 perecent of UK families employing servants (9 percent in the U.S.), the population of domestic servants declined sharply after the First World War and has, apparently, been regretted ever since.

So, do platforms create a new class of digital servants? We would argue that the new digital platforms actually do the opposite. They democratize the use of helpful and desirable services by a much wider income group (because they allow consumption in small, discrete units), they monetize work that might otherwise continue to be unpaid, and they change the nature of the worker-employer relationship in a way that frees it from the old master-servant power dynamic through the use of mutual ratings and by making the interaction into a long-run game through membership in the platform. Without the personal, even intimate, relationships that domestic servants formerly had with their employers, platform workers are able to provide their services in an arms-length and professional manner, largely protected from labor abuses that are common to the domestic servant.

Our colleague Julie Zollmann recently reported on her research among taxi drivers in Nairobi that illustrates both the professionalization of the drivers’ role as well as the broadening of the number of people using ride-share platforms like Uber. Drivers valued the autonomy provided by platform work. They also highlighted the value of the recourse function on Uber’s platform that incentivized passengers to behave well and, therefore, improved the driver’s experience as a service provider.

Zollmann’s research quotes drivers complaining that passengers on ride-sharing service Taxify are “matatu people”, the word for those who usually use the colorful overcrowded buses and don’t know how to “behave” in a private taxi. Although we don’t yet have data to confirm the extent of this, the driver is probably commenting on an emerging phenomenon: that his apparently unruly passengers have never, in fact, sat in a private car before.

We don’t believe that platform work is a perfect solution to the age-old challenge of providing personal services, especially while the technology is so new and social effects at large scale so unknown. In the global south, however, and at the least, we see potential benefits to both providers and customers by making services available to a rising middle-class population in developing countries at a lower cost; and by doing so in a way that does not create a new caste of abused domestic servants but the reverse: empowering a new class of entrepreneurs and service workers who can have greater dominion over their work.

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