Platform Companies

Platform companies, which can take multiple forms, are primarily responsible for establishing and maintaining the labour conditions of platform workers. However, there are a range of actors associated with these companies, including non-human actors such as technological affordances, who also bear this responsibility.

Commercial companies

Issues

Variety of forms: Labour-mediating platforms take on a variety of forms and can be differentiated by employment type, the mode of compensation, and the labour conditions that prevail there. They also involve technical elements such as hardware, software, data operations, infrastructures, and networks. A number of taxonomies already exist but there is no definitive model that captures all forms of platform work, especially online creative work which is often left out of these models.

Policy and legal contexts: Platforms may be dependent on regional, state, or supra-state policy for their licence to operate or the legal employment conditions of their workers. Policy in one jurisdiction can affect the platform globally. Regulatory changes in one legal and regulatory environment may make a platform uneconomical and thus unsustainable in another. Furthermore, platform companies may also operate in under-regulated fields due to the emerging nature of their services/activities.

The increasing regulation of platform companies, and in particular the growing requirement to establish employment contracts, adds burdens to platforms and may increase costs. Platforms may leave a jurisdiction where such burdens become too high to the detriment of some workers.

Stakeholders: Platform companies must build and sustain goodwill among a range of stakeholders, from the (potential) workforce to end users to investors to legislators. The interests of these agents are often in tension. For instance, platforms require a steady stream of willing labourers and so must provide some form of meaningful compensation; they also require a steady stream of clients who may be seeking the cheapest labour.

Competition: Platforms often seek to secure first mover advantage in a market, seeking to scale up quickly by initially offering high rates of pay and rapid recruitment. This can generate a quickly growing workforce which, over time, results in depression of wages for the initial workers. Competition between platforms can also depress wages.

Precarious and invisible workers: Platforms often employ marginalised workers to undertake background maintenance, moderation, testing, and repair work of platforms. These workers are often invisible, especially the humans behind some AI technologies and moderation systems, and are undervalued and poorly compensated. These workers may also be recruited via platforms such as Mechanical Turk rather than as employees.

Monopoly: Large platform companies can tend toward monopoly or oligopoly, closing alternative platforms, especially cooperatives, out of the market. This reduces competition and creates platform dependency for workers.

Needs

Develop a comprehensive, but flexible and adaptable, taxonomy of labour-mediating platforms; engagement with platform companies in developing or redesigning their platforms and/or labour relations and in understanding the needs of their workforce.

Platform architecture (affordances)

Issues

Discriminatory algorithms: The algorithms that allocate work, decide remuneration, or evaluate work quality can reflect discriminatory, racist, sexist, and/or ableist logics. Algorithms are only as good as the data they are trained on. If the data contains biases or reflects existing inequalities, then the algorithm will also be biased. How these systems work is not transparent, even to technology designers as machine learning complicates the coding environment.

There can be a trade-off between the accuracy of algorithms and their fairness. Algorithms that are more accurate may also be more biased, while algorithms that are less biased may be less accurate. Developers must find the right balance between accuracy and fairness to ensure that algorithms are effective and fair.

Exclusionary affordances: Platform affordances can create exclusions through designs that negatively impact workers with disabilities or by failing to appreciate differences in labour experiences shaped by the gendered and raced material bodies of workers.

Ratings/reputation systems: Customer ratings can be used in opaque ways to determine the quality of work but not all platforms also enable workers to rate customers and with the same consequences.

Technical requirements: The devices, systems, and infrastructure needed to effectively run a platform on a device can create exclusions among workers in more disadvantaged and thus less serviced areas.

Transparency: The logics animating platform design and the affordances that shape work are not transparent to workers or regulators. They are often considered proprietary knowledge of the company and thus are protected information. This opacity decreases the capacity for workers, labour associations, and legislators to intervene.

Needs

Incorporation of accessible and ethical design principles in platform technologies; worker involvement in platform design; greater transparency on design and development choices, how algorithms work, and how they make decisions; diverse and representative datasets being used to train algorithms and AI; critical appraisal of the impact of algorithms in use based on intersectional feminist and accessible design principles.

Technology designers

Issues

Design workforce: Software designers and coders in platform companies are overwhelmingly male and, in the global North, typically white. Affordances often reflect the needs and experiences of these designers, leading to discriminatory outcomes.

Ethics: Platform companies often pay lip service to developing robust ethical frameworks for the development teams and embedding ethical principles in their design practices. Evidence, including the retrenchment of the responsible teams, suggests that this is not always a long-term commitment.

Research: There is a lack of research into the labour practices and conceptual frameworks used by developers associated with platform work, but especially for less researched platforms, such as those involved in paid care work.

Needs

Greater diversity in design and coding workforce through pro-active hiring processes; diversity audits of platform companies; development of meaningful ethical training, policies, and frameworks in designing services/infrastructure/algorithms; regulation and policing of design processes that impact worker livelihoods.

Advertisers and brands

Issues

Withholding payment: Brand partners can be slow to compensate workers for their labour or may withhold payment. Contracts for services may be opaque and inconsistent. Brand partners may also pay for services through in kind payments, the value of which may be much less than minimum wage or market rates.

Needs

More effective systems for managing and policing payments between workers and brand partners; formalising, regulation, and policing of contractual relationships between advertisers and creators; establishment of effective regulatory, oversight body for this kind of work.

Financial service providers

Issues

Account requirements: Platforms often work with nominated financial service providers that impose identity and other data requirements or have technological access systems that exclude vulnerable workers. Financial service providers located in one jurisdiction may not be feasible or readily accessible in others.

Unilateral policy changes: Financial providers can unilaterally change policies, close accounts, and/or withhold funds from account holders.

Needs

Ensure that diverse financial service options are available to the workforce; greater transparency and right of response by platform workers to changes in financial service provision.

VCs and investors

Issues

Move fast and break things: In seeking a return on investment, investors in digital companies can foster practices such as excessive expansion and recruitment, the depression of wages, and strategic pivots away from core business. All of these increase risks to the viability of the company and thus to platform-dependent workers. Additionally, building valid OHS policies, diversity in hiring, and development and training of the workforce may be sacrificed in the drive to scale up quickly.

Needs

Shareholder activism advocating for labour rights; alternative start-up funding models; sustainable, on-going funding for platforms committed to social justice.

Platform cooperatives and digital commons

Issues

Scalability and sustainability: To be successful, a platform needs to build and sustain a critical mass of users, both as workers and clients. This can be difficult to establish when a commercial platform has first mover advantage, a significant advertising and recruitment budget, and/or has the funding to run at a loss for an extended period. Workers may not benefit from engagement with a cooperative platform if it does not have a robust client base at the outset or if it is unable to maintain it.

Equity: It is vital that cooperative platforms ensure equity among its members and respect and foster justice through their processes and procedures. This requires mechanisms to ensure all workers have the capacity and opportunity to contribute to the development of the platform’s agenda and practices, including commercial practices.

Data ownership and management: Data management and maintenance is essential to successful platforms. This needs to be implemented in an ethical fashion that does not replicate the framework of ownership associated with commercial platforms. Attention must be paid to data rights and privacy protections.

Cooperative management: Ensuring equitable engagement with workers’ voices within decision-making and platform design can complicate and slow down the pace of platform development. This can affect the ability of cooperative platforms to compete against commercial operators. Adequate mechanisms for creating a cooperative environment can be difficult to establish and to ensure minoritised workers are also being heard within this environment. This involves building community, trust, and safe spaces.

Needs

Principles of “cooperative data stewardship” as a socio-technological infrastructure or platform design principle; development of alternative business models; implementation of robust policies and procedures that ensure equal involvement in decision-making; development and effective implementation of robust equity protocols, policies, and accounting in platform design and management.

Intermediaries

Many platform workers are not hired directly through the platform but via intermediary brokers, such as multi-channel networks or employment agencies. Some workers may use talent managers or agents. These intermediaries may manage relationships between service users and the worker; between workers and platforms; or between workers and third parties such as marketers and advertisers. Other intermediaries provide services such as bike hire, battery charging, or access to platform accounts.

Issues

Percentage: Some brokers take a substantial percentage of a worker’s income but may provide limited services of value for the worker. Workers have also reported wage theft by brokers.

Employment status: Employment through a labour intermediary can further complicate the employment status of workers. Labour protections that might be extended to platform workers through legislative change may not apply to the types of contracts these brokers employ. Employment via brokers may, however, circumvent restrictions on entry to markets for some workers and provide access to valuable resources.

Coercive practices: Some brokers set onerous conditions on working practices, such as channels of operation or task turnover, within labour contracts and may impose penalties for breaches of these conditions. This can create a coercive labour environment.

Advocacy: Brokers may improve labour conditions and incomes by advocating and negotiating better contracts and conditions for workers. They may also be better placed to ensure timely payments from clients, brand partners, or platforms.

Needs

Inclusion of the role of intermediaries in the development of labour protections and employment legislation; better regulation and oversight of labour intermediaries; development of the advocacy role of labour brokers; further research into the role these bodies play in shaping the nature of platform work.


The nature of platform work is broadly defined and constantly changing. We welcome suggestions of additions or amendments to this list. Please email pwillcost@uoc.edu.

Produced by Working Group 1 members (WG leaders: Dr. Kylie Jarrett and Dr. Jing Hiah) with contributions from all working groups of the P-Will COST Action (CA21118)