Fair’s fair: Psychological contracts and power in platform work

Back in 2017 Prof. Mark Smith and I began studying food delivery couriers to understand why this new form of non-standard work was suddenly taking off, and what was motivating a wave of street protests and wildcat strikes that had emerged that summer.

In addition to speaking to 7 couriers in France, 5 in the UK, and one each in Germany and Italy, I spent 3 months on a bicycle myself, ferrying meals around Grenoble for UberEats in the evenings after class and on weekends. The final result of this research was published this January in the International Journal of Human Resource Management.

In the paper, we argue that this form of work, and the protests it triggered, should be understood in terms of the wider debate regarding fairness and the distribution of economic risk. We use the concept of the psychological contract to consider the suggestion that platform work is fair because workers get flexibility and autonomy instead of the security and benefits offered by standard employment relationships. We find that this flexibility is mostly enjoyed by the platform firms themselves, who keep labour costs low by designating their couriers as independent contractors, only paying them for deliveries made while enjoying the benefits of having workers available on stand-by to meet demand peaks. Couriers then shoulder the burden in periods of low demand, receiving no pay for the time they spend waiting to be assigned orders by the algorithm.

What’s more, the couriers know that the algorithm takes various metrics into account in assigning orders, but they are not permitted to know the extent of these metrics or how they are weighted. As a result, we found couriers pushing themselves to accept more orders than they otherwise would, or working in ways they imagined might please the algorithm rather than following their own preferences. In so doing, they found themselves disillusioned with claims that this work grants couriers autonomy and flexibility.

We then use Steven Lukes’ theory of power to unpack how platform firms encourage workers to accept this as a “fair” exchange nevertheless. They do this, for instance, by designing the app so that decisions and policies seem like the result of the algorithm’s dispassio- nate calculation rather than human choices. Similarly, these platforms make it difficult for couriers to compare their wages by using complex and constantly changing systems of pay tied to distance, demand, weather condi- tions and short-term incentives.

On the other side, we identified a variety of coping strategies used by couriers. Some of these strategies support the framing of platform work as fair, such as designating their original, disappointed expectations as unreasonable, or rebalancing the exchange by finding ways to hack the app and gain personal advantage. Others, however, draw this framing into question, by unveiling the political interests of the platform – that’s to say, they highlight how the platform firms benefit from the way they organize the work and design the app, at the workers’ expense.

Republished from the Summer 2021 issue of the Grenoble Ecole de Management Doctoral Knowledge Journal

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