program

Aim of the project

The objective of this research is to uncover what conditions increase the likelihood of resilience in worker-owned gig platforms.

Theoretical background

The future of work is central to socio-economic debates all over the world. And it is not only about the number of jobs created or destroyed by automation, but more generally about how to organise work in the 21st century so that it is decent for everyone. At the forefront of these debates is the shift from stable towards flexible work arrangements and the increasingly ubiquitous digitalisation, both most prominent in the platform economy. Also many different stakeholders are involved, including governments, private businesses, and self-organising communities.

Just as economists have long wondered why firms are usually controlled by capital suppliers instead of by labour suppliers, this study addresses the puzzle of why platforms are not more commonly owned and governed by workers. Gig platforms are organisations that use digital tools to connect large crowds of supply and demand for services. Most of these are owned by investors and managed on their behalf, such as Uber or Upwork. While there are enthusiasts and critics of the platform economy, both agree that its effects on incumbent industries and existing work arrangements are disruptive.

Do platform cooperatives present an alternative governance model for the future of work? Amidst attempts at state regulation, industry measures, and other grassroots initiatives, these cooperatives strive for decent work based on collective ownership and democratic governance by worker-members. While democracy has come a long way in political life, it is still marginal in the economic sphere. Since worker-owned gig platforms are relatively rare, it is expected that there are challenges to starting or sustaining them. These challenges can be internal failures, external barriers or threats, but also just a lack of interest or capacity on the part of workers for organising like this. At the same time, there are some existing cases out there that can help us learn how to overcome such challenges.

Research design

Ultimately, the project will provide insights into the competitive (dis)advantages of worker-owned gig platforms as one institutional approach to create decent work in the platform economy. Looking at the larger literature on worker cooperatives and labour-managed firms, there can be two reasons why worker-owned gig platforms are rare: lower market entry or higher market exit rates. The first sub-question/study investigates the challenges in starting worker-owned gig platforms and how founders deal with them. It uses insights from the paradox perspective on alternative organisational models. Methodologically, the study employs semi-structured interviews with founders of worker-owned gig platforms in Western-Europe and organisational life cycle analysis to analyse why they emerge amidst various other efforts to achieve decent work in the platform economy and what factors shape their development.

The other three sub-questions/studies focus on challenges to worker-owned gig platforms that might induce failure if not addressed. Most existing literature on worker cooperatives and labour-managed firms also focuses on market exit rather than market entry problems. The second sub-question/study examines the challenge of motivating workers to become and stay a member of the worker-owned gig platform. Because preferences of workers are likely more heterogenous than profit-maximising investors, social choice theory would predict that preference aggregation in these democratically run gig platforms leaves at least part of the (future) members unsatisfied. These workers would then go seek higher utility in a different type of work arrangement. However, social interaction amongst workers may develop solidarity and shared standards that diminish the problem of preference aggregation. Worker-members that are socially embedded in informal networks with (future) co-workers would then on average perceive more benefits, and thus be more motivated to become or stay committed as a member of the cooperative. These expectations will be tested through a longitudinal survey and statistical analysis on the members of a large worker-owned gig platform.

The third sub-question/study addresses the challenge of equal participation in decision-making processes by worker-members. With his ‘iron law of oligarchy’ sociologist Robert Michels already theorised that in any organisation, even those started with democratic values, power will eventually concentrate at the top. Worker-owned gig platforms may face a similar danger, especially if digital divides result in a select technically skilled leadership. On the other hand, digital mediation may provide new opportunities for democratic member participation by facilitating communication in large, socially heterogenous and geographically dispersed groups. To test these contrasting expectations, a field experiment will be administered with a subset of worker-members in the large worker-owned gig platform by manipulating the online/offline options offered to them to participate in decision-making.

The fourth sub-question/study analyses the challenge of efficiently coordinating productive and shirking behaviour of worker-members. Compared to traditional worker cooperatives, the work that is executed in worker-owned gig platforms is mostly an individual effort instead of a collective one. Nonetheless, all kinds of employee benefits and social rights provided to members could be viewed as a club good. Proper incentives for work effort and monitoring of this effort, next to rules and possible punishments for freeriding are therefore probably still required. Exactly what and how rules are used by the large worker-owned gig platform is studied through document analysis on its history of bylaws, meeting minutes, and reports, complemented by ethnographic field research on location in its offices and online on their platform. Analysis is supported by Elinor Ostrom’s approach of institutional grammar.

PhD

Damion Bunders

Supervisors

Prof. dr. Tine De Moor

Prof. dr. Agnes Akkerman

Dr. Ton Duffhues

Location

Utrecht University, Faculty of Humanities, Department of History and Art History

Disciplines

History, Sociology

Period

November 1, 2018 - October 31, 2022

 

 

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