In a soul-crushing op-ed for the New York Times, Alex Rosenblat, author of a forthcoming book about the gig economy, Uberland: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Rules of Work, details the modern reality for domestic workers operating in the internet age. It’s fucking grim. These specialized laborers—nannies, housekeepers, elderly care workers, etc., once valued for their experience and operating within a word-of-mouth network, have been forced to adopt to new and popular technologies (what Rosenblat refers to as “Uber-like”) that, while convenient for users, don’t exactly benefit said workers. In fact, they actively hinder veteran employees’ opportunities to find and sustain work—even worse for those of more marginalized backgrounds: the poor, women of color, and immigrants. This, of course, differs dramatically from the extremely popular business narrative that the gig economy is some kind of democratizing godsend, mimicking entrepreneurship and creating job opportunities for an eager workforce.
The technologies in question, called “marketplace” platforms (Care.com, CareLinx, UrbanSitter), allow prospective employers to hire domestic workers online, as they would call a car on Uber or Lyft or rent a room on Airbnb. There are many issues with this, beginning with the fact that digitizing a once IRL hiring practice means only those with regular access to the internet score the best jobs (or any jobs at all.) This is a catastrophic inequality, Rosenblat writes:
Marketplaces require a lot more effort from workers and families, who have to send multiple messages to test the waters, like online dating. Job seekers need to be constantly online and responsive to secure work...
Digital inequality thus becomes a wedge for opportunities in gig work. Among Americans in households earning less than $20,000 per year, only 64 percent use the internet or email, and less than half own a smartphone. As marketplace platforms become increasingly important in care work, so will access to the internet and a smartphone.
And because of that digitization, domestic workers have found that more and more people have begun pursuing care work as supplemental income to their other jobs, which increases the number of employees in the field and lowers salaries dramatically to unlivable wages.
Then, of course, are the issues with the platforms themselves: Unlike Uber, they rarely allow domestic workers to evaluate their hirers, putting the employee’s ranking at risk. They don’t enforce minimum wage laws and they rarely offer additional services to help some of the older, poorer, immigrant, professional employees adapt to the new system. Rosenblat writes:
Companies can do more to design platforms to support qualified care workers.
For example, Airbnb sometimes offers a professional photography service to help new hosts show off their space. Uber provides smartphone rentals and facilitates car loans (although the terms can be predatory). A marketplace for care and cleaning can similarly provide smartphones, create a profile optimizing service, provide services in multiple languages and streamline coordination with employers.
They sure could. But will they ever? Read the full op-ed here.