Stepping stone or dead end? The ambiguities of platform-mediated domestic work under conditions of austerity urbanism

Niels van Doorn
2020-02-10
Working Paper

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This is an extended version of a book chapter that will appear in a collection on the impacts of austerity on work and employment, edited by Donna Baines and Ian Cunningham (forthcoming with Bristol University Press). The paper examines how, under nationally and locally distinct conditions of austerity urbanism, marginalized workers navigate platform-mediated gig economies. It focuses specifically on the experiences of immigrants and minorities working through domestic cleaning platforms. In NYC, we meet Tish and Kenny: two African American cleaners who were driven to the Handy platform – and to cleaning work more specifically – through their encounters with labor activation schemes. Each has an ambivalent relationship to the platform, which provided them with a somewhat steady income stream when they sorely needed one, while also making it difficult to transition out of gig work and into a more secure and sustainable occupation. In Berlin, we hear from Kostas and Alexis, two Greek young men who left their austerity-ridden country to look for better opportunities in the nation widely held responsible for enforcing the measures that bled Greece dry. Yet when such opportunities proved harder to come by than they had initially imagined, they turned to Helpling as an easily accessible “employer of last resort” (sans employment contract). Like Tish and Kenny, Kostas and Alex have a deeply ambivalent relationship to their platform, which is nevertheless articulated in distinctive ways. The paper concludes by stressing the value of cross-national comparative ethnography as a methodological approach able to grasp the local iterations of global phenomena like “neoliberalism", “austerity” and "gig work", while highlighting the deep yet severely unequal mutual dependency between local-serving labor platforms and migrant/minority workers.