Digital platforms, job instability and forms of resistance to algorithmic control, key topics in an international congress at UPF

PlÓnol del futur complex d’innovaciˇ de l’Antic Mercat del Peix
PlÓnol del futur complex d’innovaciˇ de l’Antic Mercat del Peix
The international conference on digital platforms, which will take place on the Poblenou Campus on 15 and 16 February, will also serve to present the results of the PLATCOM research project, which UPF has been coordinating for the past four years, in cooperation with 7 other Spanish universities. As part of the PLATCOM project, 48 people from 13 different countries who work and provide services through food delivery, transport, tourist rental, childcare and animal care platforms were interviewed.

Digital platforms for purchasing and exchanging products have penetrated numerous economic and social sectors around the globe, including home delivery, transport, tourist rentals... The major influence they now have on socioeconomic and labour relations has given rise to the expression "platform capitalism". One of the most controversial aspects of this model is the global reduction in the labour protection of last-mile workers.

Within this context, experts on digital platforms from around the world will analyse the causes and breadth of this phenomenon on Thursday, 15 and Friday, 16 February, on UPF’s Poblenou Campus. The event, entitled " Working in/for Platforms International Conference ", will explore topics related to platform policies, algorithms and interfaces, as well as means of resisting algorithmic control employed by certain workers’ collectives. It will also analyse the profile of last-mile workers, introducing a gender perspective as well. To do so, participants will include experts on digital platforms from the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, China and Spain.

The congress will also serve to present the results of the research project on digital platforms known as PLATCOM (Communication platforms, workforce and informal learning), which began in 2020 and is slated to end this February. The project, coordinated by UPF in cooperation with 7 other Spanish universities, has further analysed the platforms’ cybermediation processes (between customers, companies, workers...); their impact on working conditions and worker learning strategies; and the ideological values associated with these platforms. During the research process, interviews were conducted with 48 platform workers from five different sectors: transport, tourist rental, childcare, animal care and food and grocery delivery. The people interviewed hailed from Spain, France, Italy, Venezuela, Chile, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Cuba, Honduras, Egypt, Senegal and Pakistan.

In addition to UPF, the project involved researchers from UCLM (University of Castilla-La Mancha), UVa (University of Valladolid), UVic, UB and ENTI (School of New Interactive Technologies, affiliated with UB), UAB, CSEU La Salle and CITM , affiliated with UPC. Other participants included representatives from the trade union Comisiones Obreras (CCOO). In addition to Spanish institutions, a researcher from Monash University (Australia) also took part.

For 4 years, members of the PLATCOM project have researched the socio-occupational and algorithmic dimensions of platforms

According to the principal investigator of PLATCOM, Carlos A. Scolari (UPF): "The platformisation of the economy is an undeniable process. Not only has it occurred in the audiovisual sector, but also in sectors such as transport, food delivery and elderly care, which are organised through sophisticated algorithmic systems and mobile apps. The PLATCOM team has explored various aspects of these labour practices. Unlike other research projects that focus exclusively on algorithms, with PLATCOM, we have analysed the workforce’s teaching/learning processes and conflicts stemming from the interface/platform. Particular attention has also been paid to worker discourse, that is, what they say and how they refer to the platforms and work processes".

The research team points out that, more than generate, process and market consumption data, the platforms’ interfaces have created a "tightly packed [and complex] network" of economic and social players. Within this environment, labour conflicts, political tensions and unrest arise due to the disparity in the ideological values that the various economic and social players who interact in the environment ascribe to the platforms. Last-mile workers are the weakest link in this network, as they are controlled not only by the other players but also by the platforms’ interfaces and algorithms.

In the face of job instability, workers establish cooperative relationships (such as the creation of online groups) to share not only practical information for their day-to-day activities, but also "tricks to beat the algorithm". These spaces of mutual support have spawned various forms of collective resistance, through informal groups or trade unions. Such manifestations of resistance have contributed to the appearance of the first laws regulating the working conditions of last-mile workers, such as the so-called "Rider Law" (2021) in Spain.

The skills needed for platform work are not limited to technological know-how, but also include people skills and knowledge of the institutional and labour context. Due to the lack of training provided by companies, the workers acquire these skills through informal learning strategies, particularly through help from peers.

A negative perception of the work, described with expressions such as "slavery", offset by positive aspects such as "freedom" and "flexibility"

When referring to their platform work experience, the workers used a host of disparate expressions. Most are negative, and many use metaphors associated with "slavery", emphasising the dehumanising effect of accepting the platforms’ working conditions, which, in the words of many workers, "play dirty". Many people also describe what they do through the platforms as "non-work", as they view it as a complementary or temporary source of income until they find a "real job". Nonetheless, certain positive expressions also crop up ("be your own boss", "control your hours"), which allude to the flexibility and freedom of managing one’s time.