Nailing Jelly: challenges of measuring work in the platform economy

 

Ursula Huws, Neil H. Spencer and Dag Syrdal, University of Hertfordshire

 

Although it reached public consciousness quite abruptly in the second decade of the 21st century, the development of the platform economy can be seen as the result of a convergence of a number of labour market trends that were already present. These include the development of a global division of labour in telemediated online work: an extension of the offshore outsourcing that emerged during the 1990s; a continuation of the casualisation of contractual relations, including the development of zero-hours contracts and various forms of pseudo self-employment whose origins can be traced back even earlier; and a blurring of the boundaries between paid and unpaid work. These have melded with a range of practices in which new technologies have been used to ‘taskify’ work and monitor the workforce in time and space.

As a result of these combined developments, many of which extend into ‘traditional’ employment sectors, platform employment cannot be distinguished easily from the broader pool of precarious, casualised, ‘just-in-time’ labour. Indeed, precisely because of its ephemeral nature, it is hard to perceive it as forming a stable occupational identity that would allow workers to be enumerated. On the contrary, participation in the platform economy is, by its very nature, likely to take place alongside other forms of work, as workers try to piece together a livelihood from multiple sources of income. This presents major challenges to researchers wishing to measure the extent of ‘crowd work’, identify the characteristics of ‘crowd workers’ or investigate the nature of the work, its advantages and disadvantages, risks and opportunities or implications for working conditions, identity or the quality of working life.

Nevertheless, there is a strong interest, on the part of policy makers and the general public as well as among academic researchers, in addressing such questions.

This paper describes a series of experimental surveys designed to measure the extent and characteristics of ‘crowd work’ in seven European countries. In particular, it looks at the challenges of identifying a phenomenon for which there is no recognised name or definition, and which overlaps significantly with a range of other phenomena, including different forms of work and employment, different forms of income generation via online platforms, and different forms of job search. It also explores the methodological implications of different approaches, including comparing the results of asking the same questions in online surveys, surveys using computer-aided telephone interviews (CATI) and surveys using computer-aided personal interviews (CAPI). Finally, it discusses the ways in which these results were validated using in-depth personal interviews.

It concludes with some general conclusions on the conceptualisation of work in the platform economy with the aim of informing future research.