The presented paper is a summary of the last 4 years of research on platform work (qualitative research conducted among Uber drivers in 2018-2020 and among Glovo, Uber Eats and Wolt couriers in 2021). In my research, I focused on work insecurity and its consequences for the individual, adopting the context of weak, patchwork, semi-peripheral capitalism that characterizes Poland and the countries of the region.
Research has shown that platform work meets most of the characteristics of precarious work, but at the same time it has become much more important to take into account the subjective point of view. Surprisingly, the predominant sense of temporariness among platform workers (the casual nature of this job, the lack of career and stability prospects) resulted in platform workers’ job satisfaction, despite objectively unfavorable working conditions, which somewhat contradicts the classic, negative assessment of precarious work. Treating this work as a temporary activity, as an episode in their professional career, they chose it because of its advantages, such as autonomy and flexibility, whereas its evident weaknesses, e.g. low earnings, actual lack of agency or the need to submit to the power of algorithms, were irrelevant in their decision-making horizon.
Therefore, one of the features of this type of work in Polish context turned out to be crucial – its subjective assessment, much higher than in the classic model of precarious work. In the case of platform workers, the dominant sense of temporariness turned out to be significant. The conviction that the work they were doing was not their target job made it easier for them to accept unfavorable conditions. However, instead of being „self-entrepreneur” as they would like, they only gained the illusion of influencing the work they were doing. And their success in the labor market was determined by an algorithm, the principles of which they did not know. Instead of freedom and autonomy in work, they got jobs that were decided by technology. The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic added one more context to this – it showed that despite the obvious flaws and precarious nature, platform work is still the only alternative for many Polish workers in a threat of unemployment, and because the job offers on the Polish labor market often relate to low-quality jobs, with poor security and junk contracts, platform work does not differ much.
Taking the employees’ perspective, I analyze the actual, bottom-up functioning of precarious platform work. Then the mechanism of imbalance, exploitation and manipulation appears, which the surveyed employees were unaware of. Considering platform work in the context of precariousness also refutes the myth that the work of drivers or couriers is only the embodiment of progress. Platform workers are often people who have not been able to find a job in a different industry, and the extremely high inclusiveness of this profession makes it attractive especially for vulnerable groups of employees. Behind the success of the platforms stays the very low-paid work of many people, who, in addition, have no influence on it, because the scale of their earnings and working conditions are determined by the algorithm, not skills or commitment.
The presented research on platform work also showed how global corporations have adapted to local regulations. In Poland, the institution of a fleet partner turned out to be a salvation for the further functioning of Uber and similar platforms. The institutional and legislative inconsistency with regard to platform work in Poland and the apparent adjustment of a global corporation to the existing local legal requirements allowed for the emergence of an entity (fleet partner) that was not present in any other country implementing this business model.