Reflecting on the platformization of gig work

By SONG CHENTING / 07-04-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

In February 2024, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security of the PRC published guidelines to improve protection of the rights of workers engaged in new employment forms, such as ride-hailing and food delivery. Photo: TUCHONG

According to data released in 2021 by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security of the PRC and other Chinese government departments, there are approximately 200 million gig workers in China, with nearly 100 million of them engaged in internet-based gig work. As this number continuing to grow rapidly, online platforms are propelling China’s gig economy into a new phase. 

While platform-based operational mechanisms are well-established in relatively mature gig economy sectors such as food delivery, ride-hailing, and package delivery, there are few online platforms for gig work in the cultural industry. Gig work remains the primary mode of employment in the cultural sector, but developing platform-based gig work in this field faces many uncertainties. 

Disparities in empowerment 

Gig work in the cultural industry can be divided into two main categories: blue-collar gig work, such as exhibition setup, spray painting, and conference services; white-collar gig work such as graphic design, copywriting, post-production, and special effects. The former is highly replaceable, requires lower levels of professional skills, and offers lower wages. The latter requires higher levels of professional skills, offers higher wages, and grants workers greater bargaining power. 

In the cultural industry, gig work often relies on personal relationships between intermediaries and business managers, resulting in significant information asymmetry which may weaken the bargaining power of gig workers. Online platforms can facilitate direct communication between business managers and gig workers due to more open and transparent standards and stronger compliance, enhancing the bargaining power of gig workers, particularly blue-collar ones. 

Online platforms provide gig workers with more job opportunities and higher income, while also enabling employers to access more information about gig workers, enhancing the efficiency of matching human resources to service needs, and facilitating human resource sharing. These platforms can also act as third-party supervisors for work quality and payment, ensuring that employers’ needs are met, and gig workers are paid promptly. 

The convenience and flexibility of gig work are accompanied by the fierceness of open competition. Platforms extensively connect gig workers with employers and facilitate two-way selection. However, when the number of gig workers exceeds available jobs, competition among workers will intensify, potentially leading to lower incomes and tighter deadlines for individual services. This situation indirectly increases work intensity, job insecurity, and the risk of labor exploitation. In addition, the cultural industry has its own peculiarities, such as the lack of unified standards for the quality and quantity of gig work. This poses challenges for platform standardization and the protection of the rights and benefits of both gig workers and employers. 

As platforms replace intermediaries, they also assume their power, controlling job opportunities, work hours, workflows, and performance evaluations of gig workers, while taking commissions from their earnings. Research has revealed the phenomenon of “algorithmic control” in relatively mature platform-based sectors such as package delivery, food delivery and ride-hailing. In the era of the digital economy, “algorithmic control” is increasingly common in various fields of gig work. Without appropriate legal and regulatory constraints, the risk of platform misconduct will persist. 

Platform monopoly 

Platform hegemony is a hidden danger in the development of platform-based gig work. In the current digital economy, leading platform companies have already begun to monopolize the market. The more users use these platforms, the more data is generated, allowing the platforms to provide more personalized services. Simultaneously, as more service providers use the platforms, more diverse services can be offered, which in turn attracts more users to the platforms. When one platform holds a monopolistic position within a certain field, the lack of outside users and service providers increases the cost of not joining the platform. 

Online platforms gradually accumulate the power to make rules, mediate in disputes, and impose sanctions as they operate. However, driven by economic interests, these powers could give rise to numerous issues. Maintaining neutrality becomes difficult when platforms simultaneously act as rule-makes, rule-enforcers, and mediators. For instance, customer service staff may engage in corrupt practices due to insufficient supervision, while algorithms themselves may be biased. 

There is a growing trend towards platform-based development gig work in the cultural industry, potentially creating a “power triangle” wherein gig workers, the government, and platforms each represent a vertex. However, the distribution of power is uneven within this triangle, with platforms clearly enjoying greater advantages. It is therefore advisable to promote government-centered “algorithm governance” to redress the imbalance in the distribution of power and ensure platforms play a fully constructive role. 

Song Chenting is an associate professor from the Department of Sociology at Beijing University of Technology.