Platforms without Borders: Examining Migrant Labour on Global On-Demand Labour Platforms

Lead Research Organisation: University of Essex
Department Name: Essex Business School


Digital technologies have dramatically changed the organisation of work, creating new forms of "on-demand" work in the gig economy. On-demand work facilitated via digital platforms has proliferated in urban spaces across the globe in food delivery, ride hail and handy work sectors, among others. What is rarely appreciated in media narratives and the scholarly literature is the extent to which work on these platforms is undertaken by migrant workers who experience a set of compounding vulnerabilities related to their residency status, economic insecurity and difficulties accessing national welfare systems. Platform labour offers much-needed opportunities to migrants, but has also been claimed to degrade working conditions and increase workers' precarity and vulnerability.

"Platforms without Borders" is a cross-national ethnographic study by a team of researchers based in the United Kingdom, China and Brazil which aims to determine how on-demand labour platforms distribute new opportunities and vulnerabilities for migrant workers in the platform economy. It moves beyond the narrow focus of platform labour studies on a select few cities in the Global North by considering the different circumstances facing migrant workers in three distinct cities and national contexts based on fieldwork in London, Beijing and Sao Paulo with food delivery riders. The international focus provides an opportunity to examine how global platform companies operate differently in distinct regulatory environments, which will deepen our understanding of the platform economy. The project employs novel ethnographic research methods developed from Paulo Freire's notion of 'popular education' to engage with migrant workers through which workers critically reflect on their own experience of work in dialogue with critical social analysis. The methodology emphasises the importance of workers as active agents with their own distinct understanding of the labour process and the capacity to develop novel solutions to improve their working conditions. By starting from the experience of workers, the project will determine how intersecting regimes of power related to gender, race, class, education and immigration status affect migrant workers' experience with platform labour. It will examine how broader systems of immigration, welfare and labour market policies operate in different national contexts and how this affects the experience of workers. The research will engage workers with the aim of generating novel policy solutions to the emerging problems of the digital economy.


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