‘Six new home carers near you!’ How digital platforms shape domestic services

By Jing Hiah.

Finding cleaning and child rearing services is easier than ever in many parts of the world. Install an app on your phone and start browsing through hundreds of (female) workers. If you decide not to directly hire their services – perhaps you feel too embarrassed (can’t we take care of ourselves?!) – you’ll be sent reminders by email: ‘Six new home carers near you. Contact them now!’

Domestic service is reportedly the fastest growing sector in the platform or ‘gig’ economy – that is, economic activity facilitated by digital platforms that mediate supply and demand, creating digital marketplaces. Rising demand for home-based care and domestic workers and health professionals (and even virtual nannies during the COVID-19 lockdown) has been prompted by factors including women’s entrance into the paid labour market, longer lifespans and the retrenchment of the welfare state. Platform companies like Care.com, Helpling and Handy have designed digitised infrastructures that connect domestic workers to those wanting their services. This is the focus of my project ‘New mobilities or persistent inequalities’, which I will be researching during my 20-month stay at the University of Bristol.

(Image: Magnet.me on Unsplash)

New mobilities or persistent inequalities?

Paid domestic work can be broadly understood as all tasks conducted in the private household including cleaning, child rearing and care of the elderly. While inequalities and difference in paid domestic work are hotly debated, it has been cited as a quintessential example of ‘invisible work’ due to its poor labour conditions combined with legal disenfranchisement, which make the sector vulnerable to exploitation. Furthermore, the demand for domestic workers is highly gendered, as it is associated with women’s ‘natural’ qualities. Racialisation also plays a part, with some minority groups considered to be better fitted to perform domestic work, and this has intersected with female migration in different parts of the world. Immigration regulations further control the rights and mobilities of domestic workers, whether they have entered on domestic worker, family reunion or other visas, or overstayed.

Anonymised example of an app for finding domestic workers (created by the author)

My project will explore how vulnerabilities and inequalities in domestic work are shaped by digital platforms. The literature so far suggests that these platforms offer some groups of marginalised workers, such as migrants, racialised minorities and workers with familial obligations (often women), new and flexible opportunities to access work. However, there is also growing evidence that platforms contribute to a degradation of employment relations. They do not guarantee minimum wages or income security and they challenge worker organisation. Furthermore, work on surveillance capitalism and visibility regimes has found the digital infrastructures of platforms and the associated online visibilities of workers to cause further inequality in the domestic employment relationship.

So, what about the ‘six new home carers near you’? It’s important to remember that the carers have no idea who ‘you’ are and neither do they know anything about your household. You do all the picking and choosing. This picking and choosing, research shows, is not only based on the profiles of the individuals on the app: employers also often check the broader social media presence of workers, for example on Facebook and Instagram. For some workers it has become a full-time (unpaid) job to perform gender and ethnicity through their platform profiles. Meanwhile, they have no idea about the appearance, relationships or even gender, race, occupation or name of potential employers. Workers therefore often have to give up their privacy, manage their various connected social media profiles and invest in social media skills, which they may be unfamiliar with and certainly don’t get paid for.

Possibilities for ‘good’ platformed domestic work jobs

So today I was trying to get the attention of [the kid the nanny is taking care of] and he was glued to his Switch. I gave him ample warning that we were about to change to a different task and he has 5 minutes left before we move on. He told me no, that he wants to keep [playing] and that he’ll just ask his mom for more time. Imagine my surprise when [their] mom storms out of the room, takes the Switch, and firmly says ‘I never want to hear that again. Nanny is always right and don’t you forget it.’ And just walks away….

This family is definitely my unicorn family, and it was just solidified today that I never want to leave them! I felt so freaking empowered!

(Post on an online nanny support group.)

Inequalities related to paid domestic work have been recognised to be pretty persistent and these inequalities may have become even more serious when mediated by the digital infrastructures of platforms. Yet does that make a job in paid domestic work by definition a ‘bad’ job? The post of the (self-identified) nanny above on an online nanny support group gives us some insight into various aspects of what, according to sociologists of work, makes a job a ‘good’ job – namely a sense of autonomy, control over work activities and social contact (other aspects include income, health and control over work hours).

So, while the employment relationship between paid domestic workers and their employers may be characterized by inequalities, what also matters is the manner in which employers and workers approach these inequalities in their everyday relationships. The various discussions in the online nanny support group show that it is not only important to workers to be treated fairly, but that many employers also do their best to secure fair and good relationships. Since there has been less work done on the perspectives of employers, the aim of my project is to also include their perspectives in my analysis of platformed domestic work. I am looking forward to hearing from employers and workers how they secure fair relationships in platformed domestic labour relations.

Jing Hiah is an Assistant Professor in Criminology at the Erasmus University Rotterdam and a Dutch Research Council (NWO) Rubicon Postdoctoral Fellow. She is visiting the University of Bristol from December 2021 until July 2023 as a guest of MMB and SPAIS. During this time she will be carrying out her study on domestic labour platforms funded by the Dutch Research Council, the Erasmus Trustfonds and an innovation grant of the Erasmus School of Law.

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