Originally published: Marxist Sociology Blog on April 5, 2023
Once again we find ourselves in moments of economic crisis. As we battle through inflation and rounds of devaluation, thousands of workers around the world have lost their livelihoods. Yet amidst this all, we have seen workers across the globe go on strike and protest. A manifestation of these inequalities of our world today can be seen in the platform economy with transnational players like Amazon, Google and Meta. This also includes platforms which have become a contemporary embodiment of precarity: gig platforms like Uber and its Uber Eats or Amazon Mechanical Turk.
In my book, I take a closer look at the workers who power the platform economy behind the interfaces to investigate more closely the different ways by which platforms alienate workers and how workers claim their agency and collectively organize.
Before diving into the world of workers, it is important to historicize and contextualize the platform economy in order to understand how it came about, how it developed, and how it can be redeveloped differently for a fairer working world. As with all developments, the platform economy did not develop in a vacuum, but has resulted from the coming together of a specific set of political-economic, societal and technological conditions. The central characteristic of platforms is their mediating role via the Internet and thus only took off once the Internet was not only developed, but also began disseminating in wider society in the 1990s.
The excited commercialization of the Internet led to a frenzy in the dot com era—also referred to as the dot com bubble. This translated into an influx of venture capital and financial capital from Initial Public Offerings that fueled their ‘growth before profit’ models. One such example of what I call the first generation of platforms was Amazon—the e-commerce platform and its mantra to ‘get big fast’ and later become the ‘everything store’.
The dotcom bubble burst in the early 2000s and the following co-evolving conditions brought about a second generation of platforms that had to find new ways to grow in the absence of financial capital (like models of advertising with the then Facebook or Google). The further dissemination of the Internet around the globe also translated into new conditions to mediate work not just traditionally within a location like a warehouse, but now additionally directly through the web as seen with Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk).
While Amazon developed MTurk initially for its own internal use to identify for instance duplicates on its page, MTurk is essentially a digital form of outsourcing. In its own words, on MTurk you can, “access a global, on-demand, 24×7 workforce”. MTurk is not the only platform Amazon had initially developed for its own internal use—but is joined by Amazon Web Services—the thus far monopolizing cloud providing platform.
MTurk signaled the beginning of the growing contemporary world of piece work in the platform economy. It was then following the economic crisis of 2006-2008, and the rising numbers of unemployment, that we saw a third generation of platforms defined precisely by their precarity: the gig economy for ride hailing or food delivery for instance.
As platforms have come to hold varying degrees of technological, political-economic and societal power—all of which became even more so evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important for us to take a closer look at those who power the platform economy behind the interfaces. As capital co-evolves alongside the wider conditions, so too does the world of workers: both in how platforms organize them but also in terms of how they push back and organize.
Two cases in the platform economy that differ across their dimensions, meaning the nature of the platform and the nature of the work, are the Amazon warehouse workers and Amazon Mechanical Turk workers. They constitute the core focus of my book. In the former case—labor is tied to the location, hence the nature of the platform is location-based, while the nature of the work translates to an hourly wage. Accordingly, these workers can be understood as organized in more traditional ways. MTurk workers on the other hand are neither tied to a location, nor do they receive an hourly wage: they are web-based and gig workers. The ways by which these dimensions interact hold implications in turn both for the working conditions and realities of workers, but also the ways by which they express their agency.
I turn to Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 to examine more closely the different dimensions by which a worker is alienated from the work they do, the product of that work, their life outside of it and their relationship to other humans.
In Amazon’s warehouses, we see workers are organized along a hypertaylorized division of labor across the circulation line: meaning workers are divided up into tasks like prepping, stowing, picking or packing an item with the aim of getting product of to the customer as efficiently as possible. This traditional organization of workers is combined with technology in order to ensure efficiency and productivity. These are characterized by assigned Units Per Hour (UPH) rates all whilst facing both social and technological surveillance. Within these warehouses, the individual labor of workers comes together under its slogan “work hard. have fun. make history.”
MTurk workers on the other hand are dispersed across the globe and do not encounter anyone while on the interface: they are alienated both from the capital that employs them (dubbed ‘requesters’) and other workers who could be located anywhere across the globe (though on MTurk workers are predominantly in India and the U.S.). While one receives an anonymized ID, so too can the requester posting the task anonymize themselves. Essentially workers are also laboring across a hypertaylorized data production line—yet one that is not visible to them. While they complete tasks such as transcribing receipts or identifying emotions or objects—they may not in fact know what this will be used for. Generally speaking we can regard it as data for machine learning algorithms for AI. Whereas warehouse workers are disciplined by their UPH rates, MTurk workers are by their approval rating based on submitted and approved tasks. Only then do they receive their gig-wage.
While laboring digitally, and laboring manually, brings about certain alienating working conditions under capitalism—this does not mean that workers do not form solidarity and collectively organize. The Power Resources Approach, which primarily draws on the work of Beverly Silver and Erik Olin Wright, presents us with analytical tools to study labor’s agency more concretely. In doing so it is essential to consider the larger political-economic contexts and their industrial relations which can both support but also undermine labor’s struggle.
Given that Amazon’s warehouse workers are organized within warehouses more traditionally—they encounter one another, and can speak to one another. This can be grounds for them to form solidarity and organize locally and (trans)nationally against their alienating conditions, under their slogan of “we are not robots”. While workers must navigate both the legal frameworks of where they are located, and face off against Amazon, its anti-union stance and union-busting tactics—workers have time and time again demonstrated their different forms of protest, strikes and unionization for better wages and working conditions.
The terrain of the MTurk workers fundamentally differs given that the platform extends across borders and time zones, and workers do not encounter one another on the platform. Traditional forms of organizing and striking appear rather difficult when laboring for a web-based gig platform considering that their work is defined by its precarity and piece-nature. Once we move away from these understandings of solidarity and organization, we can identify alternative ways by which MTurk workers organize: across forums of Reddit like Turker Nation and workers’ run Turkopticon. Essentially, workers form and participate in online communities where they exchange tips and advice on how to navigate MTurk.
By examining more closely the shop floor level of Amazon warehouses and the digital shop floor of MTurk—it is possible to identify more clearly the working conditions and realities of these workers. We can thereby also grasp the ways by which platforms reproduce trends on the labor market (like precarity), but also produce new ones (like algorithmic management). Engaging with this is central to any contemporary discussions on labor and the future of work, as well as labor organization itself. It is essential to recognize the different ways these workforces organize traditionally and alternatively to push for better conditions. In doing so we too can identify ways by which to support the workers and push for better regulation.
To read more, see: Sarrah Kassem. Work and Alienation in the Platform Economy: Amazon and the Power of Organization. Bristol University Press, 2023.
Sarrah Kassem is Lecturer and Research Associate in Political Economy at the Institute of Political Science at the University of Tübingen. Her work focuses on workers in the platform economy and their different forms of labor organization.