Digital Platform Work as Interactive Service Work
57 Pages Posted: 31 Dec 2018
Date Written: May 23, 2018
The Article argues that the challenge in determining whether digital platform workers are “employees” results in part from a failure to appreciate differences between the production of goods and the production of services. It also argues that this challenge is a consequence of the law’s inadequate recognition of the division of labor that platforms must coordinate to produce on-demand services. Commentators frequently assert that platforms, like the on-demand ride companies Uber and Lyft, “match” sellers and buyers through technology. Rather than distinguish platform production from non-platform production, however, this rhetoric draws on differences between industrial manufacturing and interactive service production. In the latter, consumption and production overlap temporally, the customer participates in production and the worker in exchange, and the worker-customer interaction is often one-on-one. All companies “match” buyers and sellers, but, when dealing with service production, these differences render it more difficult to identify the seller: is it the worker interacting with the customer, or rather a company directing the worker’s efforts? The differences regarding production, consumption, and exchange appear to authorize, or even invite, spurious interpretations of work relationships. To illustrate, the Article provides examples from cases involving platform and non-platform service providers, including strip clubs and FedEx. The differences create an especially misleading picture in disputes involving on-demand ride platforms. By centering the customer interaction in their descriptions of the service provision, these platforms obscure that the product — e.g., a single Uber ride — is not the output of an individual driver, but rather the output of many drivers cooperating under Uber’s direction. Effacing the cooperative nature of production makes the individual driver appear more autonomous and has other consequences in the analysis of the driver’s employment rights. Only by ignoring basic differences between the production of goods and services, including the simultaneity of production and exchange in the latter, can we with any confidence assert that digital platforms like Uber are primarily involved in the ways that services are exchanged, as opposed to how they are produced. When we appreciate these differences, it becomes clear that this assertion depends on an arbitrary distinction between exchange and production.
Keywords: employment law, employment status, platform economy, gig economy, Uber, service work
JEL Classification: L1, L2, J8
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation