Miranda Hall & Dalia Gebrial
June 27 2022
On Friday 25th February 2022, Autonomy hosted a workshop: ‘The platformization of care: researching for resistance.’ Through collaborative power-mapping using digital tools and discussion we aimed to answer two questions:
1. How do digital platforms restructure power relations in the care economy?
2. What are the implications of these changes for building worker and community power and resisting corporate consolidation?
We brought together researchers, trade unionists, workers and policy practitioners to draw on their experience and expertise to collaboratively map changes across the sector and identify key strategic priorities. The workshop was hosted by Dalia Gebrial and Miranda Hall, who have both been researching and organizing around care for a number of years.
Taking a sectoral or contextual approach was key to the session. This means that our starting point was not a digital platform itself, but the broader socio-economic context in which these platforms are situated. We wanted to better understand how platforms intervene in, amplify or change existing power relations in the care sector.
There are many barriers to pooling this kind of knowledge. Academic analysis is hidden behind publication paywalls, local campaigns are unaware of other campaigns with shared targets, precarious workers have no platform to talk with other workers. By introducing and testing new collaborative digital tools, we hoped to get participants thinking about practical ways we could bring these insights together. In this blog, we share some of the insights that emerged from our first power-mapping exercise.
What is care?
Some important characteristics distinguish the care sector from other sectors. First, care is a form of social reproduction. This is a way of describing the activities that keep us alive, traditionally performed by women for low wages or no wages. These tasks include caring directly for ourselves and others (childcare, elder care, healthcare), and maintaining physical spaces and organizing resources as part of an indirect process of caring for oneself and others (cleaning, shopping, repairing).
Second, the care sector is also distinct in terms of who owns, finances and controls care services. In different places and at different points in history, the extent to which the state has taken on responsibility to provide and coordinate social care, childcare and other forms of care has varied significantly.
For example, in the UK, the mid-20th century saw a shift away from the norm of the ‘family wage’, in which responsibility for reproductive labour fell upon a full-time, financially dependent wife. The state started to take on some of this reproductive labour (paid for through taxation) through the public provision of services such as education and childcare, enabling women to enter the workforce in greater numbers. With the rise of neoliberalism from the 1970s onward, the decline of ‘good jobs’ and the stripping back of public services have resulted in a shift to market-mediated exchange. As a result, 87% of nursery childcare in the UK is now delivered by for-profit providers, and state regulations actively discourage Local Authorities from providing childcare. How does the rise of platforms in the past 10 years relate to these broader systemic transformations?
What are platforms?
For this workshop, we understood platforms in terms of Nick Srnicek’s account of ‘intermediary digital infrastructure’. Our focus was specifically on ‘digital labour platforms’ which can be divided into ‘on-demand’ platforms and ‘marketplace’ platforms. We can think about platforms as one of the infrastructures that organizes how we care for each other. In the childcare sector, for example, digital platforms can function as an intermediary between childcare workers and families. But they also mediate the relationships – or create new ones – between nurseries and childcare agencies, nurseries and local authorities, childminders and local authorities, childcare providers and families’ employers, workers and agencies.
Another example of an ‘infrastructure’ that shapes how we organize care in society is the built environment. The architecture of the nuclear family home forces us to carry out reproductive activities (cooking, cleaning, childcare) in individual family units rather than in larger collective structures. Similarly, the development of financialised care home chains, driven by their value as real estate, has reshaped both working conditions for care workers and the quality of care received by elderly people.
Refuse and repurpose
Our first exercise was designed to get participants thinking about the broader context of platforms and where power is situated. We invited Munira Lokhandwala from the Public Accountability Initiative in the United States to introduce ‘LittleSis’, a digital tool and database for power research. In her words, “LittleSis is like the opposite of Big Brother; instead of surveilling the people, we track the people and organizations in the power structure, from CEOs and major investors to politicians and lobbyists.”
Participants were placed in breakout groups and given forty-five minutes to pick a platform and produce a power-map on LittleSis. Each group was told to designate one participant to be their ‘mapper’ and collate all the research they had gathered into a map. Aside from these instructions, each group decided collectively how best to conduct the research, what they wanted to focus on and how to divide up responsibilities.
Three of the groups chose to build a power-map of Care.com and one group focussed on Bubble, a UK-based childcare app. We have collated the three Care.com maps into one, as an illustration of this approach, below. You can view the full interactive map on the LittleSis site by clicking on the image.
Based on their expertise and experience, different groups focused on different areas of interest, all of which are reflected on the map. Discussion of these power-maps was wide-ranging but we can summarize some of the key observations that emerged:
1. The map illustrates a heavily financialised sector. Care.com, like other platforms, relied on venture capital investment to get going. It was publicly traded for a few years and is now owned by a holding company called InterActiveCorp (IAC). Making visible these complex ownership structures helps us to understand who holds power, who makes important decisions and therefore who we need to be targeting in our campaigns. For example, Vanguard Group, Care.com’s biggest shareholder, manage billions of pounds worth of investments in funds that perpetuate environmental and racial injustices ($1.4 billion in air polluters category, $3.3 billion in carceral corporations) and have channeled money to hate groups including the Atlas Foundation and David Horowitz Freedom Center.
2. The map also illuminates the backgrounds of powerful individuals (CEOs, investors, board members). Information such as their previous employment or other boards they sit on, helps us to understand their business practices. For example, one group noticed that Care.com’s head of safety was previously the head of safety at Uber who are notorious for unsafe working conditions. Another group found that a number of members of senior management and investors at Bubble have previously been associated with addictive gambling platforms.
3. Mapping out financial ownership also makes it possible to identify potential allies with shared targets and aims. The scale and the global nature of these companies and investors undermines the ability of organized labor to make demands. Building alliances with workforces in different sectors or geographies who have a shared owner or investor is a way of building the leverage of unions. For example, we can see from the map that in addition to Care.com, IAC owns Betreut (a platform for care services in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria) and platforms for handymen and cleaners owned by ANGI Homeservices in Holland, Canada and the UK.
4. We are seeing an increased trend of public-private partnerships, with digital platforms coordinating or providing services that were previously the responsibility of the state. During the pandemic, this trend was accelerated, with a number of partnerships including the State of Texas, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. This is also relevant for identifying potential campaign targets. How taxpayer money is spent is a question of public interest and should therefore be subject to increased scrutiny, ensuring that public funds are not ending up in the pockets of corporate share-holders.
Our second exercise, which we will not describe in as much detail here, involved a different kind of mapping. We used a Miro board to get participants to think about and visualize the different systemic drivers of platformization in this sector. We wanted to prompt conversation about similarities and differences between how platformization plays out in various geographic contexts. Examples of these differing contexts included immigration regimes, the shape of the welfare state and the power of the trade union movement, all of which crucially shape both people’s care needs and working conditions of carers. This emphasis reflects Helen Hester’s recent reminder that “the structure of the platform will, in practice, manifest itself in distinctive ways, meaning that it can be tricky to talk about ‘platform care’ as a single cultural entity.”
We are really grateful to everyone who came to the workshop. Participants contributed amazing levels of expertise and insight but most importantly a fierce commitment to better understanding (in order to dismantle) corporate power. Thank you also to Munira for introducing LittleSis and to Surya, Freddie and Rubie for their note-taking, facilitation and tech. If you want to be kept updated on future sessions like this, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or D.Gebrial@lse.ac.uk with the subject ‘Mapping Care’ and we will add you to our mailing list.
Miranda Hall is a play worker, researcher and organiser focussed on building the collective power of paid and unpaid carers. She previously worked at the New Economics Foundation. She can be found on twitter at @Miranda__Lena.
Dalia Gebrial is a Research Affiliate at Autonomy, as well as an ESRC-funded PhD candidate at LSE, working on race and gender in the platform economy. She has also recently contributed to and co-edited Decolonising the University with Gurminder Bhambra and Kerem Nisancioglu, and is a regular contributor to Novara Media.