April 03, 2022

Gig Work: Techno-normative Control and Rising Precarity

Sanjay Roy

GIG work has emerged as a significant mode of employment within the platform economy. Technology platforms allow a new work form where people can join the labour market by simply accessing an application that happens to be the site where consumers, employers and workers virtually meet. Platform-based work encompasses different modes of crowd work where individual service providers can meet their clients through the internet and sell services as required. These platforms therefore primarily translate market demand into specific jobs or tasks that are being directed to people who agree to perform the job at a stipulated rate.

Gig work is a form of platform-based job where contracts are of a very short span of time. The platform works as a virtual spot market where one person can be contracted for delivering a particular task. For this to happen what is required is a detailed process of federating the job and at the same time operationalising coordination that encompasses buyers and sellers from a widely dispersed space. These twin requirements are fulfilled by the technology and related networks which then allow the owners to usher in a labour process that relies heavily on contingent and fragmented labour.

The distinctive feature of this work arrangement is that the engagement between the producer and the consumer and that between capital and labour are mediated through technology that fetishizes social relations as technological imperatives. The aggregators are neither producers nor owners of a production process engaged in manufacturing or services, but they enforce enormous power over both producers and consumers by dint of their control over the network that creates and shapes the virtual market.

An ILO survey covering 75 countries shows that the gig workers who provide a wide range of services from food delivery, taxi service, last-mile delivery of goods ordered through the e-retail platforms to cleaning jobs, beauty services and so on are largely young people in their thirties and a large number of them undertake such jobs as complementing to their core incomes. It is often argued that gig work offers a lot of flexibility to the worker, consumer as well as employer. The consumer is exposed to a wide range of choices on one platform. The worker not only can choose the employer but also the time of work. The owner, on the other hand, services the consumer without employing permanent workers. It is a state of flux where everything is instantaneous and contingent where both the producer and the worker seem to be optimising their outcomes but end up with increased precarity of labour who could hardly earn a fair living.


Technology is not class neutral rather technology subsumed to capital relations become capital itself. Technology in capitalism plays a particular purpose of enabling capital to exercise greater control over labour. The history of technological developments in work processes can be traced as a response of capital to the enhanced voice and agency of the working class. During the ‘golden age’ of capitalism, a temporary resolution of class conflict articulated through Keynesian welfarist policies emerged together with the rise of the Fordist production structure, the assembly line and a complementary payment structure not strictly related to individual productivity. Needless to say, those welfare policies in the advanced capitalist countries were also conditioned by the rising fear of socialism and its expanding influence, particularly on the working people of the world.

In the early 70s, however, when capital faced the problem of declining profitability capital hit back by dismantling the existing rights and institutions that wielded a counterweight against capital’s authority. In the neoliberal regime production structure and labour processes depend more on short-term contracts, outsourcing and contingent labour and the technological developments enabled the realisation of such a process. For this, what was required was further alienation and fragmentation of the workforce and a production process that can be broken into smaller tasks.

Labour can be employed for very short periods to perform those tasks but at the same time, this has to be meticulously coordinated from a distance. The invisibility or opacity of this coordination is operationalised through a techno-normative arrangement that makes capital inaccessible to labour. It enormously increases the asymmetry of power in favour of capital and atomises the labour reducing it to a completely replaceable entity. The separation of the direct producer from the means of production or alienation of labour from the production process is what defines capital relation and therefore the technology that enables capital to produce and reproduce such alienation becomes capital itself.



Work is contracted through an app and the worker has to be hooked into the network to get a task. The task is objectively defined and the payment for each task is made depending on the number of tasks performed, subject to client reviews. The worker is continuously tracked and getting a task also involves search time and wait time that is unpaid. The ILO survey shows that in the US two-thirds of the gig workers receives a wage that is less than the hourly minimum wage. It is easily imaginable that in the case of India proportion of workers receiving low wages would be much higher.

The apparent flexibility of work time is simply a myth. A similar myth was earlier advanced in the context of putting-out systems and for all sorts of piece-rate works. It is as if the worker can herself choose how much to work. This is true when such choices of working a few hours in a day ensure a decent income.  True that for part-time engagements this provides an additional source to earn over and above the core income and may create opportunities for paid work, particularly for women besides their unpaid household work.

Workers whose earnings depend on gig work only have no choice but to work longer hours and many of them work seven days a week to make both ends meet. Piece rate wages are generally more exploitative as the worker may earn more by working longer hours but the unpaid part of the work which is appropriated by the capitalist increases more than proportionately to the worker's income. Hence it creates more surplus for the employer. It also reduces the cost of supervision for the capitalist, because the worker would tend to intensify his work on his own or work for longer hours to earn more. Most gig workers do not get enough work to earn a decent living and the short contracts relieve the employer from any liability of maintaining the cost of reproducing the labour-power. On top of that, the competition between part-timers and full-time gig workers provides the employer with an additional handle on reducing the reservation wage.

The techno-normative control exerted by the app creates some sort of ‘objectification’ of the class relation embedded in it. Contrary to the popular notion that gig work offers greater flexibility, actually, the system is authoritative. The worker has to follow the instructions conveyed through the app and it appears as if technology determines the contract, evaluation and payment. The worker’s own best performance creates a normative standard of self-discipline which serves the employer. This objectification is done through an algorithm that is completely opaque to the worker. Workers report that many times they don’t even understand why they are denied assignments or being paid less than what they should otherwise get based on tasks performed. Through this technology, the consumer also provides inputs to evaluate the worker which is nothing but subjective reviews. The technology used in platform-based work leaves little space for negotiation and bargaining between the worker and the employer. It helps in silencing the voice of the worker and tends to make the worker completely subservient to capital. Also, the process of individuation embedded in this work regime makes the worker feel helpless and alienated from his fellow workers as against the colossal power of capital.

But history has never ended in a one-sided story, capital has never been the sole author of history. In all previous techno-regulation regimes capital wanted to enhance its control over labour, but the same technological changes also provided enough opportunity for the workers to recompose and mobilise themselves in disrupting capital’s enhanced control. Some early signals indicate that resistance is already on the cards. News of Ola and Uber drivers, Urban Company employees organising protests in India and across the world, food delivery workers joining trade unions and many more so in the future would demand new regulations, new wage contracts and social security for gig workers. Capital would never get a free ride!