The Gig Economy: A Precarious Form of Maintenance

27/05/2020 5:00 pm

Essential Work Virtual Series, Episode 1

Co-hosted by Festival of Maintenance & The Maintainers

The Festival of Maintenance is a UK based event whose aim is to celebrate those who maintain different parts of our world, and how they do it. For us, this means active recognition of the often hidden work done in repair, custodianship, stewardship, tending and caring for the things that matter. The Maintainers, a global research network interested in the concepts of maintenance, infrastructure, repair, and the myriad forms of labor and expertise that sustain our human-built world. Through this co-hosted virtual event series, we plan to explore specific areas of maintenance work that are both essential and chronically undervalued. In each event, we’ll provide speakers that reflect the political, cultural, and economic realities in both the United Kingdom and the United States.


This discussion covered the concept of “gig economy” and maintenance. Gig workers (shoppers, drivers, etc) sustain daily life, and as such have been recognized as “essential workers.” But this dependence on gig workers raises an important question: what steps do companies, governments, and individuals take to maintain gig workers–or, in other words, to ensure that this form of labor is sustainable? This discussion featured two experts on gig economies in the United States and Europe.


Katie J. Wells is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. She writes about the changing relationship between cities, technology, and work. She has published findings on smart cities, housing policy, and Washington, D.C. history in academic journals such as Environment and Planning D: Society and Space and Urban Geography, and has discussed the real-time impacts of my research in media stories in The Washington Post, National Public Radio, ABC National News, CityLab, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among others.

Niels van Doorn is an Assistant Professor in New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam. He is also the Principal Investigator  of the Platform Labor research project (2018-2023), funded by the European Research Council. His research examines how digital platforms are transforming labor, social reproduction and urban governance in post-welfare societies.

Discussion Questions

  • You’ve both spoken about how these platforms are positioning themselves as essential infrastructure – this has been won through political lobbying. This isn’t new in and of itself; supermarkets in the UK have a powerful lobby because they create so many jobs. Yet I still struggle to grasp why governments would want to support … what makes these platforms different from other lobbies?
  • One implicit assumption behind this discussion is that comparisons of all kinds–across nations and sectors, for example–help us identify some overarching trends and areas of concern. What are the most helpful comparisons you have come across in your work on the Gig Economy? And, what additional types of comparisons would be generative?
  • In the events we organize, The Maintainers and Festival of Maintenance always try to move past criticism and “takedowns.” We think it’s very important to highlight positive features of the things that we scrutinize. One approach to doing this is to ask: what is good in the space that you study? In other words, what do you see that is worth maintaining?
  • Are these suggested tactics for shifting power from platforms back to people legislation on national or local levels? Are there any toolkits for winning these kinds of reforms? When you say “we” need to target meta platforms, and other recommendations that require a significant amount of political — what are you seeing in that department – who is being mobilized, who is mobilizing, and where are publics getting traction?
  • Is there a place for co-operatives to chip away at it (as well as regulation, taxing, etc.)? Approaches like which is a federation of co-operatives for Deliveroo-style services
  • I wondered if you can say more about availability/ “actual” work for gig workers during COVID-19. One of the issues with gig workers is they do not get paid for availability, only for actual rides/works. However, Uber and other platforms profit from having drivers “available” during all hours, but do not really compensate drivers for the time. This is another possible avenue for taxation/regulation. I’m wondering if you have seen this issue in your research and how it changed (if it did) during COVID.
  • Have either of you encountered demands for municipal disclosure of data gathered in public-private partnerships? I’ve encountered demands for purely public data to be shared, but public private partnerships which are much more common than I think people think, might be an opportunity to make demands to treat the data that comes out of these partnerships as public data
  • Timebanks enable exchange of services between individuals, groups, and organizations using time as currency. They are usually grounded in values such as mutual aid, recognizing the value of different types of labor, community-building, etc. I have seen at least one platform recently that was a timebank in its operation, but used the language of gig/sharing economy, comparing itself to AirBnB, Uber, etc. and saying “Why pay other people to do things we can do ourselves?” Have either of you looked into timebanks in your research, and if so, how do you see them in relation to the gig economy and/or reimagining labor and social justice?